The town of Cajamarca is carved into the Andes, framed by the snowy peaks of the Nevado del Tolima and Cerro Machin Volcano.
Cajamarca’s municipal territory spans part of the Chilí-Barragán páramos (a high-altitude wetland ecosystem unique to the northern Andes). These páramos, which give birth to several rivers, are the source of freshwater for more than three million people.
Cajamarca is home to several endangered species such as the tapir, the puma and the spectacled bear. Wax palms thrive in fog-filled forests and this land is the home of hundreds of species of birds and butterflies.
Photo: Federico Pardo
More than half of Cajamarca’s 20,000 inhabitants live off the land as peasant farmers. Their arriero identity (that of people who transport goods on horseback) and love for the land stems from the campesino roots of its settlers and the diverse mosaic of geographies that make the territory perfect for agriculture.
Photo: Mariana Gómez
Cajamarca’s fertile soil is the result of centuries of volcanic ash build-up. Its valleys (1,200 - 1,800 metres above sea level) are home to a warmer climate which yields coffee, cassava, banana and colicero (small plantain) crops. More mountainous areas (2,700 - 3,100 metres above sea level) harbour a colder climate which yields pastuza and criolla potatoes (a small and yellow variety), curuba (banana passionfruit) and blackberry. The temperate climate in areas between the mountains and valleys yields maize, guarzo bean and arracacha- all native to Colombia.
Photo: Federico Pardo
Cajamarca is the world’s number one producer of arracacha, an Andean parsnip that is of particular importance to Cajamarcans. Corabastos (the principal wholesale food market in Bogotá) receives daily deliveries of nearly 50 tons of arracacha from Cajamarca alone, which is used to make traditional Ajiaco Santafereño (Colombian potato cream soup).
The common arracacha paliverde, a variety originating from the region, is most commonly planted due to its robustness, intense flavor, yellow-violet color and the soft texture of its bulbous root. Farmers say a sweet arracachuno smell surrounds these crops. This, they say, is Cajamarca’s ‘true gold’.
Photo: Federico Pardo
Páramos – These vital high Andean wetland ecosystems have an incredible capacity to absorb and retain water in deep layers of moss and soil, then slowly release that water, ensuring a regular flow of freshwater throughout the seasons and in times of scarce rainfall. Despite being a legally protected ecosystem, La Colosa's concessions overlapped with the Páramos. Even where the project would not directly destroy the páramos, they would be threatened by ecosystem fragmentation and other impacts of the project.
Photo: Colombian Paramo ecosystems. Destupinans22 CC 4.0
Waste and pollution – Gold extraction at La Colosa would cause the disappearance of mountains, and involve blasting more than 1 billion tons of rock, what would require more than 500 million tons of explosives and hundreds of thousand tons of cyanide in order to separate the gold from other minerals like pyrite, or “fools gold”.
These processes result in two types of waste: waste rock and tailings. Both have the potential to severely pollute water bodies. La Colosa would produce over 100 million tonnes of waste rock with contents of pyrite, arsenopyrite and other minerals that when in contact with air become sulfuric acid in a phenomenon known as acid mine drainage, as well as sludgy ‘tailings’ - water, chemicals and crushed ore – that would be transported to a waste dam with a capacity of 1,420 million tonnes.
Photo: Brumadinho tailings dam collapse. Wikipedia.
Communities and farming - Below the páramos lie the forests, mountainsides and fertile valleys from which tens of thousands of small farmers live, earning Cajamarca its nickname as the ‘breadbasket of Colombia’. The cumulative effects of lost agricultural land from the mining activity itself, combined with the reduced access to freshwater sources, the fragmentation of key ecosystems such as the páramos, and the threat of contamination and acidification of waters and soils by mine waste, would jeopardise the livelihoods of thousands and the identity of Cajamarca as a whole.
Photo: Hills near the planned La Colosa site. Bram Ebus for Mongabay.
Water grabbing - Company reports estimate that there is less than one gram of gold per ton of rock. The extraction of just one gram of gold requires between 500 and 1,000 litres of water.
The Colombia Solidarity Campaign report, La Colosa: A Death Foretold, puts these figures into perspective in relation to the La Colosa Project:
“Calculations … indicate that it is very likely that La Colosa’s operations would use more water than the total domestic water consumption for the whole of Tolima.”
Over time, activists began to weave connections between their groups. At the regional level, the Comité Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida del Tolima (Environmental Committee in Defense of Life in Tolima) was born in an effort to bringing together isolated efforts at the level of the Department.
One of the Comité Ambiental’s first strategies was to consciously strengthen this networking by creating environmental committees in each of the Department’s municipalities, promoting environmental awareness at a local level. This is how the Red de Comités Ambientales del Tolima (Network of Environmental Committees in Tolima) was formed, which today coordinates the many Environmental Committees that have sprung up throughout the region.
As in processes of resistance to extractive projects around the world, affected communities in Tolima have taken non-violent direct action to stop the development of the mining project by physically blocking the mining company’s operations.
Mariana Gómez Soto, YLNM Regional Coordinator for Latin America shares how communities from Piedras in Tolima, took action to stop AGA’s exploratory works for their proposed mine-waste dam:
“In January 2013, we found out that the company was drilling into the aquifer in a river creek just past the town without asking. The leaders in town created a blockade on the only bridge in and out of the town. In the end there were about 500 people by this small bridge. They made a stall with all their messages on, they brought tents and chairs, a pot to cook, even a TV so they could watch the soap operas! They practically went to live on the bridge for two weeks and the company’s people couldn’t get in or out. Eventually they had to move… but people continued to resist and adapted their blockade strategy by installing an alarm in the first light pole in town to let people know when the trucks and machinery was coming.”
Activists in Tolima have actively worked with international allies to make their struggle globally visible in the media and apply pressure on AGA as well as the Colombian state to comply with the people’s demands.
One concrete example is the research and publication of a definitive report criticising AGA’s project - La Colosa: A Death Foretold. To produce this report local groups collaborated with international NGOs such as the London Mining Network, and solidarity groups like Colombia Solidarity Campaign, as well as scientific experts.
“Communities need to be connected nationally and internationally to share their strategies and responses to mining. It was very important for us to reach out internationally to learn from others who had stopped mines or have been affected by them”, says Mariana Gomez.
By working with these international allies, the movement in Tolima has also gained a voice at forums like the United Nations.
Consulta Popular Ya! Popular Consultations Now!
A turning point in Cajamarca and the Tolima region's many years of resistance came in 2013, when the small municipality of Piedras, Tolima, organised a ‘popular consultation’ – a local referendum on the future of mining on their land - to give local people a say on whether AGA could build the mine-waste dam for La Colosa in their territory.
Enshrined in Colombia’s 1991 Constitution, a popular consultation is a little known legal mechanism, defined in legislation as follows (1994 Law 136, article 33):
"When a municipality intends to carry out activities and/or projects that generate a significant change in land use, a Popular Consultation must be held. [...] When the development of tourist, mining or projects of another nature threatens to create a significant change in the use of land, which results in a transformation in the traditional activities of a municipality, a popular consultation shall be held in accordance with the Law. The responsibility of these consultations will be the responsibility of the respective municipality."
Importantly, unlike most other mechanisms for participation or consultation elsewhere in the world, Colombia’s popular consultation is binding, rather than advisory in nature, meaning that the Government is legally bound to respect the decision taken by the people.
Piedras's popular consultation ended in a resounding rejection of AGA's planned infrastructure.
Four years later, in March 2017, following years of tireless organising by grassroots groups in Cajamarca and their close allies in Ibagué, the first popular consultation* called by citizens themselves was held in Cajamarca.
(*Note: the earlier consultation in Piedras was called by the municipal government, rather than directly by citizens, and was the first regarding a mining project.)
Mobilised by social movements in the region, 6,241 voters took to the polls in Cajamarca on the day of the vote. Of those people, only 76 voted in favour of mining, while 6,165 voted against- a landslide victory of 98%.
This resounding victory dealt a major below to La Colosa and AGA’s plans in the region. The company has since suspended its operations in Cajamarca, citing the ‘force of the community'.
“We have a critique of the term ‘alternative’, Cajamarca doesn’t need to find an alternative, rather it needs to follow its roots. We already have a non-extractive livelihood and everything we need. What we want is a more just, agroecological system of food production, a circular economy which doesn’t damage the territory”, says Robinson Mejía.
Cajamarca has countered the typical response towards communities who resist mining from Government and corporations who say that they are anti-development.
A number of initiatives are underway that seek to strengthen traditional livelihoods and pioneer new economic activities while respecting the rights of local people and the ecosystems they rely upon.
“People in Cajamarca and Colombia more widely are calling for a new paradigm and a new development model that includes alternatives that are rooted in and serve the well-being of the planet and the people. We cannot and should not base our development pathways on the expansion of the extractive industries”, says Mariana Gomez.
Given Cajamarca’s deep agricultural roots, food and farming have taken centre stage as non-extractive livelihoods and are being promoted and enhanced with the momentum of the popular consultation victory.
The economic viability of non-extractive, agroecological livelihoods has been bolstered by a partnership formed between socially and ecologically conscious Colombian restaurant chain Crepes&Waffles and a Cajamarcan association of arracacha producers (Asociación de Productores de Semillas Andinas- ASPROSAN).
ASPROSAN has in recent years been able to shift practices towards more biodiverse, less chemical intensive and more regenerative methods of production. Crepes and Waffles has supported this process by offering a stable, fair market with prices multiple times the exploitative market average for APROSAN’s carefully grown, high quality and agroecological arracacha.
“Since October 2017 we have been buying two tonnes of Arracacha a month directly from the Arracacha Growers’ Association at double the market price”, says Felipé Macía of Crepes &Waffles. “We’ve sold more than ten thousand arracacha dishes and are launching some other new products; a lemonade made from a lemon grown in Cajamarca, and raw sugar. We have also been working to encourage other businesses to follow our example. We see ourselves as a pioneer species and we hope to close this year with four Colombian food businesses buying directly from Cajamarca.”
Made up of women from the veredas (villages), the Alliance has three areas of activity: economic justice, trainings and self-care practices. It fosters exchange between women, creating a space for them to share their knowledge and skills, and to support each other in processes of collective healing. They have just recently opened a space to feature artisanal, medicinal and agroecological products that members of the Alliance produce.
COSAJUCA and the Comité Ambiental y Campesino de Cajamarca y Anaime are also carrying out projects to empower and educate children and young people, many of whom are the children of women involved in the Alliance or from families engaged in the working of the Red de Acueductos Comunitarios de Cajamarca. These projects help free up time for their parents to participate, while helping to ensure that a new generation of young people in Cajamarca are supported and able to contribute to the collective work of building the community’s non-extractive future.
Pathways to Post-Extractivism in Latin America
As part of the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network's 'Life After Mining' webinar series, in 2019 activists, academics and community leaders came together to discuss how communities across Latin America are resisting mining and moving 'beyond extractivism'.
Watch the webinar in full, here:
Created with images by fe31lopz - "chuquiragua nature national" • kayuli - "tigrillo feline wild" • Michael Lechner - "untitled image"