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Mining (I): Destroying and displacing indigenous people

Colombia. Companies in Taraira have been exploiting the mine for more than thirty years, and in Caquetá they have polluted the water. One problem is that legal regulations in Colombia do not require a licence for the exploration stage.

 

  Juanjo Andrés Cuervo

 

After the Yaigojé-Apaporis region was named a national park in 2009, the mining company Cosigo carried out an order to extract resources in the area. The land has been inhabited by indigenous communities for thousands of years and more than eight different ethnic groups currently live there. They decided to join forces to start a defence campaign in court against the mining company.

The Association of Indigenous Leaders of Yaigojé/Apaporis (ACIYA) was at the forefront of the resistance, along with Nelson Ortiz, an expert in cultural and environmental governance, who has followed the development and investigation of the national park. The anthropologist and coordinator of the Latin-American network ‘Yes to Life, No to Mining’ also took part in the research process, which has helped to bring the case to international attention.

Nelson Ortiz states that “in areas such as Taraira, companies have been exploiting the land for over 30 years, and in Caquetá they have contaminated the water”. He emphasises the spiritual importance of the area, which is managed by Shamans who live in a subsistence economy.

Finally, the Constitutional Court ordered the mining company to evacuate the national park Yaigojé-Apaporis, “prioritising the indigenous people’s welfare and defying the mining law”, Mariana Gómez points out.

Talking to The Prisma, they explain the defence process in the Yaigojé-Apaporis region and the repercussions of mining activity in Colombia.

Following the removal of the mining company, how is the situation in Yaigojé-Apaporis?

Nelson: For the last three years, the local research groups of varied ethnicity from Apaporis have been carrying out work related to the natural resources and sacred sites found in the national park. Their objective is to create a special system to manage the indigenous reservation.

It is a peaceful situation, they want to restrict all mining activity, support the creation of the park and find out how much power the Constitutional Court has in terms of sentencing the mining company and the potential penalties this entails.

How much do regions suffer due to mining?

Nelson: They are sacred systems full of biodiversity. This problem affects the indigenous community, as has been seen in Taraira, where they have been exploiting the mine for more than 30 years, or in Caquetá, where they have contaminated the water.

The world view of the indigenous people is based on the spiritual control of these sacred places, which make up a system formed by energy cycles. Furthermore, the most sacred place in the region, Raudal de la Libertad, is located in this area. According to mythology, it is there that human consciousness was awoken.

Mariana: They have practically a subsistence economy because of this management of energy, and they plan the calendar of productive activities according to natural cycles, which provides them with the basic sustenance to live on.

ACIYA has been a part of the process to protect the park, whereas the Association of Indigenous Leaders of Taraira-Vaupes (ACTIAVA) was in support of the mining. What conflict has there been between these two organisations formed by indigenous people?

Nelson: The area forms part of two provinces. Depending on the location, therefore, political matters are carried out in Leticia and Mitú, the capitals of the two respective provinces, and there has always been conflict due to these jurisdictional boundaries.

Many people came to Apaporis to mine for gold and settled in communities close to Raudal de la Libertad, so Cosigo went there and convinced the communities to pressure the ACIYA to allow them to mine in that region.

Consequently, the traditional authorities of the original ethnic groups from Apaporis made the decision not to allow this exploitation and this caused a divide between the communities.

Finally, ACIYA broke apart and the local communities in the Vaupes area near to la Libertad which supported the mining company formed ACITAVA.

The focus of this organisation was on making a claim against the creation of the Yaigojé National Park. This made managing the land difficult for the Shamans, but thanks to ACIYA these communities have reintegrated.

How did they begin to defend themselves against the company?

Nelson: The negotiations were started by the traditional savants of the indigenous towns in the region.

The ‘Cerro de la Libertad’ is an important place for more than 30 indigenous peoples in the region. There was a lot of concern because the entire Shamanistic system is affected, as the Shamans use these sacred places to perform their spiritual functions.

The communities of Apaporis called Gaia Amazonas to help defend their case and they discovered that the National Nature Parks are the only aspect of Colombian land management regulations that protects the subsoil against threats from mining exploitation.

Mariana: It has been a success because the creation of the park has reinforced their traditional thinking and they are passing this on to the young people.

Could the victory of the indigenous people be an incentive to remove other companies?

Mariana: It’s a national point of reference because we have inadequate legal regulations that don’t require a permit for the exploration stage.

In fact, mining law states that “mining is in the public and national interest”, which means that a company can request a mining licence and this interest takes priority over the welfare of both society and nature.

The interesting thing in the case of Yaigojé is that it challenges this article of the mining law, as the Constitutional Court recognises that the wellbeing of the indigenous people takes priority over mining.

It’s an unusual case, as the Colombian Amazon is a region that is lacking in industry. Other indigenous peoples could create national parks. This requires the presence of certain principles of biodiversity, such as specific geographical and natural characteristics. For example, in the region of piedemonte in Caquetá, near the city of Florence, the inhabitants have a small reservation and in that case the creation of a national park wouldn’t be an alternative for them.

 (Translated by Lucy Daghorn – Email: lucy.daghorn@gmail.com)

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