When South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) arrived in this central Colombian farming town ten years ago, it promised residents like Herver Oliveraula “rivers of milk and honey,” he recalls. The mining giant was set to extract an estimated 28 million ounces of gold from the La Colosa mine, buried under the northern Andes.
Mr. Oliveraula was skeptical, he says, but also wanted to trust that his community – and country – could benefit from the natural resources underfoot. It wasn’t until activists from the youth collective Cosajuca in 2012 showed him a geological map of his town that he changed his mind. It laid out mining concessions from the government, granting AGA rights to explore in nearly 80 percent of the municipality – including Oliveraula’s 6-hectare farm.
“How could some government [ministry] grant our farm to a multinational without ever coming to consult anyone who lived on it?” he asks.
Oliveraula joined local grass-roots activists, working with support from international and national non-government organizations, to resist the massive gold-mining project. Their basic proposition, that locals should have a say in what happens on their property, is a concept that has started gaining a global foothold in recent years. And in May 2016, a landmark case in Colombia’s Constitutional Court took the idea of first consulting locals a step further, giving communities here the right to close the door entirely to international mining efforts based on a local vote.
Mining and gas investment are vital to Colombia’s economy. In 2013, nearly half of Colombia’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) went into the oil and mining sector. That share has shrunk in recent years, but industry lobbyists estimate oil and mining could deliver $1.5 billion in FDI annually over the next five years.
And there’s a big reliance on mining and gas royalties to fund public spending. That includes vital programs linked to the 2016 Peace Accord, which ended more than 50 years of fighting between the government and Marxist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
And although funding social programs to help demobilized guerrillas reintegrate into society or to develop rural infrastructure are paramount to creating a lasting peace, land rights are a central part of Colombia’s Peace Accord, too. Rural communities, like Oliveraula’s, suffered the brunt of the conflict’s violence. Giving citizens a voice on how their…