While the temporary suspension of Colombia’s peace talks after the bizarre kidnapping of a general shook the country last week, a different movement was gathering steam in the southwestern Cauca province, where more than 30 Afro-Colombian women from the small town of La Toma began a 350-mile march over the mountains to the capital of Bogotá.
Their mission: To bring attention to the social and environmental havoc that illegal mining and the armed groups often behind it are wreaking on their community, and demand action from the Colombian government. The women arrived in Bogotá on Tuesday, with plans to make their demands heard by the country’s constitutional court.
In a statement prepared for the media, leaders wrote, “They ask us who we are? Black women from Cauca. What do we want? The space to care for life…We don’t want to feel fear when we walk our trails… We want the exploitative [mining] titles to be revoked because we were not consulted. We want to live without the fear caused by the machine owners that send us notes saying that they know when our daughters and sons leave school.”
The community of La Toma is home to about 1,300 families, but the challenges they face around illegal gold mining are illustrative of a larger issue at the heart of Colombia’s conflict: natural resources. From the coal and oil that fuels the export economy to the gold that armed groups increasingly use to finance their activities, the battle to control land is a major reason that the Colombia’s civil war has continued for over half a century and, according to a report released last week from the National Victims Unit, claimed more than 7 million lives.
The “mining engine” of the economy, as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos calls it, was the subject of a special forum in Colombia’s Congress last week. According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), 40 percent of Colombia’s territory is currently licensed to or under review for mining concessions, while a report by the ABColombia Coalition puts the total higher at nearly 60 percent.
The swaths of territory licensed to large-scale mining along with smaller, illegal operations like those in La Toma have profound consequences in rural areas, particularly for Afro-Colombian and indigenous residents. Both of these groups have a right to ancestral lands and prior consultation guaranteed by Colombia’s Constitution, but under Colombia’s polemic mining code and fraught land restitution process, the reality looks quite different.
While many Afro-Colombian communities in the Pacific region have pan-mined for gold in the surrounding rivers since their ancestors were brought to the region in the 1500s, this ‘artisanal’ mining is often deemed illegal by authorities, lumped into the same category as the armed groups’ operations. Communities are banned from mining even as illegal armed actors engage in more destructive forms of it, threaten leaders and drive displacement to urban areas. Meanwhile, large multinational mining operations, which were granted tax breaks and high royalties under former president Álvaro Uribe, continue to enjoy free reign in many regions.
Despite repeated calls since August for the Colombian government to intervene and halt illegal mining in their territories, La Toma leaders say that there are still more than 100 pieces of illegal mining machinery in Cauca, and that armed men continue to guard the equipment and threaten community members. Marchers were threatened by illegal armed groups as well as harassed by police last week.
“All of these threats are part of another war in our ancestral territories that steals peace from our hearts,” wrote the women.
The marchers intend to maintain their protest in Bogotá until the Colombian government acknowledges their demands, which include removing the illegal mining machinery, compliance with court orders and laws that guarantee rights to ancestral territory and prior consultation, protections for community leaders, investigation and sanctions for those responsible for illegal activities and threats and a voice in the peace talks in Havana, Cuba. As the women see it, a peace agreement without the voice of Afro-descendant communities is not inclusive, and therefore no peace at all.