A land grab in Colombia

Jan 22, 2009

Socialist Worker (US) David Goodner and Megan Felt report on the struggle of indigenous people in Colombia to stop Muriel Mining from exploiting their ancestral land.

The transnational mining company, Muriel Mining Corp., has illegally entered the Colombia's Jiguamiandó River Basin to exploit the subsoil resources of the Cerro de Carreperro Mountains without properly consulting indigenous and Afro-descendent communities.

This violates the Colombian Constitution of 1991, International Labor Organization (ILO) Resolution 169 and Colombia's Law 70 of 1993, as well as subsequent declarations and decrees, according to the Embera and Afro-Colombian communities living in the region. The dispute dates back to 2005, when the Colombian state awarded Muriel Mining a 30-year mining concession to explore and exploit 16,000 hectares of indigenous and Afro-Colombian territory in the municipalities of Murindó and Carmen del Darien. The indigenous Embera Oibida communities of Jiguamiandó first discovered Muriel's presence on January 5, when company and military helicopters began flying over the area to the Cerro de Carreperro Mountains. On January 8, over 280 indigenous Embera and Afro-Colombians representing the communities of Alto Guayabal, Bachidubi, Bella Flor, Cañaveral, Caño Seco, Koredó, Coredocito, Guaguay, Isla, Lobo, Nueva Esperanza, Pueblo Nuevo, Puerto Lleras and Urada converged in Coredocito to discuss strategies for dealing with the company's presence in their ancestral territory. Also present were members of the human rights organizations Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz and Pasc Canada, as well as independent international solidarity activists from the United States. Attendees expressed concern about the ecological and environmental damage unregulated mining could inflict on their ancestral territories, particularly pollution to the Jiguamiandó and Murindó Rivers, which communities use daily for bathing, cooking, drinking and fishing. One leader said: From her, the mountain, we find pure air. From her, there is an ecosystem. There's animals, there's everything. But then the state tells us that, because of their new rules, that we don't have rights. And why? Why don't we have rights? Another tribal member stated that the alleged breaking of treaties between the state and the indigenous people was part of a trend of human rights violations that began when Spanish conquistadors first arrived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492: "For us, this is not a struggle to live tomorrow. It is a struggle to live today." ---

On January 9, a delegation of indigenous and international observers marched from Coredocito to the foot of the Cerro de Carreperro Mountains, where they confronted the Colombian Army unit assigned to protect the mining corporation. After the confrontation, an agreement was reached between the indigenous communities and the mining corporation for a meeting to be held in Coredocito the following day. An international human rights worker with Pasc Canada said that he observed Colombian soldiers who failed to properly display valid identification of their name, rank and unit on their uniforms, and that some of soldiers wore goggles or masks to conceal their faces. Although it is not clear whether the soldiers' failure to properly identify themselves was deliberate or unintentional, failure of state security forces to properly identify themselves is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Representatives of human rights organizations, the Embera and Afro-Colombian communities and nearly 300 indigenous people attended a meeting between Muriel and the Embera tribes held in Coredocito on January 10. During the meeting, Muriel Mining Corp. representative Pedro Lemous said that the mining company had consulted with the indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, and produced a 2007 draft agreement between Muriel and some of the legal representatives of the communities authorizing the company to explore the mountains for copper reserves. "This is why we are here. Because we have letters of agreement from indigenous authorities in the Camical that have permitted the exploration process," Lemous said. "This is why we are here, these things are legal. We consulted with the communities." But members of the Afro-Colombian communities of Jiguamiandó stated at the meeting that they did not know the so-called representative listed on the document, Euterio Romania. Indigenous leaders called the document a forgery and said that the company produced minutes of meetings that never took place and that agreements signed between the company and a minority of Embera cabildos dodged the traditional consensus process of the Embera people protected by ILO Convention 169. "I'm not going to say to our friend here, you are violating the rules," an Embera leader said. "Because he has done everything legally, by mestizo law. He has had a previous consulta with the indigenous. He has arrived at an agreement with those who were there. But the community here, our children, our women, our elderly, our youth, don't know the agreement that has been made. We are ignorant to the things that it states. "The cabildo mayors [a form of citizen's popular participation] have never come here to speak to us directly. We don't know them. The legal representatives in the cities are committing a great error. Here we are all against the agreement. Everyone here has said no--we are not with the company. We have not, and will not, sign [this agreement]." Lawyers with the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz agreed. "It is not enough to talk to a few inhabitants, because they do not represent the majority opinion," the organization said in a statement released to the public. "Given the lack of guarantees, the lack of clarity, the denial of the right to prior consultation, the indigenous communities of the Urada-Jiguamiandó reserve have stated their position." ILO 169 specifically states that the implementation of national laws in indigenous territories must be conducted in accordance with the traditional customs, laws and institutions of the indigenous communities. Following this framework, the legal argument that the contract between sections of the indigenous community and Muriel Mining is improper, null and void is a valid one if the larger community can prove that they were cheated out of their traditional consensus process. The fact that the majority of Embera living in the region in question are mobilizing against the mining company's position also adds strong evidence to their claims that the agreement is improper and illegal. --- But the actions of Muriel Mining go beyond mere procedural irregularities. In 2006, the Permanent People's Tribunal of Colombia found Muriel Mining Corp. guilty "for the violation of the territorial rights of the indigenous, Afro-descendant and mestizo communities, as well as the self-determination of the right of peoples, culture and cosmovision." In this decision, the tribunal found that multinational corporations, including Chiquita Banana, Coca-Cola, Drummond Coal and Muriel Mining Corp., benefited from: the political repression of small-scale farmers and ethnic minorities "as a mechanism to guarantee their... exploitation processes," the use of the state security forces, national legislation adjusted to fit the interests of transnational corporations over the interests of the Colombian people, and blocked territories "as an act of dispossession."

Over 4,000 indigenous and Afro-descendent communities in the Lower Atrato region of Chocó were forcibly displaced and hundreds massacred during a joint military-paramilitary operation in 1996 and 1997 known as Operation Genesis. In many cases, the internally displaced people returned to their land years later only to find it taken over by large-scale cattle ranchers and multinational corporations. "Our struggle here is the same," one Afro-Colombian leader said. The Embera communities of Jiguamiandó have organized their own internal voting process, scheduled for the February 24-28, in which women, the elderly, men and children older than 14 will decide whether to admit the multinational mining company into their territories. In the interim, Embera leaders are calling on Muriel Mining Corp. and the Colombian state to respect the autonomy and territoriality of their tribe, and to cease and desist from all exploration activities in the Cerro de Carreperro Mountain until the community has concluded their internal debate process. The international community should call on Muriel Mining Corp. and the Colombian state to abide by the national and international treaties and laws that protect the indigenous way of life and respect their traditional consensus-style of participatory democracy. "We have lived off this land for thousands of years," said an Embera leader. "If Muriel exploits it, can they pay us enough money to ensure that we will live for thousands more?"