Water or Gold? Colombians to Decide
In an unprecedented move, Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, the newly-elected mayor of Ibagué (Colombia), has announced that a local referendum will be held on mining and related activities within the municipality. The referendum is expected to take place in May, in spite of bitter opposition from the mining lobby.
Residents of Ibagué are concerned that mining projects in the area, including AngloGold Ashanti’s La Colosa project, would result in serious environmental impacts, if allowed to go ahead. Such a referendum (or in Spanish, consulta popular) – in a regional capital of 650,000 people – to debate the fate of large-scale mining, is probably the first of its kind in the world. There is a growing opposition to mining in the region – last June 50,000 people from all walks of life took to the streets of Ibagué in protest.
La Colosa project is located in nearby Cajamarca, an area known for fertile farmlands held by small-scale campesinos. Indeed, Cajamarca is famous for being an agricultural hub for the whole country. It also hosts important ecosystems, including rich biodiverse cloud forest and páramo, an ecosystem which is unique to Andean region. There has been significant concern about parts of La Colosa project overlapping with the páramo. Furthermore, the mountains in the area provide vital water sources for the entire region, which would be at risk if the mining operations go ahead.
A particularly controversial issue has been the whereabouts of the mine tailings dam. The tailings dam would be used to store toxic waste containing cyanide compounds and heavy metals in perpetuity, long after gold mining operations have ceased. According to the company’s own figures, the La Colosa dam would be one of the largest in the world. In 2013, AngloGold Ashanti deemed that the stable, flat land in the rice-growing municipality of Piedras would be suitable to construct the tailings dam. However, unexpectedly for the company, the mayor of Piedras held a referendum with a 60% turnout in which over 99% of people voted against the proposed mining-related activities. This massive show of rejection has probably been the greatest setback to the project so far.
The recent disaster at the BHP Billiton Samarco mine in Brazil, where a tailings dam collapse caused the country’s worst environmental disaster ever, has led to increasing concern among the people of Ibagué. This is because, since being rejected in Piedras, AngloGold Ashanti has proposed constructing the tailings dam in Cajamarca itself, despite warnings from geologist Robert Moran who pointed out that there are “steep cliffs”, “narrow valleys”, “volcanic activity” and “seismic risk” in the area. A tailings dam collapse in Cajamarca could have tragic consequences for Ibagué, which lies 30km downstream along the river Coello.
Soon the people of Ibagué will be taking to polls, and exercising the democratic right to have a say about their future. If people reject mining and related activities outright, the La Colosa project will suffer yet another serious, this time potentially fatal, setback. The company’s claim that they have “widespread support from local communities” will be practically impossible to substantiate. Ultimately, this may result in more bad news for investors: the La Colosa project may have a similar fate to the Pascua-Lama project in the Chile-Argentina border, which (together with another mine in the Dominican Republic) recently led the Canadian company Barrick Gold to announce 1-1.2 billion dollars in writedowns.
About AngloGold Ashanti
Johannesburg-based AngloGold Ashanti has an appalling track record in environment and human rights. In 2011, Greenpeace reported that it had been awarded the Public Eye award for being the World’s Most Irresponsible Company, following contamination of community drinking water in Ghana. Human Rights Watch also revealed that AngloGold Ashanti financed paramilitary groups in Democratic Republic of the Congo, a fact that the company itself has been forced to admit. Recently, in South Africa, there have been reports of disrespectful treatment by the company to former employees dying from silicosis.