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In Colombia, Where Gold Mining And Coca Farming Are A Toxic Mix

Mining firms, coca farmers and criminal gangs have brought social degeneration, pollution and extreme violence to one district in western Colombia.

Illegal gold mine excavation in Colombia
Illegal gold mine excavation in Colombia
Alfredo Molano Jimeno

TIMBIQUÍ— The district of Timbiquí in western Colombia is practically under siege. Located in the Valle del Cauca department, it has become a magnet for gold miners, drug dealers and armed gangs that have proved lethal to its Afro-Caribbean communities and especially to girls and women.

The harm of gold mining here is evident. Martín, a muscled, two-meter-high black resident, drives a backhoe excavator. "I've driven it to create the surface for highways and to shift earth to find for gold, but that is so horrible," he says. "Never again I'll put my art at the service of death. Even if I wake up in the morning, like today, without a peso in my pocket, even if I can earn 5 million pesos (a little over 1,400 euros) a week in the mine. Never again. Because I've seen a lot of people die. Gold fever is killing us, my school friends, neighbors, fellow blacks," he says, with tears in his eyes.

About 22,000 people live in Timbiquí, 86% of whom are of Afro-Caribbean descent. It is the undoubted heart of the Pacific coast in the Cauca region. Here you can find all the problems that riddle this area: mining, displacements, targeted murders, forced disappearances, drug dealing, presence of armed gangs and drug cartels, an economy built on illegal earnings and precarious work, an acute social crisis, endemic shortfalls in employment and education and very high rates of domestic violence. It is a panorama that displays in concentrated form what has been happening in Cauca, a department which will become one of those with the highest homicide rates by the end of 2018, especially when it comes to social leaders. There has also been a resurgence of fighting because of a shift of power among various armed actors.

They were bad, but we miss FARC.

Land disputes are rife in this part of Cauca, according to the Ombudsman's office. People who nursed hopes of peace and security after the FARC peace deal, now live in fear of a range of gangs including recalcitrant members of the disarmed FARC guerrilla army, the Marxist Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), or the Gaitanista (AGC) paramilitaries, not to mention common criminals. Locals say they miss the relative peace and predictability that the FARC's presence brought to the area. "Sure, they were bad, but we miss the FARC in this region," says a parish priest from a coastal town. "Their departure has left us exposed to banditry or to any idiot with a gun who can end up in charge of an entire village, or other armies arriving, killing and kidnapping people. Thefts, murders, sexual violence and child recruitments have shot up. Better said, the Peace Accords have put us in a worse war than the one we had," he says.

The Black Rebirth Community Council (Renacer Negro) works in Timbiquí"s rural area. It was given formal recognition in 1998 and administers some 71,010 hectares near the mouth of the Timbiquí River, an area inhabited by over 4,500 people. Its communal terrains, torn apart by illegal miners, were the first to have their autonomous status restored in 2015. Court Order C-071, issued by a land restitution judge, revealed then how the chaos of war had allowed violent elements to enter the territory with bulldozers and start digging under armed guard. The Timbiquí River bed was dug up, traditional miners were expelled and local farming disappeared. It is difficult to gauge the social and cultural harm done by criminal activities, while the reparation process has been painfully slow.

It is a region of great geostrategic importance because it connects the Western Cordillera mountain range with the coast. At the same time, its isolation has favored the settlement of armed groups here. Guerrillas arrived in the 1970s while paramilitaries expanded their control after 2001. After demobilizing in 2005, paramilitary groups once more occupied areas abandoned by HH, a former paramilitary head now imprisoned. A generation of black leaders was murdered to sow fear. "Coca cultivation arrived big time in the years of the paramilitary," says a local community leader. "A generation of black leaders was murdered to sow fear and loosen the social organization. Uncontrolled mining arrived in 2010. People from outside brought in their machines while spraying of crops intensified, destroying farming and leaving people between coca and gold."

Mining concessions on stolen land and the arrival of machinery became an assault not just on traditional gold panning, but also on local fishing and farming. Between 1989 and 1993, a Russian firm started up open-cast gold mining here. The 2015 court sentence observes that eight more mining concessions were given out between 2007 and 2010, practically forcing locals to participate in this activity, as their only survival option. Armed gangs meanwhile intensified fighting to control extraction zones.

Coca cultivation also shifted into the area as the state was fumigating more southern departments (Putumayo and Nariño), immediately sparking violence between locals and coca cultivators. As coca spread alongside the rivers Timbiquí and the more northern Saija, the state began fumigating with glyphosate in 2006, destroying all crops.

The Black Rebirth Community Council began to organize itself against big mining, and protest groups gathered in the port city of Buenaventura, demanding the removal of excavating machines. By 2012, the community denounced the presence of more than 70 excavators on its ancestral land. In that year the government's Land Restitution Unit took the case to the courts, leading in 2015 the First Tribunal in Popayán to order the restitution of communal lands under the aegis of the Community Council, following the 2011 Law of Victims.

The order also suspended mining concessions like one given to Anglo Gold Ashanti, banned the entry of heavy machinery in the region, urged the protection of traditional mining practices and also banned glyphosate spraying. The Ombudsman later checked on the implementation of these rulings, and its conversations with locals revealed persistent murders of communal leaders and tensions between locals and state forces.

The judge behind the land restitution ruling, Luis Felipe Jaramillo, has explained that the court order was intended as a recognition of the collective violation of rights due to war, and of the right of locals to recover specific communal lands. His first decision to ban mining on these lands proved, surprisingly, to be unpopular. The Communal Council wanted "mining to be formalized" since it was a source of income, Jaramillo says, adding, "I then went to the territory and finally understood what was going on."

They bring things we're not used to.

One of the most obvious consequences of the mining and coca farming boom, in addition to the arrival of people from outside the black communities, has been the evident social deterioration. A female member of the Black Rebirth Community Council recalls the murders of four women working on gender issues in July 2017. "Iris, from the Community of San José, was stabbed to death by her ex-partner. At the same time, three women were massacred in Puerta Saija. They were locked in a house and then incinerated. It was brutal. This speaks to what is happening in our community. I have not been able to overcome it," she said.

The leader blames it on the arrival of people from outside the community: "They bring things we're not used to. Drug and alcohol consumption has become a problem in our homes. This didn't happen before. We only consumed what came out of our land." Now there are brothels in Timbiquí, she says. Unemployment and dismal prospects have broken the social fabric. She says she recently heard an eight-year-old shouting at a younger child that he would end up getting killed because he was out in the streets begging. "Tell your mum to buy you a coffin!", said the child.

She says she wouldn't name the armed groups, but their presence is no secret "wherever there is some illegal activity." The local environment is soaked in crime, she says. It is "so violent I cannot even describe what we go through." Assaults and rapes go often unreported as the perpetrators are people often associated with mining firms, machine owners and armed gangs, says the community leader."I can't blame those who won't go to the police, because nobody can understand the fear we women feel."

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