Malformations, acid rain, cancer, skin problems, ruined crops, irreparable environmental damage… Death… For 35 years the indigenous Zenú people have watched as their lands, and they themselves, have been destroyed by the extraction of minerals.
Virginia Moreno Molina
Mining is nothing new in Colombia. Nor is the widespread extermination of indigenous communities or threats and even death for those determined to defend their land.
Land where mineral deposits seem to be more important than human lives or the basic human rights violations suffered by the communities living on it.
This time it is the indigenous Zenú people in the department of Córdoba, Colombia, who for decades have endured toxic emissions from the Cerro Matoso mine.
Since May 2015 the mine has been owned by South 32, a multinational company registered in Britain. Its previous owner was BHP Billiton, which owned the concession for around 30 years.
Irrael Manuel Aguilar Solano is the former cacique of the Zenú community and now its leader, and from the outset has dealt with the problems caused by use of the mine, problems that are threatening the local people.
As a result, he has had to deal with defenders of the mine and the associated implications in a country like Colombia. For more than twenty years, however, threats, companies and even governments have not managed to break his spirit.
The Zenú people are one of the 34 indigenous groups at risk of cultural and physical extinction, the Colombian Constitutional Tribunal found in 2009.
“For more than 35 years the company has been open-pit mining nickel, and over time this has devastated the area. Most worrying are the effects on the local population,” Irrael explains.
He also says that “there is a strong union of workers who, for one reason or another, were useful to the mine, and who have since been dying one after the other.”
Specifically, medical reports presented to the Court of State Legal Medical Services indicated that the indigenous peoples living around the mines displayed highly elevated levels of nickel in their blood and urine, far exceeding the safe levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.
The ex-cacique spoke to The Prisma about the problem and his open battle.
An open battle
Since 2001 Irrael Aguilar has been trying to warn authorities and the company of the effects of the mining on the area and its inhabitants. He has never been listened to.
As a result, between 2012 and 2013 the ethnic communities of the Alto San Jorge Zenú Reservations, along with Afro-descendent communities, took up legal action with local agencies.
Other indigenous and non-indigenous communities also live on the site, but declined to join the trial, citing “considerable weakness, suspicion and extensive intimidation”.
Neither the Montería tribunal nor its counterpart in Cundinamarca, however, was able to safeguard their basic human rights, leaving them once again exposed to continued pollution and destruction of the population.
That is why they decided, in 2017, to take the fight to a national level, and bring their complaint to the Constitutional Court. In 2018 the court issued a sentence (Decisión T-733 de 2017) that agreed that “there were causal links to the suffering of the human population and irreversible damage caused to the environment of our mother earth”.
The company, however, has appealed the decision, which ordered them to pay compensation and implement corrective measures as a result of the lethal cardiac and lung problems caused by the pollution.
One of the magistrates who participated in the trial has since withdrawn from it. “It is no surprise that the company is using its economic and political power,” Irrael explains. “We are aware of numerous bribes paid to judges and lawyers, of the many ways they twist trials,” he says, and adds that “we believe that the company is trying to use bribery to interfere in the trial so that it will rule in their favour”.
“The more we put pressure on the groups involved in the area, the more we feel the threats continue to rise,” Irrael says.
Over the years, and especially as a result of the on-going legal action, intimidation aimed at him and leaders of other chapters has become more frequent. Just last month, the governor of the Guacarí-La Odisea chapter “was attacked by two people on motorbikes”.
Once again, the leaders of these communities are unprotected. And while it is unclear exactly who is behind these acts, the community leaders believe that there are links to armed groups.
As yet there have been no murders in Zenú as a result of the situation, but the harassment continues to exist. It must be remembered, however, that the indigenous community reports 59 murders of indigenous representatives in Colombia since the peace treaty was signed in 2016.
Health and the environment
As a consequence of the company’s mining activity, health problems among the inhabitants of Zenú have become apparent. Some of the most common symptoms include skin problems. “Here we call it the itch, and it is incurable, both with medicine or in hospital”, the ex-cacique explains. There has also been an increase in the number of sudden fevers, miscarriages, lung problems and, especially, an rise in cancer.
Moreover, the use of chemical and explosive materials to treat the nickel and the exploitation of the land have had a devastating impact on the environment.
Irrael says that since the company arrived it has been growing strategically and taking possession of areas of land. “Local communities have been confined to hamlets of terraced houses, villages that lack even the smallest area of land to allow us to carry out economic activities.”
It is a desperate situation for a community in which the land plays a vital role in daily life, and to which they now have scarce access.
“This all puts our population’s economic system at risk, since we make our livings from agriculture and the cultivation of vegetables,” Irrael explains. The community’s production is almost zero due to “acid rain that destroys the land, and deformities in fruit”.
In fact, pollution has reached such critical levels that the local people are not guaranteed water that is fit for drinking, domestic or agricultural use.
Aspects of their indigenous identity, such as the vueltiao hat, are also being lost. “We do not even have the plant to extract the fibre we need to make it, which comes from a palm tree that grows on the riverbed. Everything has been destroyed,” he says angrily.
Activities such as the exchange of products or the traditional job of the barequeo – people who washed gold on the beaches for daily use and to sustain their families – have almost disappeared, and the blame rests with mining and its effects.
What is clear is that their economic system is collapsing, and putting their survival in danger.
“What is at stake here is a generation of a people, of an ethnic group,” says Irrael. “We are fighting for the human existence of our generations which is being lost.”
He reports that no safeguards have been provided to protect or conserve the “little bit of cultural identity and indigenous roots that exist”.
Moreover, all they ask is to be able to participate in the trial. “We are not trying to get rich, but we do not want to be left to die, either, or have our common wellbeing taken away, or see the environment destroyed for our future generations.”
“If we do not fight today, our future generations will be left dead land.” In short, a change in company and governmental policies. “A human life is not worth less than a deposit of nickel, or copper, or gold, or coal. Life must come before all these minerals,” he concludes.
*At the time of writing, the indigenous Zenú community is awaiting a Constitutional Court response to the appeal of (Decisión T-733 de 2017).
(Translated by Kit Sedgwick)