Tag Archives: Resource Extraction

Environmental Crisis in Casanare- 20,000 animals dead; What caused it?

Since last week, dryness in Colombia’s eastern Casanare state have resulted in the environmental devastation and the death of over 20,000 animals, mostly chiguiros, alligators, cows/cattle, pigs, turtles, deer, fish and birds. The crisis has centred around northern Casanare in the municpality of Paz de Ariporo.

chiguiros in Casanare. Photo credit: RCN La Radio.

The environmental crisis in Casanare has hit a nerve in the Colombian media and in social media networks. Generally, the crisis has been attributed to varying degrees to land use and climate change, although there is controversy about what actors bear what responsibility. Here  is a brief overview of what is being said and by whom.

According to local authorities, the crisis has killed off almost 10% of the animals in the region. There hasn’t been any rainfall in the savanna since December. Some environmentalists have attributed the crisis to cattle-ranching activities, others to the exploitation of oil in the region; the National Entrepreneurs Association (ANDI) President Bruce Mac Master says that climate change, and not oil companies,  is the culprit.

Whereas government environmental agency, the IDEAM, is saying that is is a ‘normal’ part of the dry season, environmentalists Wilder Burgos and Leon Paz says that usually the dry season leaves some water, and that this is unprecedented.

The Colombian Minister of Mines and Energy, Amylkar Acosta Medina, says that its would be premature to blame oil companies; Acosta said that the main agent here is the State, and he reminded that there are other activities in the region which leave a significant environmental footprint such as agribusiness (particularly Palm Oil cultivation). Acosta defended the presence of oil companies in the region, arguing that oil extraction can actually help the water supply as “for each barrel of crude that is extracted, approximately 10 barrels of water are being extracted”.  

Acosta also mentioned that should an extractive project threaten an aquifer or a zone of “hydric re-charge”, it would be protected by the Ministry of the Environment.

The Minister of the Environment, Luz Helena Sarmiento, for her part, attributed the crisis to an overexploitation of the land (particularly agriculture and large-scale cattle-ranching), a lack of care towards water deposits, and local climate change. Breaking from Acosta, Sarmiento mentioned that oil exploitation “may be” also having an impact.

The President of Colombian Petroleum Association (la Asociación Colombiana del Petróleo), Alejandro Martínez, said that given the “industry standards” there should not be an impact on bodies of water or their sources. Martínez also cited that the oil industry accounts for “only 0.35% of national water consumption”.

However, others are pointing fingers at the oil industry. According to Norbey Quevedo Hernández at El Espectador, since 1973 large-scale rice cultivators in Casanare switched to cattle-ranching/pastoralism due to the armed conflict, and an economic crisis related to contraband. In 1991, Quevedo tells us, oil deposits were found in Cusiana and Cupiagua, and the presence of oil companies followed, leading to significant environmental changes in the region. Citing the government’s Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology, and Enivronmental Studies, Quevedo argues that oil exploitation led to soil erosion due to deforestation.

Although the responsibility of oil companies is still in dispute, many sectors of the local population are attributing the environmental crisis to them.

It’s estimated that the crisis will take around 1 billion pesos (COL) to be properly addressed; oil companies in the region have promised to donate around 205 million. One Colombian lawyer has argued that companies should not have to take on the cost of the crisis at all, given how these are “speculations withou basis” to the claims that oil exploitation is contributing to the prolonged dry season. The Governor of Casanare, Marco Tulio Ruiz Riaño, called the companies collective offer “ridiculous” and countered that each company should pay 100 million. Representatives from the oil companies are apparently going to meet internally and offer a new proposal.

There is uncertainty around whether or not CORPORINOQUIA, the a local government agency, did the proper diligence in terms of planning to mitigate a potential emergency like this. The Minister of the Environment said that state agencies like Corporinoquia have been focusing solely on attending extractive companies in the region, and not on the stewardship of natural resources.

At the same time, an advisor to the Governor’s office in Casanare, Carina Rojas, has criticized the national Environmental Ministry for excessively giving out environmental licenses, that it has enabled deforestation, has insufficient controls, and is ignorant of what oil companies are investing in terms of compensation. Sarmiento has argued that there has been no excess in environmental licenses.

The Agustín Codazzi Geographic Institute (IGAC) has given five “sins” culpable for the crisis: excessive cattle-ranching, the lack of ground-water retention, oil exploitation activity, and the little productive resources of the soil/its acidic nature and low-fertile nature which has a delicate organic surface layer.

Several social and environmental activists have written to the UN and the Organization of American States, in which they attribute to the crisis to cattle-ranching and resource extraction in the region.

Finally, Carlos Victoria at Las2Orillas shares an interesting reflection on the crisis. Victoria asserts that the crisis is but one of many in Colombia, and a product of colonial and neo-colonial concepts of seeing the Earth as a “resource” to dominate, destroy, and profit off of. Victoria says that this logic of trade liberalization, and ‘globalization’, is a concept of development that benefits elites and is in the service of accumulating capital. Victoria also argues that the apolitical and “neutral” response from environmental sciences have only served to legitimate the government’s narrative around the Casanare crisis. He calls on them to no longer be “co-opted by neoliberalism” and to assume an ethical responsibility to the citizenry.

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Colombian Activist Who Opposed Gold Mining Project Shot Dead

This is a story originally published by NTN24 on Nov 5 2013

cesar_garcia_pic_el_salmon_urbano_art

“Environmental activist Cesar Garcia was shot dead on his farm in Tolima Department on Saturday. Photo: El Salmon Urbano

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA – A Colombian environmental activist who led the opposition against a proposed gold mine in Tolima Department was assassinated over the weekend, local media reported.

Cesar Garcia, who was a leading voice against the ‘La Colosa’ gold mine project, was found shot in the head on his farm in the municipality of Cajamarca, Tolima Department on Saturday afternoon.

The South African multinational mining firm Anglogold Ashanti wants to create a so-called ‘mega-mine’ in the La Colosa municipality of Tolima.

The gold mine, still in the feasibility study phase, would be one of the largest open pit mines in Latin America, according to reports.

The Colombian government granted Anglogold Ashanti permission to begin the feasibility study despite widespread local opposition to the proposed mining project, according to reports.

A group called the Environmental Committee of Cajamarca has denounced the murder, and has requested that the Ministry of the Interior do more to protect people who speak out in the area.

The group also demanded the Prosecutor’s Office begin an investigation into Garcia’s murder and bring to justice those responsible.

Anglogold Ashanti has been slammed by human rights groups for its conduct in Latin America and Africa.

In May of this year, a court in the African country of Ghana served the firm with a writ for alleged health issues caused by chemicals the firm uses in the extraction of gold from a mine there, according to Ghana media reports.

The area in Tolima where the company wants to create a large-scale gold mine is a rice producing region, and inhabitants there worry the chemicals used in such a mine will pollute their ground water and other resources, reports said.”

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Colombia: The Only Risk Is Having To Stay – Canadian Mining in the South of Bolívar and the Release of Jernoc Wobert

On Tuesday, August 27, Jernoc Wobert was freed by Colombian guerrillas. The Canadian geologist and Vice-President of Braeval Mining Co. had been kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (or El Ejército de la Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN had kidnapped him seven months ago with 3 other Colombians and 2 Peruvians.  The Latin Americans were released a few weeks after they had all been taken from Norosí in the Serranía de San Lucas in the south of Bolívar, but the Canadian remained.

As a condition to his release, the ELN demanded that the Canadian and Colombian government investigate the company in question for having allegedly taken land illegally from communities in Bolívar. On the other hand, the Colombian government, who has been negotiating a peace deal with the largest rebel group (the FARC), since November, predicated any negotiations with the ELN on his release. The ELN had previously expressed interest in negotiating with the national government, and the FARC had called on the government to also negotiate with the second largest guerrilla group. A few months ago when the eleños tried to enter the peace talks in Havana, they were turned away. Today, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that “everything is ready” for talks with the ELN.

Wobert’s release by the ELN to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, who is a neutral party in most high-profile hostage hand-overs in Colombia), was seen as a “humanitarian gesture” on the part of the rebels in order to demonstrate good faith in what could be a peace process. However, Wobert’s kidnapping (and release) are actually microcosms of much larger dynamics of the Colombian armed conflict, and of the mining investment that largely defines Canada’s relationship to Colombia.

Who are the ELN?

The ELN began in the early 1960s by radical University students who organized peasants. They were inspired by Marxism, the Cuban Revolution, and Liberation Theology. The ELN, unlike the FARC, actually have been slow to get as involved in drug trafficking. Nevertheless like the FARC, they commit crimes against humanity and war crimes such as kidnapping and killing civilians, recruiting minors/practicing forced conscription, planting land mines (which is against the Ottawa Treaty) and forced displacement. However, the ELN are most well known for their attacks against infrastructure (particularly attacking oil pipelines), which have increased this year. They are Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.

The ELN’s political discourse and military actions against multinational investment in Colombia, particularly in the extractive sector, is part of what scared foreign investment away during much of the 1990s when guerrillas retained significant control over large parts of the country.  Like the FARC, The ELN would charge “revolutionary taxes” on businesses (vacunas), threaten and kidnap large-land owners and company executives, and would carry out infrastructure attacks.

A significant proportion of the counterinsurgency campaign of the paramilitaries and the army directly preceding and during the government of ex-President Alvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) was to “pacify” regions so as to make them safe enough to encourage foreign investment. For example, a main focus of Plan Colombia was securing the Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline which had been attacked on several occasions by the guerrillas.

The ELN is currently in dire straits; it was weakened by the counterinsurgency much more than the FARC and they have currently between 2-3,000 fighters. There are few parts of the national territory  where they are the dominant armed group (oil-rich Arauca, for example), and many see the ELN now as a spent force who is desperate for a negotiated settlement out of the armed conflict.

The Serranía de San Lucas, where Wobert was taken, has been disputed by the ELN, the army, and the paramilitaries for decades given its geostrategic significance.  Over at the Tyee, Colombian journalist Sebastian Salamaca writes:

“[The ELN] decided a good place to start a revolution was the Serranía de San Lucas. Its rugged geography and lack of state presence made it ideal for organizing and gathering strength.

It took 20 years for them to control the area. By the 1980s, the ELN dominated the region. Their mixture of Marxism, liberation theology, and community activism helped them win the partial support of the population. They also regularly violated international law by blowing up pipelines and taking hostages.

In the late 1990s the ELN faced a potent foe, as Carlos Castaño, head of the far-right paramilitary forces in Colombia, or AUC, made it his obsession to take back the territory from the guerrillas.

The AUC knew about the strategic importance of the Serranía: whoever controlled it would profit from the massive cocaine traffic to the Caribbean and the huge gold deposits that were being discovered. Moreover, seizing the Serranía would ensure access to the largest watercourse in Colombia, the Magdalena River.”

What is Canada’s history in the South of Bolívar?

The Coastal department of Bolívar

In an earlier post I remarked how the Canadian government, through funding the Canadian Energy Research Institute, helped re-write and liberalize Colombia’s mining code in 2001.

In Francisco Ramírez Cuellar’s “The Profits of Extermination”, he also outlines how in the Serranía de San Lucas in the South of Bolívar, in land that was initially titled to a local elite family, over 90 mining associations started to work the land through artisanal practices. Under Colombian law, if land is unused by the owner but is being used by someone else, technically, artisanal miners for example have up to two years to ask for titles to that land. Around the early 1990s, a Canadian mining company (then called Conquistador mines) became interested in the gold-rich area.

According to Ramírez, they hired a lawyer to negotiate the land with the small-scale miners on behalf of the Illeras-Palacios (the family who claimed the land). This same lawyer, interestingly, helped draft the 2001 mining code with CERI. After a visit from the Minister of mines, the artisanal miners backed away from negotiations and they gave the land to the mining company.

In 1997, the paramilitaries of the Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá or the ACCU, who would later become the AUC, came to the Serranía. Their stated reasons for doing so were to control the mines, to get rid of miners who were “collaborating with the guerrillas”, and “guarantee the entrance of multinationals who would create jobs”. The paramilitary incursion destroyed over 10 towns in the region, massacred over 400 people, raped both men and women, and left several supposed “guerrilla collaborators” dismembered. Until 2008 over 94,000 people were displaced from the region because of the violence.

It is also worth noting that the Congressman representing the region at the time of the deal and the drafting of the new mining code has since been investigated for having ties to paramilitary groups.

Braeval and Conquistador mines are not the only Canadian companies with interests in the south of Bolívar. B2Gold, a Canadian gold company in the region, claims that it can only operate there with guarantees of security from the Colombian army. As mentioned in a report by Interpares and Mining Watch Canada, the Vice-President of B2Gold has said that non-indigenous communities have no right to reject mining projects on their territory, and alarmingly, that FEDEAGROMISBOL had been “contaminated” by guerrillas. As any student of Colombian history will know, these kinds of accusations can lead to violence against FEDEAGROMISBOL by state security and paramilitary forces (which is what has occurred).

What do the locals think? 

This informative report from Colombia Informa which interviewed community members and associations in the south of the Bolívar state gives an idea into what perceptions were on the ground of the kidnapping and the release of the Canadian executive.

The Agro-Mining Federation of the South of Bolívar (FEDEAGROMISBOL) is an umbrella organization which represents 34 associations of small-scale farmers and artisanal miners in the region has for years been stigmatized as being sympathetic to the guerrillas by the army and the paramilitaries (and has consequently suffered violence against its members). Nevertheless, the group actually had put out a communiqué which rejected the kidnappings carried out by the ELN of the miners and emphasized the release of the Colombians who appeared to be members of FEDEAGROMISBOL. They also said that the kidnappings were “a direct consequence of the indiscriminate natural resource exploitation policy  promoted by the Colombian government, affecting the south of Bolívar and of the handing over of our natural resource to large transnational capital”.

The locals they interviewed emphasized how the kidnapping of the Canadian by the ELN made life more difficult in the region as it invited increased repression from the government security forces. Some community members say that they supported the actions of the ELN, as it “halted the [government’s] mining development plans”, and who felt that this development plan is more for the benefit of multinational companies than their communities who have always been marginalized by the national government.

Other community members expressed their opposition to the kidnapping, saying that it furthers the stigmatization of local community organizing as being complicit or supportive of the guerrillas. Others mention how one of the reason two FEDEAGROMISBOL members were kidnapped was because they were helping the foreign miners behind the backs of the community.

Other community members mention how FEDEAGROMISBOL was able to win more than 10,000 hectares of land from the Lleras-Palacios (the local elite family mentioned earlier) through “pure social struggle”, but that speaking out was extremely difficult given the intense military and paramilitary repression to community organizing and dissidence.

Why was Wobert kidnapped and why does it matter?

Whereas the Colombians and the Peruvians were let free relatively soon, Wobert was kept by the ELN until Tuesday (he had been kidnapped since January), because he could have been a bargaining chip at any eventual peace talks (or even, the key to starting a dialogue). At the same time, the ELN rejects the presence of foreign extractive companies in Colombia, who they see as imperialists, and therefore wanted to retain Wobert until Braeval gave up its mining titles in the region.

Braeval actually has since renounced its four titles in the region; the company’s press release however did not mention the kidnapping.

The ruthless paramilitary expansion in the early 2000s in the region left many with the impression that the region had effectively been pacified, and that although in the most remote areas the ELN remained, the Serranía was perceived to be relatively safe for investment.

Despite the fact that a Colombian government report study which says that industrial mining should not occur in zones of armed conflict (such as the Serranía) junior-based mining companies (who are often Canadian, and are the most likely to take on very risky projects) continue to explore Colombian communities that exist in a context of extreme physical and social vulnerability.

The Canadian government, with its naming of Colombia as a priority for CIDA aid, and the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), is keen on having a stable (or “pacified”) Colombian countryside in which our companies can extract resources without being threatened. By the same token, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has made resource extraction a pillar of his national economic development strategy. Wobert’s kidnapping is  a reminder that despite the strength of the paramilitaries and the Washington-funded Colombian army, the guerrillas, despite their losses, can still be a threat to multinational investment, and that Colombia is not as “safe” or “open” for business as it might seem. Kidnappings did not end with Uribe’s “Democratic Security”, and they probably won’t end with Santos.

The logical inverse of this premise (that the guerrillas are still a threat to investment), is that more pacification/repression of the guerrillas is necessary. Indeed, when Wobert was kidnapped, the Colombian government responded by sending 600 troops to the region. Wobert’s kidnapping reminds us that the steps of foreigners in Colombia’s most fragile and violent parts may provoke actions and counter-reactions by armed groups looking to show their dominance in any given region. And more of then than not, these struggles will take place on the backs of civilians (and sometimes in the name or interest of investment). As this Semana report notes, they allege that some companies have signed security/protection deals with the Colombian army, and that artisanal mining opponents to the investment of multinationals, particularly members of FEDEAGROMISBOL, have been systematically murdered.

Therefore, in this context, it must be asked whether Canadian mining investment in Colombia is worth the risk both that it poses to the Canadians who go to Colombia in search of resource riches, but more importantly, to the Colombians who call those communities home and ultimately have to live with the consequences of the instability and repression that mining investment might provoke.

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