Mining Projects and Popular Movements in Colombia: Chasing AngloGold Ashanti

by | 17 Jan 2013

13ede7788c591f582248c40209bdc538_LThe road to Doima (Colombia), at best unpaved and bumpy, is today crossed by rivers in flood. The rivers have submerged the low concrete bridges and at the second bridge the river is so high the bus has to stop and wait for the waters to subside. The rainstorm that caused the flood gradually dies and so the river begins to sink again. It leaves behind a large branch blocking the bridge. A truck comes forward to haul it out of the way and is then the first to cross the rushing waters. Cheers go up as it reaches the other side safely and everyone piles back into the bus. Once across that river there is another river in flood to cross – we carry across a motorbike and driver in the doorway of the bus – and so finally we reach Doima, a small town of a dozen streets in the Tolima Department of Colombia.

The bus is full of environmental campaigners from Ibagué, the departmental capital, and they have come to Doima because the multinational mining company AngloGold Ashanti has come to Doima. AngloGold has come to Colombia in fact, and in a big way. The company and their subsidiaries have mining concessions over 15,000 square kilometres of the country. In February 2011 they held 496 concessions across 20 departments, with applications pending for 1340 more. The jewel in the crown of their holdings is at Cajamarca, Tolima, where they plan to construct a gold mine known as ‘La Colosa’ which may one day become the biggest gold mine in South America.

On the journey here I have been learning about La Colosa: in its exploration phase it has already been responsible for environmental violations and accusations of operating in secrecy so as to avoid having to consult local people. The company persuaded the government to allow exploration inside a forest reserve. The company points out that it is ‘only’ six hectares of the reserve, though they don’t usually point out that this area is not contiguous so covers more than that small figure would suggest.

The mine sparked protests both from locals concerned about environmental damage to agricultural land in Cajamarca and several protests of tens of thousands in nearby Ibagué. On the bus I speak to Jimmy Torres, leader of one of the campesino organisations in Cajamarca. He says the presence of the mining contractors is already causing negative social change, including bringing prostitution and violence. The nature of the local economy has changed too. “Now we have to pay with a debit card for food we once grew for free,” he says.

Our destination, Doima, in the municipality of Piedras, may be the site for the processing plant for La Colosa. This protest is happening on 23 December, the day before Christmas in Colombia, because local people have only recently discovered this. They have also had to learn what a processing plant for this type of gold mine means: large amounts of water and large amounts of toxic chemicals, including cyanide – the use of which is banned in some places, though the industry has responded to previous accidents with a voluntary code for using the chemical.

AngloGold Ashanti have not been straightforward in their dealings in Doima, according to local people. The mayor of Piedras, Arqimedes Avila Rondon, claims he was sent a letter in June of 2012 but it was unclear about what the multinational was planning. “[The company] sent the local authorities a letter around July but they only said they were going to be carrying out a survey of flora and fauna,” he said.

For months most local people knew nothing of AngloGold’s presence at all. But the company rented a house in the municipality and rumours began to circulate that they were doing geological tests. Eventually it emerged that Doima was being considered as a site for the processing plant. No other municipalities have yet come forward with knowledge of the company’s presence.

A local schoolteacher managed to organise a meeting with AngloGold representatives. The meeting was meant to be just with the schoolteachers but when company representatives arrived they found a lot more people. The area around Doima is an important agricultural area dominated by large-scale rice farming and the farmers are not happy about the idea of their water being used and possibly polluted by AngloGold Ashanti. Environmental campaigners from nearby cities also arrived at the meeting. The tone of the meeting can be judged from this video clip of the meeting posted on facebook.

Today there are a couple of hundred protesters gathered in Doima. Not many you might think, but consider it is the festive season, the town is small and difficult to reach, and many people would have been prevented from travelling by the rains. Also consider of course that AngloGold Ashanti have done their best to keep quiet about what decisions they have or have not made regarding Doima.

“We have no secrets and have had several public meetings to share with the communities and the authorities what we are doing. We will continue meeting with the people to provide further information as we advance on our work. We cannot provide information on aspects or decisions that require further analysis,” said a company spokesperson.

But the message of ‘no secrets’ rings a bit hollow when the company refuses to divulge other sites they are examining as possible locations for infrastructure. Meanwhile the people of Doima say the company pulled out of a scheduled meeting after learning that the Governor of Tolima province and environmental campaigners were going to be present. The company claimed to be unable to make the meeting for ‘logistical reasons’.

When I speak to protestors one admits to being scared at the presence of such a big company in their town. The people of this tiny town in rural Colombia find they have to go into battle against one of the world’s biggest mining companies. Talking to the mayor and a local councillor it becomes clear they are dealing with something much bigger than they are used to. The company has resources unimaginable to most of the people here. It will spend millions of dollars before it even gets at the gold. Then it will make many billions of dollars. The company is practised at getting its own way. As its ally it has the Colombian government, which has declared it wants mining to be a driver of development. The odds are a long way from being in favour of the local people – all they have is determination and the desire to protect their livelihoods.

Doima is a very small piece of a bigger picture, both here in Colombia and in the world. For me it raises a broader question of how large corporations can be held to account. Doima is one small town finding itself caught up in one part of one project by one corporation, in one industry, in one country, on one continent. Consider what it took to get one bus-load of people here to hold one small demonstration, a demonstration that both AngloGold Ashanti and the Colombian government are quite capable of ignoring. The enormity of the challenge – the impossibility, if we are to be honest – of holding multinational corporations to account in these circumstances cannot be overstated.

I am here at this protest with a researcher who has been monitoring AngloGold Ashanti’s project at Cajamarca for two years, with few resources and not enough people. The project funding ran out some time ago but he continues to work for free. The project is aimed not so much at forcing AngloGold Ashanti to behave well here as at documenting how a big mining company operates in a poor part of the global South.

The reason for monitoring AngloGold Ashanti is not so much because they are particularly devilish as a company but because they are normal. To commit an environmental violation and pay a few million dollars in fines – small change for a company like this – is normal. To operate against the will of the local people is normal. To buy their way, perhaps through judicious but ‘legitimate’ contracts, into an unassailable political position is normal.

The researcher has already had to drop several of the themes he wanted to report on for lack of time. He and his fellow researcher don’t have time or resources to write about new developments such as the company’s presence in Doima. He interviews a few people in the town anyway. He seems unsurprised by how the company has behaved here. He says that in Cajamarca the company deliberately targeted opponents of the project to offer them jobs.

Jimmy Torres says something similar when I ask about local support for the mine. “About 30% of people in Cajamarca are now benefiting from the mine,” he says. “Either they or their relatives are working for AngloGold.” This makes it easy for the company to claim they have local support even though the majority may not be benefiting. Meanwhile Jimmy sees a conflict of interest among some of the local councillors who support the project. “Some councillors also have relatives who are working for the company,” he says.

It isn’t always easy to know what AngloGold Ashanti is up to here, even for those monitoring the project. The company conducts many of its operations as secretly as possible, as it has tried to do in Doima. They would probably say they need to keep secrets from their competitors. But now they have the concession for the site of La Colosa they have no real competitors for that site. They appear to be keeping secrets from people simply so they are harder to call to account.

It is very difficult for people who live in rural areas to find out where in Colombia AngloGold has concessions. It is even harder to find out what they plan to do in each concession area. There has never been a list in the public domain of the names of the front companies they have used in Colombia or the partners they are working with. The company will tell you it is none of your business, but the people who live in those areas being prepared for exploitation do see it as their business. AngloGold will tell them only what it absolutely has to, which often isn’t much. The company asked to meet with Jimmy Torres but when he insisted on seeing their exploration works and bringing other community members and journalists with him, the company said no.

AngloGold Ashanti has upset a lot of people in its history of operations and will likely continue to do so with virtual impunity, but I think it is important to view this as a problem not with AngloGold Ashanti but with all corporations. The reason it is hard to hold corporations to account is that they are not meant to be accountable. From the start they were designed so that those running them would not have to pay for their mistakes. Over the years the rights companies have acquired through legislatures and courts have only made them less accountable.

The problem with corporations goes right back to their roots. In the year 1600 in London royal assent was given for the creation of the East India Company, which was to have the monopoly on trade with the ‘East Indies’. It was not quite the first limited liability profit-making company but it was one of the first and it would become the greatest. ‘The Company’ ruled over most of India, creating its own civil service and its own army. The strength of its lobbying in parliament ensured that it kept its monopoly even as problems became evident.

And the problems of the East India Company were on a scale appropriate to its vast size. As its control over India grew it slowly became evident that this private company was not suited to rule a country. The Bengal Famine of 1770, a product partly of Company policies and in which a third of the inhabitants of the region died, caused an outcry in Britain and the government passed an act to take much more control over the company. In the years that followed, the British government, in response to concerns over The Company’s management of India, took more and more control of the company.

But The Company was still running India in 1857, when the ‘Mutiny’, or Indian Rebellion, as it became known, saw the Company’s own soldiers rise up against British rule. Many thousands of people were killed, first in the uprising itself, then in the bloody British retaliations. There were many reasons for the Rebellion but the assessment of the British government and many British citizens afterwards was that it could have been avoided with better management of the Indian regiments. The following year the British government took control of India, relieving the company of all administrative powers and its army. The company continued in much reduced form and was dissolved entirely within twenty years.

Perhaps the final fate of the East India Company looks like a punishment but it is important to notice what did not happen. None of the directors of the company were ever held personally responsible for the Bengal Famine, or the Indian Rebellion, or any of the other more minor catastrophes it caused. None of those who got fabulously rich from Company trade went to prison or had to pay reparations to either British or Indian citizens killed by their policies. The limited liability that had begun as simply limited financial liability had become, no doubt with the help of the political influence of The Company, a limited liability for ethical failures.

This situation has never been rectified. Just as the British government stepped in to clear up the mess left by the Company, so the British government stepped in to clear up the mess left by banks in the recent financial crisis. And who, of all those who brought the global financial systems to the edge of collapse, has been punished? A few lost their jobs, but very few, and it can’t be said that many of those involved were held to account for their self-enriching failures – certainly not in proportion to the magnitude of the suffering they caused.

So those running AngloGold Ashanti have little to worry about. It is a rare thing indeed for a company CEO or director to be held to account for their mistakes. It is true that corporations are rarely allowed to directly rule countries any more, though United Fruit once came close in Guatamala. But the lack of accountability for the ethical failures of companies continues to this day, remaining in place with the assistance of a powerful political lobby.

The existence of corporations in their current unaccountable form seems so natural to some that it often goes unquestioned. Much effort goes into trying to hold them to account all over the world. The work is important and successes do happen. But in the end perhaps we have to look at the history of the corporation and see that we are fighting a losing battle.

Where hope lies is in imagining, and asserting, that it is perfectly possible to do productive economic organising while holding the bodies and people involved to account. We need to ask what mechanisms we would have to introduce to allow us to know what a company is doing and to make the decision-makers personally responsible for their failures.

The British government also made another ‘mistake’ at the time of the Indian Rebellion: it failed to consider that the East India Company simply shouldn’t be there. It failed to respond to the call of hundreds of thousands of Indians who had made it clear they didn’t want the company in India. This is another aspect of the broader lack of accountability of corporations. They are not accountable to the communities in which they operate. They are not meant to be accountable to local communities.

As the protesting people of Doima march into their town square one of the most popular chants is very simple: AngloGold, AngloGold, fuera, fuera! AngloGold, AngloGold, out, out!

But La Colosa mine looks likely to go ahead and it will need somewhere to put its processing plant, if not in Doima then in some other town. Meanwhile the company is starting other projects in other parts of Colombia. If I can I will get to those locations too in order to ask what is happening. But the difficulty of chasing AngloGold Ashanti in this one remote location is a microcosm of holding corporations to account all over the world. What we are doing will never be enough.

A project to change corporations would be long-term and a tough political struggle. Who knows were we would end up? But this day provides a few starting points. Accountable corporations would firstly be transparent, except where innovations genuinely require secrecy for competitive advantage. Secondly they would have to answer to the people they affect. Thirdly, and above all, laws would have to be rewritten to make decision-makers in corporations personally accountable, both nationally and internationally, for their decisions.

As we leave Doima for the big city I find myself thinking that without such changes we could ford every flooded river in every remote location in the world and we would still have only the most minimal effect on corporate behaviour.


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