Defending land and life against an impending train wreck: Canadian mining in Colombia

Jen Moore

Latin America Program Coordinator / Coordinadora del programa para América Latina, 2010-2018.

On September 22, 2011, the Canadian Council of the Americas named Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ‘Statesman of the Year’ at an event sponsored by several Canadian mining and oil companies with investments in Colombia. Canadian politicians attended, including Liberal Scott Bryson, notable for his role in pushing through the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and another free trade proponent, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Sold-out tickets for the event cost $1,000, and $25,000 for an exclusive reception with Santos. [1] Alongside Santos that night, Barrick Gold’s Peter Munk was given a Lifetime Business Achievement Award.

During his acceptance speech, Santos named mining and energy as one of Colombia’s newly denominated “engines of growth.” Santos is optimistic, he said, that it will propel the country toward “democratic prosperity.” [2]

But in the context of the ongoing internal armed conflict in which battles over mineral-rich lands continue to play a central part [3] and as one of the most unequal countries in the hemisphere, [4] the model of democratic prosperity that Santos is talking about is likely to be about as democratic as the model of democratic security that was once the slogan of the day when he served as Minister of Defence under the former Uribe administration – an administration that was mired in scandal, including close links between paramilitaries and high government officials, as well as the ‘false positives’ scandal in which Colombian military were found to have been dressing up murdered civilians as guerrilla.

From the start of the Uribe administration, the expanse of national territory under mineral and oil concessions, either titled or requested, has risen rapidly to 40%. [5] This rapid and speculative process has been driven by high commodity prices, a favourable mining code developed with support from CIDA, the US backed military effort to defeat the guerrilla, and now with new investment protections afforded by the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement. National elite, illegal armed groups, and multinational corporations are best positioned to benefit from these operations to the detriment of small scale and artisanal miners, farmers, indigenous and afro-Colombian peoples, and downstream populations who depend on sources of water flowing from mining areas. Canadian financed companies play a considerable role among the corporations positioned to benefit, representing 52% of the mining companies operating in Colombia as of 2008. [6]

Like the democratic security program, however, the democratic prosperity program is accompanied by heavy propaganda. In his acceptance speech, President Santos spoke about foreign investment in the mining and energy sector as needed to serve social aims, saying “everything that we’re doing has a social objective, to make the worse off, better off.” [7] Meanwhile, the Globe & Mail - one of the sponsors of the event – credited Santos as being dedicated “not just to security and economic growth, but to respecting the human rights of all.” [8] As evidence, among other things, the Colombian government and its Canadian boosters point to a new victim’s law as “a large step forward” [9] for compensation of victims of the internal armed conflict.

Intellectuals, environmentalists, small scale mining associations, indigenous and afro-Colombian peoples, and rural communities, however, are contesting the significance of such initiatives, saying that conditions do not exist for most of the land violently captured in large part by paramilitary forces to be returned. They’re also observing a trend of stigmatization and criminalization of small scale and artisanal miners as a result of the current push to supposedly crackdown on illegal mining taking place to enrich or launder money of illegal armed groups. Furthermore, they’re questioning the number of jobs, the amount of revenues, and the costs of environmental and social impacts of large scale, multinational-run mining. As a result, they’re organizing in different ways to protect their jobs, their lands, their livelihoods and their water supplies in an attempt to prevent a further train wreck with the national government’s declared economic engine.

Security for whom?

Contrary to Santos and the Globe and Mail’s assertions, during the first 14 months of the Santos administration, Amnesty International indicates that “threats against and killings of leaders of displaced communities and of those seeking the return of lands misappropriated during the conflict mainly by paramilitary groups, have increased during the Santos government.” [10] Notably, of the some 3 to 5 million internally displaced people in Colombia, the great majority [11] come from mineral and hydrocarbon rich areas. [12]

Furthermore, Peace Brigades International reports that of the 29 human rights defenders murdered in the first half of 2011, at least three had been speaking out against large scale mining, while another five lived in mining areas, another was also disappeared who had been implicated in such activities. In 2010 alone, 78% of crimes against unionists were also committed in mining and energy areas, while 20 unionists suffered attacks or assassination attempts. [13]

During a recent visit to Colombia, I heard serious concerns that the victims’ reparation law is unlikely to make a significant difference. One representative of a campesino association projected that the state would only manage to return a fraction of the some 6 to 7 million hectares of lands lost given lack of safety conditions for people’s return. She further anticipates that this will justify the permanent presence of public armed forces in these areas. She also added that where lands are being returned, displaced peoples are either being forced into employment with paramilitary controlled activities or being faced with a situation in which multinational companies already have concessions granted for subsurface resources. “They are granting us the land,” she said, “but keeping the property for themselves.”

Peace Brigades International reports that although the state is supposed to help mediate in negotiations where multinational interests overlap with those of campesinos and artisanal miners, people are being compelled to try to reach agreements on their own in order to shore up their livelihoods. [14]

Compounding this situation, there’s a clear trend of stigmatization and criminalization of small scale and artisanal miners. It is important to realize that there are an estimated 5 million people who subsist to some degree off of small scale and artisanal mining activities in Colombia. [15] This trend began with CIDA-sponsored mining code reforms in 2001 in which small scale, artisanal and traditional miners were ordered to formalize their operations and given an initial three years in which to do so. But many live in remote areas and often conflict areas, and did not hear about the new requirements. In other cases, where they did become aware of the formalization process and submitted requests, the vast majority were never attended to. Of some 2,845 requests submitted, only 23 were approved during this period. [16] Today an estimated 70% operate without titles, while some 90% of mining areas have been granted in concessions to multinational companies creating a highly precarious situation for small scale and artisanal miners.

Add to this the presence of illegal armed groups that are finding gold mining, particularly in the context of tremendously high prices, as a way to increase their revenues or to launder money. The Colombian government has announced that it will fight against illegal mining, all of which puts small scale and artisanal mining operations at further risk of being lumped in with criminal elements. [17] This is also likely to justify further militarization of mining areas.

The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) has already commented that mining areas are both militarized and paramilitarized. “The public forces protect large scale private interest, and the paramilitaries control social protest and promote displacement,” CODHES has stated. [18]

To this broad picture, it should be added that multinational corporations have also been granted title or requested title to mining and energy concessions overlapping with indigenous and afro-Colombian lands and territories, as well as in protected natural areas and areas of importance for rural and urban water supplies.

Santurbán: Land, conflict and resistance

To look in some detail at just one example, Greystar Resources, which recently changed its name to Eco Oro Minerals, was one of the first Canadian companies to show interest in Colombia’s mining sector. This junior mineral exploration company obtained mineral concessions in the northeastern department of Santander in 1995 in remote rural municipalities where people practice both agriculture and small scale gold mining.

At this time, the area, in which the company holds title to about 30,000 hectares of land, was controlled by guerrilla forces. The company is said to have maintained a certain coexistence with the guerrillas until a company employee was kidnapped in 1999 after which the company pulled out for several years. In the intervening period, a series of military operations took place against guerrilla forces. This took a severe toll on local rural and indigenous communities, and reportedly displaced an estimated 180 artisanal miners. [19] Helping to pave the way for its return the company provided logistical support to establish a base for security operations in the area. There are two military camps currently within the company’s exploration area and the High Mountain Battalion there has the capacity to house up to 500 soldiers. The company also has retired military personnel within its private security detail, [20] but violence in the area has also reportedly continued, including indications of paramilitary presence. [21]

The company has a strong relationship with the Canadian Embassy, as well as financing from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, a major shareholder in the project. Greystar, now renamed Eco Oro, has also channelled funds from USAID and CIDA through a foundation it established to provide a number of community programs in the area, where there is notably weak presence of the state. Besides these short-term projects, however, the company has not provided communities with thorough information about the scope of future mining operations. [22] Additionally, one report found in at least one of the municipalities in which the company operates that people are politically divided, and that “control of future royalties could exacerbate corruption and influence-peddling.” [23]

Where the company’s concessions are located also overlaps with fragile wetland and Andean forest ecosystems. The wetlands, known as páramo, represent an ecosystem unique to the Andean region that is critical to water capture and regulation for millions of people, particularly in highland cities of Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru. Although not well understood, the ecosystem is composed of a thick soil layer that is both an important carbon sink, as well as crucial to regulate water supplies. For years concern has been raised about the impact that the company’s proposed project could have on water supplies serving downstream rural and urban communities, including Bucaramanga, a city of some 2 million people. Potential impacts could be even greater than those springing from this company’s proposed mine, given that since about 2006 another six multinational corporations have obtained another 35,000 hectares in mineral concessions here, seeing Eco Oro’s Angostura project as just the start. [24]

Concern over the project’s potential impacts on the area’s water supplies, in particular, have awakened resistance that gave rise to a broad-based mobilization that culminated earlier this year with marches in Bucaramanga tens of thousands strong that resonated in other parts of Colombia. This unusually broad mobilization, which included public sector municipal water workers and members of the departmental business federation, as well as local human rights organizations, environmentalists, and others drew national attention to the threat that mining poses to water resources. [25] National news sources reported on this project and on the more than 20 other parts of the country in which mineral concessions have been granted within fragile páramo ecosystems. After considerable struggle, the Ministry of Environment, Development and Housing turned down the company’s Environmental Impact Assessment in late May.

The company since changed its name, overhauled its board of directors and said that it will come back with a new underground mine design. Other companies in the area continue exploring and have established high level connections that they hope will help to secure this area for industrial mining.

In this regard, it’s worth noting that CB Gold, one of the sponsors of the Canadian Council of the Americas event at which President Santos was honoured, counts among its board of directors Hernán Martínez, former Minister of Mines and Energy who in 2008 as part of the Uribe administration declared a “mining revolution” in Colombia after his office approved permits for foreign firms. [26] Martínez also holds shares in Gran Colombia Gold, which is active in other important gold mining areas of Colombia. This company shares other ties with Gran Colombia Gold and Pacific Rubiales, two companies whose operations have been associated with recent human rights violations. [27]

Another small junior outfit called Calvista Gold has just joined the pack speculating on the development of a mining district in Santander. This company is owned in part by a Toronto-based natural resources investment bank which includes former Newfoundland Premier and Federal Minister of Industry Brian Tobin and Major General Lewis Mackenzie, current military analyst for various media outlets and contributor to the Globe and Mail, among its board of directors. [28] On November 14th, just a couple of weeks ago, they announced Mr. Edgar Castellanos-González as advisor to their board. Castellanos-González was not only a former designated Ambassador to the OAS and to the UN General Assembly, he is also a former Colombian senator, past mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, and is currently married to the Colombian Ambassador to Canada, Clemencia Forero-Ucros. [29]

Such high level connections start to reveal both the web of real interests trying to harness Canadian and other foreign capital to aggressively expand mineral production in Colombia. They also start to reveal the far too cozy relationships between industry and government in the attempts to open up this sector. As well, they give a glimpse into what those who are organizing around mining in Colombia are up against as they question who this democratic prosperity program is really destined to benefit and try to determine how to best defend the water, land, and livelihoods that its violent imposition puts at stake.


[1] Alex Neve, “Canada’s Tainted trade partner,” Toronto Star, 21Sep11.
[2] Juan Manuel Santos, Acceptance speech at Canadian Council for the Americas, 22Sep11.
[3] Alex Neve, “Canada’s Tainted trade partner,” Toronto Star, 21Sep11.
[4] The World Factbook, “Distribution of Family Income – Gini Index”.
[5] PBI Colombia, “Mining in Colombia: at what cost?,” November 2011.
[6] MiningWatch Canada, CENSAT-Agua Viva and Inter Pares, “Land and Conflict: Resource Extraction, Human Rights, and Corporate Social Responsibility: Canadian Companies in Colombia,” September 2009.
[7] Juan Manuel Santos, Acceptance speech at Canadian Council for the Americas, 22Sep11.
[8] Globe and Mail, Editorial, “Colombia: Canada’s new partner,” 21Sep11.
[9] Ken Frankel, Introduction to Santos acceptance speech at Canadian Council for the Americas, 22Sep11.
[10] Alex Neve, “Canada’s Tainted trade partner,” Toronto Star, 21Sep11.
[11] O’Connor and Montoya cite 68% of displaced peoples having come from mining zones, while Francisco Ramírez Cuelar estimates that 87% of displaced peoples come from mining and energy areas. See Dermot O’Connor and Juan Pablo Bohórquez Montoya, “Neoliberal Transformation in Colombia’s Goldfields: Development Strategy of Capitalist Imperialism?” in Capital and Society 43:2 (2010); PBI Colombia, “Mining in Colombia: at what cost?,” November 2011.
[12] PBI Colombia, “Mining in Colombia: at what cost?,” November 2011.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Dermot O’Connor and Juan Pablo Bohórquez Montoya, “Neoliberal Transformation in Colombia’s Goldfields: Development Strategy of Capitalist Imperialism?” in Capital and Society 43:2 (2010)
[20] MiningWatch Canada, CENSAT-Agua Viva and Inter Pares, “Land and Conflict: Resource Extraction, Human Rights, and Corporate Social Responsibility: Canadian Companies in Colombia,” September 2009.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] MiningWatch Canada, CENSAT-Agua Viva and Inter Pares, “Land and Conflict: Resource Extraction, Human Rights, and Corporate Social Responsibility: Canadian Companies in Colombia,” September 2009.
[24] Companies in addition to Eco Oro Minerals include AUX Canada Acquisition Ltd, Galway Resources, CB Gold, AuRo Resources Corp, Calvista Gold Corporation, and Continental Gold.
[25] Natalia Fajardo, “Water vs. Gold Mining: How a Colombian City United Against Gold Greed,” April 7, 2011.
[26] Dermot O’Connor and Juan Pablo Bohórquez Montoya, “Neoliberal Transformation in Colombia’s Goldfields: Development Strategy of Capitalist Imperialism?” in Capital and Society 43:2 (2010)
[27] See, for example, and     
[28] Norvista Resources, Accessed 4Dec11:
[29] Calvista Gold, “Calvista appoints Edgar Castellanos-Gonzales as Special Advisor to the Board,” November 14, 2011.