Mining and Resource Extraction in Chocó, Colombia: Pillage, Destruction, Violence and Misery

By José Rutilio Rivas Domínguez,  Pastor, Mennonite Brethren Church of Chocó, Colombia.

Translated by Tim Schmucker, July 2012

Pastor Jose Rutilio Rivas Dominguez, regional president of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Chocó

The department [province or state] of Chocó has historically been recognized as a mining area, so much so that has deserved recognition as the richest department in gold and platinum. Yet, in reality, Chocó lives within a paradox, for in national statistics, the population, largely made up of African descendants, lives in extreme poverty.

Chocó has a 200 plus year history of mining pillage; perhaps this is one of the causes of extreme poverty that its inhabitants live in. The wealth that has been extracted from Chocó’s hills and underground is incalculable, but has brought no benefit for the region, perhaps not even for the country.

Between 1916 and 1926 Colombia was the largest exporter of platinum in the world, during a time that the price for platinum was exceptionally high. Most of that platinum was extracted by the Pacific Chocó Mining Company from the Condoto River. However, Colombia received no royalties for the extraction of the metal.

Most of Chocó’s riches have been extracted by foreign companies. Currently, the vast majority of Chocó’s mining territory has been granted to foreign companies by the national government by way of legal titles without prior consultation with our local communities. (See table at bottom that shows the titles and applications of foreign companies here in the Department of Chocó.)

In recent years, the government has begun to regulate mining more and more, and has been requiring small local miners to get mining licences. This has triggered a series of complex situations. The local informal miners have experienced the government measures as abusive, as the requirements for getting a mining licence are unattainable for small miners. This in turn shows them the clear bias for large mining companies.

Although there is space in the process of self-regulation for a certain level of functionality in the daily life of local miners – due to limited state intervention –community interests are often dismissed while those of ‘special interests’ [the foreign mining companies] are abusively imposed using the political and financial power along with extortion and violence.

Currently, small-scale mining in Chocó municipalities is carried out by 1) local artisan miners and 2) informal mechanized foreign mining:

  1. The former are part of the community councils of black communities; they carry out mining using various small and traditional methods, such as mini dredges, pumps and elevators along with manual sifting and sand washing.
  2. The second group carry out mining with heavy machinery, bulldozers and large dredges in river basins, but without mining licences or environmental clearance. Generally, these mining actors are extorted by illegal armed groups, who charge “vaccines” to sustain their illegal activities.

From a reflective overview, the way mining activities in the department of Chocó have developed historically has caused irreparable damage to the people of the Chocó, both socially and environmentally.

In the first place, the government has not been consistent with its public policies in relation to the development of mineral extraction. It has facilitated the entry of foreign mining companies, yet without putting in place any control and monitoring of them.

Secondly, large foreign and domestic mining companies have plundered the riches of the department [province], without generating any development for our people, all with tacit and explicit permission of the Colombian government. Their activities have increased political corruption, prostitution, labor exploitation and the violation of human rights.

Thirdly, informal mining without environmental authorisation, with the use of heavy machinery – dredges and retro-diggers – in the river basins are causing irreparable environmental damage. The soil is being destroyed irrationally, rivers are being filled with sediment, and the use of mercury that threatens human health.

And lastly, the presence of illegal armed groups has increased. They control informal mining activity in order to sustain themselves; they determine who can work in mining and who can’t. This whole situation has caused chaos in our area of Colombia. And to this, we have to add the presence of illicit crops cultivated by illegal armed groups along with political corruption.

The Mennonite Brethren Church of Chocó has been affected by all these problems, because the majority of her members make their living by informal artisanal mining, and many have been victims of extortion, exploitation, abuse, theft of property, and displacement by illegal armed groups. Indeed, many also find their faith is weakened by the actions of injustice to which they are subjected. But thanks be to God, who sustains us through difficult situations.

Thus, thoughts such as those of King David become relevant in these contexts:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Psalms 23:4.

Equally relevant are the words of the Apostle Paul when, inspired by the Spirit of God, he encouraged the church at Corinth saying:

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” 1 Cor. 10:13

As church we recognize that we are salt and light of a society that every day is declining into the moral abyss of massive environmental destruction, whose sole purpose is the enrichment of the wealthiest at the cost of exploiting the poorest. Thus, our role as Mennonite Brethren church is to accompany and guide both our members along with the community at large to develop mining activities responsibly and with social justice, with the understanding that God has placed us as administrators of creation with the responsibility of using natural resources rationally and intelligently.

We affirm that mining is part of the history of humanity and cannot be separated from it. In fact, in some contexts mining is necessary for the socioeconomic development of communities; indeed, it is the foundation of the economy, as is the case in the Chocó. To take a position as church thus is complex, especially when in the Bible we find no explicit instructions on mining. Yet in early biblical history we see the use of precious metals, such as gold, and they’re usually found underground. Now, how they “mined” them we do not know.

But in God’s thinking the principle of land care is very clear. He legislated rest for the land.

“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” Lev. 25:3,4.

With this, God is teaching his people to care for the land, to not use it indiscriminately, that to do will bring disastrous consequences.

In the midst of this situation I describe, our church seeks to respond with a gospel message filled with a holistic vision, building bridges of relationships between the various actors and stakeholders in this situation. In order to do this, we seek allies from other experiences and latitudes who will help us discern as we work toward solutions.

HECTARES BY COMPANY

125,541 – Anglo Gold Ashanti

56,095 – Explorciones Choco Colombia Sa

10,502 – La Muriel Mining

5,251 – Anglo American Colombia Explo.

5,007 – El Crucero Som

3,552 – Vikingo S.O.M

2,512 – Corporacion Minera De Col.

1,802 – Carla Resources

1,502 – Condoton Platinum Colm.

1,502 – Rio Tinto Mining

SUMMARY

213,267 – Total hectares under foreign control

84% of all mining done by foreign mining companies

16% of all mining done by Colombian companies

It is also important to note the applications in process by foreign mining companies in the Department of Chocó, a total of 628,565 hectares applied for. (Statistical information from “Current analysis of mining in Chocó and the projects: Chocó Mining Federation Fedemichocó”.)

Votoratim Metais Col. – 324,015 ha.

Anglo American Exploration  – 76,991 ha.

George  Patrick – 58,713 ha.

Robert Daniel Taylor – 51,002 ha.

Anglogold Ashanti  40,831 ha.

Grupo Bullet S.A. – 35,867 ha.

Continental Gold – 10,438 ha.Proyecto Coco Hondo – 30,708 ha.

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