Colombia to the Congo: Lust for Gold Threatens Environment & Human Rights

Nestled alongside the central range of the Andes lies the town of Cajamarca, Colombia also known as la dispensa agricola de Colombia; literally Colombia’s agricultural larder. The fertile environs surrounding this settlement of twenty thousand souls play host to bumper crop of coffee, peas, kidney beans and fruits. Nourished by fresh mountain springs that in turn trickle downwards toward the rice growing lowlands of Tolima, Cajamarca sits amidst a contrasting landscape of agricultural endeavor and natural beauty.

In a story all too common in our epoch of globalization, this seemingly idyllic picture is now under threat. AngloGold Ashanti  (AGA) – a mining corporation born of the merger between AngloGold and Ashanti Goldfields – has its sights on Cajamarca after learning of, in its own words, the “gold industry’s most significant discovery of recent times.”

AGA has a troubled past, and carries the burden of allegations of not just environmental destruction but association with human rights abuses that have made the locals of Cajamarca nervous.

La Colosa

AGA is planning to start mining operations within the next few years at a site close to Cajamarca. Dubbed “la Colosa” the development could potentially become Colombia’s largest gold mine, and, it is feared, drastically reshape life for the inhabitants.

AGA has been prospecting in the area for roughly eight years, albeit it under the guise of a company named Sociedad Kedahda SA. Upon discovering extensive gold deposits in 2008, AGA dropped its Sociedad Kedahda facade and began to operate openly, much to the chagrin of locals who were only just aware that a foreign mining giant had been operating in their midst for years.

“It was only at this point that local communities discovered that one of the largest gold mining multinationals in the world had been prospecting at their doorstep for almost a decade,” said Ixtent Galpin, a member of the British based Colombia Solidarity Campaign, who spoke to Toward Freedom for this story. “The company therefore effectively had a head start of eight years in order to plan their strategy over local communities who only then began to assimilate and react to what was going on.”

In April 2009 the Colombia Ministry of the Environment locked horns with AGA due to La Colosa being within a protected forest reserve. The pro-business central government appeared to exert pressure on the Ministry, however, as less than a week later the site was deemed “excluded” from the rest of the protected zone, despite the protests of the Tolima environmental authority.

What’s wrong with mining? At a glance the development of industry may be viewed as something positive for local communities which may or may not be suffering from isolation or a lack of development.

Amateur or even illegal mining is currently rife in Colombia. For meager wages, poverty stricken laborers utilize aging and indeed dangerous equipment to eke out a living outside the formal jurisdiction of the government. This phenomenon has been noted by AGA and incorporated into a public relations campaign promising to bring high wages and prosperity in stark contrast to haphazard and often environmentally-destructive practices present elsewhere.

Yet in the recent past AGA has failed to make the grade when it comes to respecting the environment. The company utilizes a similar method to that of the illegal mines which involves using hazardous chemicals as part of a process of separating the desired gold out from other elements. Cyanide in particular is a chemical of choice for this process, and AGA has been recipient of a “Public Eye” award – a stigma the company is eager to shake off – by Greenpeace after revelations on its mining practices in Africa.

Both Greenpeace and the Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana claimed AGA has poisoned local water supplies over the course of its operations. According to Greenpeace, an AGA operation mines around six thousand tons of rock to extract just thirty kilograms of gold, which are then transferred to processing tanks containing the toxic solution deemed necessary to obtaining the desired product.

In the case of their operations in Ghana, allegedly shoddy safety practices led to the contamination of the surrounding area, in particular local water courses. According to Greenpeace, this led to the poisoning of over fifty rivers with cyanide waste, forcing locals to import water from elsewhere or, out of desperation, drink known contaminants.

Few would want to see a repeat of such incidents in the case of Cajamarca. “The area’s importance as a “water factory” must be emphasized,” said Galpin, “as the waters produced in this area are used to irrigate the lowlands of Tolima which produces the bulk of Colombia’s rice.”

Human Rights

The physical wellbeing of the local population, not just their crops, forests and livelihoods, is also cause for concern. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), AGA has a past history of working with organizations known for repeated human rights abuses ranging from summary execution to forced labor.

In a report entitled “The Curse of Gold” published in 2005, HRW linked AGA, then known as Ashanti Goldfields, to militia forces established during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC has, for better or worse, vast gold deposits beneath its soil, which provided incentive enough for wide-scale fighting on the part of contending factions for control of potential revenues.

With the installation of a provisional government in 2003, several transnational mining corporations scrambled for a stake in the DRC’s mineral wealth, Ashanti being no exception. Given the unstable political situation, however, the central government was not able to exercise complete control over areas still rife with varying armed groups with competing agendas. In order to exploit their recently won mining rights, Ashanti made a deal with the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) as part of a plan to access the goldfields around the town of Mongbwalu.

By the time Ashanti made contact with the FNI the later had already been implicated, according to HRW, in “grave human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law,” in the process gaining the attention of the International Criminal Court.

The UN subsequently cited “links between the exploitation of natural resources and continued war” as well as “concerns about compliance with the OECD Multinational Guidelines by eighty-five multinational companies operating in the DRC,” which, at the time, included Ashanti Goldfields.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which enshrines the guidelines just mentioned, requires the business enterprises of member states to “respect human rights” as well as “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts.” Ashanti Goldfields failed to do this in the case of its relationship with the FNI, but as AGA today would no doubt be quick to point out, formally they are not bound by such norms as the company is based in South Africa – a non-OECD state.

Colombia itself is no stranger to civil war, and although its own conflict has eased down in terms of ferocity, some could be forgiven for being apprehensive of a corporation with a track record of working with armed groups known for abusing and even murdering civilians. Coupled with AGAs environmental record the prospects appear bleak.

This has not gone unnoticed outside of the country, even by a most unexpected source. Commanding a sizeable presence on the London Stock Exchange, AGA’s antics have gained the attention of the British Parliament. It is for such a reason that an Early Day Motion (EDM) was recently presented and signed by a number of MPs calling for the la Colosa enterprise to be curtailed.

The text of the EDM, instigated by British Labor Party MP Ian Lavery, cited potentially “devastating environmental impacts” on a “region of considerable biodiversity and importance for food production” and slammed AGA for an alleged “track record of environmental and human rights abuses in Africa.”

The EDM also seeks to address the fact that AGAs immunity from OECD guidelines given that, despite being based in South Africa, AGA is a target for investment from both British and US sources. After being signed by just over thirty MPs, the vast majority of them being from the opposition Labor Party, it remains to be seen how much of an impact the motion may have on a company which, according to its detractors, seems intent on remaining outside of OECD jurisdiction.

Back in Cajamarca, Colombia AGA seems determined to win hearts and minds. Last Christmas the company offered free football match tickets to those living in the area, as well as sponsoring local sporting endeavors. But football and, in one instance, free lunch boxes for children, cannot assuage the fears of an entire community. If AGA has its way, or if sufficient safety precautions are not guaranteed by both the corporation and Colombia’s government, few can be surprised when the waters of Cajamarca, as well as the bananas, oranges, and plantains that rely on them, take on a substantially less pleasing character.

Dan Read is a freelance journalist based in Britain.

Also see this related article from Toward Freedom: Water vs. Gold Mining: How a Colombian City United Against Gold Greed by Natalia Farjado.