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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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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