Mineral extraction remains a growing activity that is inseparable from current industrial development pathways (see the graph below from World Mining Congress illustrating world past extraction trend), however one could see on the other side an increasing trend of questioning the relevance of mining as an engine of economic development. More restrictive regulations and stronger environmental protections are imposed in an increasing number of countries, especially in Latin America; open-pit mining is getting banned in some places, such as in Costa Rica; other countries (like Malaysia and India) are implementing moratoriums because of strong concerns about water risks. All around the world, resistance cores against the mining sector are observed. With regard to Latin American countries, BMI research estimated in a 2017 report that this trend should very likely continue in the coming years.
World past minerals extraction trend
Sources: Beyond Ratings, World Mining Congress
Will Colombia be the next opponent to mining activity? At about the same time El Salvador was establishing its definitive ban, a vote was organized in the little Colombian town of Cajamarca in the Tolima region against a mega gold mining project planned in the municipality, run by the multinational company AGA. The vote finally gathered a vast majority of ‘no’. Contrasting with central government’s positions, local authorities recognized the validity of the vote and asked AGA to leave the region. At the national level central government first rejected the vote, stating votes could not be retroactive, however the company finally took the decision to cancel the whole project, stating that the conditions were not fulfilled considering the popular opposition.
What has followed one year later? No general ban has been adopted by the government so far, but opposition remains lively: during the summer of 2017, members of the Colombian First Nations occupied a mine to protest its illegal operations and obtained a favourable decision from the environmental authority; they also asked for action to be taken against 160 other mines that were contaminating water. A few weeks later, some indigenous leaders protested in Bogota against a coal open-pit mine expansion project that was threatening local water resources; in November, hundreds of indigenous people marched to protest against mining operations in the natural region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria; and another example of popular opposition took place at the end of the year, when a video showing a waterfall heavily polluted went viral and caused public uproar. It should be noted, however, that as mining activity provides economic benefits, it also gathered supporters: at the beginning of 2018, a pro-mining referendum was organized in Vetas municipality, where gold mining is the only industry. Citizens seemed however to vote predominantly against mining (Reuters).
The Environmental Justice Atlas indicates that about 120 civil conflicts related to environmental justice are documented in Colombia, with a majority of them mining-related conflicts.