Weekly Report - 13 April 2023 (WR-23-15)

COLOMBIA: Mining protests paused

Conflicts affecting informal gold miners and the giant Cerrejón coal mine have been paused, but tensions remain.

A four-day blockade of a railway line used to carry coal from the Cerrejón open-pit mine in La Guajira department to port for export was lifted on 7 April. The blockade had been imposed by three Wayuu indigenous communities in the Media Luna area of Uribia municipality, which have been in conflict with the mine’s management over issues including water use, pollution, dust, noise, and related health matters. Cerrejón is owned by Anglo-Swiss mining group Glencore. The management says it has signed 11 local agreements with Wayuu communities. However, longer-term agreements on the functioning of the mine may prove elusive. In 2020 the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, said that Glencore should suspend some operations on health and environmental concerns, a recommendation that the company rejected.

Meanwhile, a nearly month-long wave of frequently violent protests by informal gold miners in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department came to an end on 6 April after the government agreed to talks on local development plans. The strike appears to have been instigated and supported by the Clan del Golfo drug trafficking organisation, prompting President Gustavo Petro to suspend a ceasefire with the group on 19 March [WR-23-11]. Amid the allegations of Clan del Golfo involvement, at the beginning of March Defence Minister Iván Velásquez responded by declaring “total war” on illegal mining. During March roadblocks and attacks on infrastructure virtually disconnected northern Antioquia from the rest of the country. At one point the departmental government claimed over 250,000 people were confined to their homes.        

The miners’ organising committee said strike action had been “suspended” rather than “lifted”, meaning it could still resume at short notice. The pause followed government promises to support local development and reduce illicit economic activity. This will be difficult to achieve given the close ties between gold production and criminal activity – according to Colombia’s comptroller general, an estimated 85% of the country’s gold exports come from illegal mines.

Soldiers released

A group of 17 soldiers was released on 12 April by an indigenous community which had held them captive in the San Francisco reserve in the municipality of Toribío, Cauca department. According to the army, the soldiers had entered the area in pursuit of a local resident wanted on suspicion of murder, who was wounded in the operation. As a result, they quickly found themselves surrounded and captured by some 700 local residents including members of the Guardia Indígena, a local self-defence force. The community eventually agreed to release the soldiers after talks coordinated by Colombia’s human rights ombudsman.

The high cost of reparations

Colombia needs to find Col$301trn (US$67.8bn) to pay reparations to the estimated 9m victims of the decades-long internal armed conflict, according to Patricia Tobón, head of the government agency tasked with supporting victims (UAV). The amount is roughly equivalent to 20% of Colombia’s annual GDP.

Tobón acknowledged that there is as yet no blueprint for how the money might be raised, and over what timescale. She did note that Petro’s four-year presidency would be insufficient to satisfy demands for victim reparations. Paying reparations would require “an intellectual effort, participation and reflection on how we do it, because it is necessary”, she said. She also noted that “as long as people do not lay down their arms, the number of victims in the country’s conflict zones will not fall”.

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