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Defenders of the Colombian Amazon sacred hills: disrespected rights

In Vaupés, in the Colombian Amazon, indigenous people are clinging to their beliefs to protect themselves from mining. A mining licence for coltan has three communities on the edge: leaders are threatened and their right to prior consultation has not been respected. Part 4 de 4. Español

Edilma Prada
3 February 2020
The tributaries, rich in minerals, are protected by the indigenous people because they are their livelihood and the only form of travel in the area.
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Luis Ángel. Todo los derechos reservados

A handful of indigenous guards watch over the jungle to prevent a tragedy that their grandparents see in their dreams: the destruction of their "sacred houses", the hills. A young leader remembers the day that the tranquillity was disrupted in his community. When he learned that there was a 30-year license granted on his territory to extract coltan, one of the most scarce and precious minerals, used by the world's big technology industries when manufacturing cell phones, computers and electronic devices. In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the largest number of reserves of what is considered the new 'black or blue gold'. In Latin America, there are mines in Venezuela and Colombia.

The right to prior consultation has been disrespected and the entry into the indigenous territories, for mining exploitation, has been done through deception in Vaupés, Colombia. The licence granted in an indigenous reserve is unlawful.

The previous surveys of the territory - where the Murutinga, Timbó de Betania and Bogotá Cachivera communities in Vaupés are settled - for the granting of a mining licence for the exploitation of black or coltan lands were made by means of deception.

Gilma Román, an indigenous professional of the Huitoto ethnic group, assured Agenda Propia that she was contacted by an intermediary from the mining company to carry out an independent consultancy on the reserve as a "protection and forest reserve area", but she was never told "the truth of things", that is, the consultancy was to obtain information that would later be used for the granting of the mining contract.

The woman mentions that it was after the engineer geologist visited the communities in 2017, when they learned that "there were some interests in mining the resources". Then, together with her husband, Libardo Medellín, a former deputy from Vaupés, they brought the case to the attention of the Ombudsman's Office, waiting for an investigation to be carried out.

She also said that in 2018 they met with one of the partners of the mining company in a shopping mall in Bogotá and let him know that the indigenous people are against any kind of mining, and that prior consultation was required to enter the territory. "The man said that if this was the case with some inconvenience, that he would not get involved any more. And that's where the issue remained," said Gilma, who ended by clarifying: first, that they do not know Claudia Patricia Gómez González, the representative of the mining title; second, that the consultation was not completed, and third, that she did not receive any payment for this work either.

This story was backed by Fernel Eladio Estrada Ramírez, representative of the Association of Traditional Authorities of the Road around Mitú - Bogotá Cachivera (Aatac), which brings together a dozen native communities. Fernel says that after communicating to those in charge of the mining license that the indigenous people did not want mining in their territories, the issue has been quieter in the region.

What is happening in Vaupés goes against the autonomy of the indigenous people. For priest Edwin Balarezo, director of the Community Center of Mitú, the government is violating and threatening the collective rights of the ethnic groups by granting licenses for the exploitation of resources.

The priest explains that the way these permits work is that the contracts are given to nationals, who then hand them over to "foreign companies for the exploitation of these ancestral territories, which enjoy the privilege of being protected and which have a community of human beings in their care.”

The religious institution, which accompanies the process with legal advice, knows that a Spanish company has a direct relationship with this mining contract. Agenda Propia found that the same firm would also be processing a contract in the department of Guainía and has connections with a dozen mining companies in several regions.

"You never came here for consultation," Father Edwin says in an annoyed tone. He assures us that whether the entities are state-run or not, in many cases "they pay the captains, take them to Bogotá (the country's capital), take them out, put them in good hotels and then send them with some lists to be signed in the communities.

According to the Constitutional Court, prior consultation is a "basic instrument for preserving the ethnic, social, economic and cultural integrity of the indigenous communities and for ensuring, therefore, their survival as a social group. In addition, the Colombian Amazon is "subject to rights", which is why since 2018 the Supreme Court has obliged the State to establish urgent measures for its protection and that of its inhabitants.

In Colombia, Law 685 from 2001 stipulates that "minerals of any kind and location, lying in the soil or subsoil, in any natural physical state, are the exclusive property of the State". This has generated debate in indigenous organizations that claim that what is stated in the law is contrary to their beliefs, because in the subsoil there are spiritual beings and elements that are sacred to their cultures.

In the Amazon, 53 mining licenses have been granted between 2014 and September 2019.

"Those sites (where the mining contracts have been granted) are sacred places, we have to look at how mining is going to affect them," says Julio César Estrada, an indigenous advisor to the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (Opiac). For this reason, according to the indigenous leader, they demand that their sacred sites be respected "because they form part of the fundamental rights that are not regulated, they are practiced.".

The ANM responded to a request sent by Agenda Propia, pointing out that mining license contracts are granted when the companies or individuals have submitted a series of documents and all the steps established by the Law 685, also known as the Mining Code, have been fulfilled. Between these stages, the ANM executes "a program of interaction in the territory" and a pre-hearing to verify social situations, of "activities of influence and observations of the community”. Once this meeting is held under the principle of administrative economy, the hearing and participation of third parties is ordered, without affecting the special protection of ethnically distinct groups". In addition, article 121 of the law states that "any explorer or operator of mines is obliged to carry out its activities in such a way that they do not undermine the cultural, social and economic values of the communities and ethnic groups that actually and traditionally occupy the area covered by the licences or private property rights in the subsoil".

The only environmental license that exists in Vaupés was issued on December 30, 2019, as announced by Miguel Antonio Villamil Vargas, who handed over the position of regional director of the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the North and the Amazon East (CDA) on December 31. This was granted to the Association of Independent Miners of Vaupés (Asomiva) to mine gold for ten years in the municipality of Taraira. The permit was given after the feasibility report was submitted by the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA).

In the case of the mining contract awarded in the territories of the communities between Timbó and Murutinga, the environmental license procedures have not been proposed before the CDA and it is not known if the process is advancing at the National Environmental License Authority (ANLA). In addition, the area granted for the license should be subject to a process of subtraction from the Second Law because it is in a forest reserve.

"We, as an environmental corporation, have been following it, together with the armed forces, the Police, and with the Captain of the community himself, but so far we haven't found anything," says Miguel Villamil of the CDA, in an interview with Agenda Propia in September 2019.

In the Amazon, 53 mining licenses have been granted between 2014 and September 2019. In that period, the only one delivered in Vaupés is the one being investigated in this story. There were various procedures held before the ANM within that region to obtain the mining licenses. This is also registered by the Gaia Amazonas Foundation, which in its GeoViewer shows information of license applications for the extraction of gold, platinum, niobium, tantalum, vanadium or zirconium in 1,910.5 hectares, located in the jurisdiction of Mitú, very close to the area already granted.

The interest in mining in Colombia increased after the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) promoted the "mining locomotive", and in 2010, the window of opportunity was opened for many territories, including the Amazon, to become the target of large industries.

Regarding the mining contract in the territory of the Vaupés Indigenous Reservation, Agenda Propia contacted one of the cell phone numbers that appears in the documents obtained that were signed by Claudia Patricia Gómez. A person who said his name was Carlos, claimed to be a partner in the mining contract, and on December 2, 2019, responded to a WhatsApp chat about Claudia and claimed to represent her. Regarding the license, he wrote that "there has never been any mining activity there, everything is being done as required by law, except for Law 2, and then there is socialization and environmental studies. For the moment, we only have the licence signed since 2009". After several days of insistence on obtaining a formal interview, this was not even achieved by telephone. Additionally, at the beginning of January 2020, Agenda Propia went to the address that appears in those same documents and the registered location corresponds to a residential building. One of the doormen who has been working there for three years said he has never heard of any mining offices being operated there.

While it seems that the legal procedures for the miners to settle in the territory are advancing which at this point in time it is not clear, the indigenous people want to make their voices, songs, beliefs, languages, prayers and traditions heard, so that they can tell the rest of Colombia and the Amazon they exist, and want to take care of the jungle, their home and everyone's home, but they need the State and society to respect them and help them in their desire to preserve their customs and the environment.

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Agenda Propia, with the support of the Pulitzer Center and the Rainforest Journalism Fund, went into the forests of Vaupés to walk through one of the territories of the Amazon that is in the sights of foreign companies for the exploitation of coltan, a combination of the metals columbite and tantalite, also known as black lands. This is the third of 4 parts. Read the first part here, the second part here and the third part here. Originally published in Agenda Propia

Editorial coordination, journalistic research and texts - Edilma Prada Céspedes

Photos and Video- Luis Ángel

Text edition- Nathalia Salamanca Sarmiento

Web design and graphics -Mariana Villamizar and Camila Achuri

Social Media Creative Design- Paola Andrea Nirta Pérez

Media allies - Open Democracy, InfoAmazonia, Public Issue, Public Eye, Datasketch, Connectas, El Espectador

This project was funded by the Pulitzer Center and the Rainforest Journalism Fund.

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