AngloGold Ashanti, one of South Africa's biggest mining multinationals, is currently concerned about their investment of over US$255 million in Colombia. Chris Lodder, president of explorations of AngloGold Ashanti for the Americas, has described Colombia as a 'diamond in the rough'.
Although it has gone mostly unreported by the South African media, AngloGold's arrival, activities, and potential exploitation of gold, has not been celebrated by many in the Colombian communities where the company wants to operate.
AngloGold in Colombia
AngloGold Ashanti arrived in 1999 in Colombia. Only in 2007 did the largest newspaper in the country -El Tiempo- write an article saying that the South African multinational was interested in La Colosa, a municipality in the Andes with possibly one of the biggest reserves of gold in the world. But AngloGold Ashanti's interests go far beyond La Colosa.
Although the Ministry of Mines in Colombia doesn't keep an exact track of mining titles in the country, in 2012 the independent website La Silla Vacía was able to establish AngloGold Ashanti had around 422 mining titles in Colombia, which translated to 781,573 hectares, distributed in 21 of Colombia's 32 departments.
AngloGold Ashanti has acknowledged that they hold a significant land position, but this doesn't mean they are looking to exploit gold in all of the mining titles they hold. According to the company, they requested 13 million hectares and were granted 8 million, but remain the biggest holder of mining titles for gold exploitation in Colombia.
The town that said 'no' to AngloGold
The place AngloGold Ashanti is most interested in right now is Cajamarca, a small municipality in the Andes mountains where AngloGold expects to create one of their biggest mining pits in the world, La Colosa. One year ago the company announced that La Colosa could have around 24 million ounces of gold (which would be equivalent to US$36 billion, or 10% of the Colombian Gross Domestic Product).
Although AngloGold Ashanti needs permission from the Colombian Minister of Environment to start exploitation in La Colosa (and this hasn't been granted yet), the company already has offices and representatives settled in the region doing explorations for which they don't need this legal permission.
Their presence has not gone unnoticed in Piedras, a small municipality near Cajamarca, which AngloGold Ashanti is considering as the base for separating the gold from the mountain rock. The process involves dangerous chemicals such as cyanide, zinc oxide, and large amounts of water.
Piedras is a place where farmers mostly cultivate rice, and also need large amounts of water.
In February, farmers from Piedras blocked the only bridge that employees of AngloGold Ashanti can use to enter La Colosa. After the protests, Cortolima (the local environmental authority) ordered the suspension of activities of AngloGold. The company lodged a legal complaint against Cortolima's director and against the peasant leaders of the protests.
While tensions rose, a Colombian control institution published an investigation that increased the community's concern. According to it, and hydrologist and geochemist Robert Moran who works for the Dutch NGO Pax Christi, the La Colosa project could generate 160 000 tons a day of residues (when cities like Buenos Aires only produce 5000 tons a day). AngloGold Ashanti says these figures are wrong and are contesting the published research.
At the end of July 2013, the community of Piedras voted in a referendum on AngloGold Ashanti in their territory. 3007 voted (59% of the possible voters) and 2971 voted against the company.
AngloGold Ashanti stated in several Colombian newspapers that the question in the referendum was worded misleadingly, since it implied that the company was going to affect the environment and the health of the community. "We consider that the community is concerned due to a lack of knowledge on how the mining process happens," it said, insisting that AngloGold Ashanti respects environmental and human rights in their operations all over the world.
Mining in the middle of an armed conflict
One of the biggest dilemmas AngloGold faces in Colombia is that the company is expecting to exploit in areas where an armed conflict has been present. Its behavior in such a delicate context has not been considered appropriate by many farmers and small scale miners.
For example, in Cajamarca, during a meeting with local environmental authorities and opposition groups last February, a local journalist took a picture of the vice president of the company, Rafael Hertz, in conversation with his communication officer. According to the latter it was possible to identify guerrilla fighters among the opposition groups.
This is a very dangerous claim to make if one considers that some people identified without evidence as guerrilla fighters in Colombia, have ended up victims of paramilitary groups or detained by state authorities.
Groups opposed to AngloGold have laid a legal complaint against the officer. Their lawyer, Juan Ceballos, said: "the peasants are not guerrilla fighters, they are being stigmatized because they have been against the mining project".
According to other communities, AngloGold Ashanti has increased military tensions in the region. In 2008, The Guardian published an article where a small-scale miner from Bolivar (in the northern part of Colombia) explained their concerns:
"Since March 2006, when the community said no to the multinational interests of AngloGold Ashanti and its subsidiary Kedahada SA, there has been strong military presence in the Sur de Bolivar. Miners and their communities have been threatened, houses burned down and even food for school lunches stolen in an attempt to 'persuade' us to welcome the multinationals."
Although these accusations are against the armed forces of Colombia and not AngloGold Ashanti, the fact that the company holds mining titles in a region where armed groups are present is controversial. One such place is La Toma, an Afrocolombian community that has practiced traditional mining since the 17th century.
In La Toma, people have struggled against paramilitary groups that want to mine in order to finance armed activities and money laundering. People were surprised to learn in 2009 that AngloGold Ashanti was also interested in exploiting 1404 hectares of land there.
In 2010, the Colombian Constitutional Court declared invalid the mining titles that the company held, since it didn't consult the community. According to the Colombian Constitution, traditional Afrocolombian communities have the right to be consulted before any economic project is developed in their territory.
Knowing that their case was not exceptional, and that AngloGold was also interested in other fields where the armed conflict is present, in 2012, a group of Afrocolombian leaders, with the support of other NGOs, sent a letter to AngloGold with several requests. One of them related to the violence in Colombia:
"Given the intensifying armed conflict in Cauca, the continuous threats, the invasions of illegal heavy equipment, the presence of different illegal armed actors and the situation of public order, that AGA accept that this area is temporarily a no-go zone for concessions, exploration projects or mining development until such time that there are appropriate conditions of peace and respect for fundamental ethnic rights".
For more than a month GroundUp has sent numerous emails to AngloGold Ashanti requesting their comments on claims made in this article. To date we have received no reply.