The murder of this environmental leader in 2020 revealed that gold and timber mafias have been exploiting the Farallones National Park, a water and oxygen factory in the Colombian Pacific, without control.
A week before he was murdered, Jaime Monge Amann asked his daughter, Alexandra, whether she knew if he was affiliated with the funeral home along with his family group.
“Sure, Dad, everyone in the house is affiliated. Why are you asking me these things?”, Alexandra answered him in that phone call in mid-August 2020, which she now considers premonitory. At the time, she didn’t pay attention to that.
It was not that Jaime was sick. For 25 years he had left the comforts of the city to live in the Villacarmelo rural district, at the entrance to the Farallones National Natural Park, 14 kilometers West of Cali.
The land where he arrived was pure forest and he practically kept it that way. Jaime built just a cabin near the Melendez River and devoted himself to cultivating the land and exploring the mountain. Then he set up a lodge, a restaurant and gave shape to what is now known as Pachamama, an ecotourism farm where he offered visitors ecological hikes and workshops to learn about the environmental treasure of the Farallones, the youngest rock formations of the Western Cordillera that connects Cali with the Colombian Pacific, as well as the importance of the Nasa and Yanacona indigenous cultures –ancestral inhabitants of the region. About six months before the call to Alexandra, Jaime had felt that his presence in the area was becoming unsustainable and generating discomfort. He received comments.
“It’s very hard that he expressed that, that he knew something was going to happen to him. And I remember he told me that he was still going to fight. And sometimes you don’t think things are that dangerous, that hard. Those were our last conversations,” Alexandra recalls, sitting in the office where she works as a human resources lawyer. There is an air of uneasiness in her green eyes.
At the beginning of August 2020, when people came out of their homes again after a long quarantine in the country due to the pandemic, Jaime was in a new mood. He was happy that visitors had returned to Pachamama, the place he had conceived for city dwellers to smear themselves with nature, plant trees and camp. Jaime counted some 160 trails around the farm, many of which feature waterfalls and springs.
In the Farallones National Park, which extends for almost 196,429 hectares within the perimeter of the municipalities of Cali, Dagua, Jamundi and Buenaventura, there are 30 rivers and 84 streams. There are peaks that reach 4,100 meters above sea level. It is a treasure located just fifteen minutes from the chaotic city of Cali, which accounts for 2.2 million people.
During those days, the children had returned to their courses at Pachamama. The farm was alive again. Jaime was able again to give workshops, to grow avocados of a variety locally known as papelillos, and to meet with friends he had not seen for months.
On August 18, around 10:00 a.m., a man arrived at Pachamama and looked for Jaime among several peasants who at that time were talking about the avocado harvest and the idea of selling them in the city. He shot him in the back.
Not even Alexandra was aware of the number of people who loved and knew of Jaime’s work, who laid face down, dead instantly, in a scene he may have once feared that could happen.
Jaime’s concerns had been further heightened by the murder of Jorge Enrique Oramas, another environmental manager whom he had to bury months earlier. They were neighbors. Oramas was shot dead on May 16 at point-blank range, during the national Covid-19 quarantine, in circumstances not yet clarified by the authorities. The environmentalism and human rights world in Valle del Cauca was greatly disturbed by the crime.
“He was a clear defender of the biodiversity in the Farallones park, irreducible opponent of mining exploitation and extractivism”The Colombian Sociological Association about Jorge Enrique Oramas
The Colombian Sociological Association said something in a statement that gave clues as to what was happening in the Farallones area. “As part of his leadership, Oramas reported and challenged the large monopolies of multinational fertilizer, seed and defoliating companies totally favored by the country’s ruling elites for decades. He was a clear defender of the biodiversity in the Farallones park, irreducible opponent of mining exploitation and extractivism,” it said.
Juan Bello, head of the UN Environment office in Colombia, also reacted to the murder in a tweet. “Let’s fight for a world in which defending nature and caring for a healthy environment does not cost a life,” he wrote.
Oramas had an association called Biocanto del Milenio. It was a kind of farm located in the La Candelaria vereda, where he cultivated ancestral cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth, fruits, roots and organic medicinal plants, under the philosophy that food nourishes the body and cures diseases. The proceeds from commercialization were used to nutritionally support the same peasants who worked the land.
When the quarantine was just beginning, Oramas recorded a video on his cell phone. It captured, in a few seconds, his way of seeing the world. He was wearing a pink shirt, an indigenous backpack and a red hat. From the images, you could see his deep bags under his eyes and his mole on his left eyelid. Behind him, the farm, the banana sticks, the sound of the bugs and the water. “We have to respect the rights that the land itself has, so that we can live and she can live. She is happy because she is recovering from so many affronts that have been inflicted on her by a bunch of crazy people that today are confined”, he is seen saying.
Monge and Oramas had much in common. First, they were contemporaries. The former was 62 years old, the latter was 70. Neither of them remained silent when they saw that illegal gold mining began to irremediably perforate the upper part of the Farallones.
They did not remain silent when they saw that strangers were entering the mountain to cut fine timber trees down without any type of authorization. They talked about it openly with the community, according to several testimonies collected in the area. Monge and Oramas exercised leadership. The indigenous people and peasants used to consult them when they had problems, from the most everyday problems such as a fight between neighbors, to the threats that circulated for those who dared to talk about the gold mines.
What is happening in the Farallones that their leaders are being killed?
“The big problem is the enormous plundering of this natural paradise, and it is plundered by very prominent people from Cali and illegal loggers and gold miners. It is an unnatural plundering because no environmental permits are granted. And whoever reports gets killed. These are not the only crimes, there are more murders, from long ago,” says another environmental leader in the area who has been living in the area around the mountain for years. He does not dare to give his name for fear of suffering the same fate as his acquaintances.
“I am absolutely sure of the connection between serious situations in the park and the assassination of leaders. It is obvious. That’s why they are killed. Trucks arrive and in 15 days they cut down 20 hectares of jungle without any control. And they don’t cut down in one place so that the space is not visible, they do it selectively. They are filibusters, pirates, they don’t respect anything,” he adds.
According to what this man has perceived over the last two years, there are mafias operating in the Farallones National Park that illegally extract fine wood, despite the fact that national parks enjoy constitutional protection and that activities such as deforestation and mining are strictly prohibited inside them. The Mayor of Cali, Jorge Ivan Ospina, has said that armed groups are behind this business. Although unofficially, the authorities mention the Clan del Golfo, Las Aguilas Negras and Los Pelusos as the illegal armed stakeholders behind the gold business, there is no clear identification in the public eye. They are only said to be paramilitaries.
These threats have also been directed at public officials who guard Farallones. Between 2012 and 2018, eight threats against park rangers were recorded, according to information from National Parks included in this otherreport from Land of Resistants.
“A tree can cost 25-30 million pesos. And if you turn it into a piece of furniture, the price skyrockets. Colombia has some of the most precious wood in the world, there you see purplehearts or black oaks that are in great demand on the black market,” the source adds. According to National Parks, among the most representative tree species are oak, phragmotheca, media-cara, encenillo, milky way, trumpet, elephant-ear and balsa trees.
Although the Oramas and Monge farms are outside the perimeter of the national park, they do appear on the map at the entrance of the protected area. The illegal activities that the authorities have been able to detect are occurring in the higher parts of the park, more precisely in a place known as Alto del Buey, which are difficult to access and are more than six hours uphill from the Villacarmelo rural district.
At the end of January 2021, the Mayor of Cali, Jorge Ivan Ospina, said that illegal mining in the Farallones had continued during the days of the Covid-19 pandemic: “We continue to have irresponsible people who are deteriorating our ecosystem and endangering the water supply for future generations,” Ospina told the press, adding that it was his responsibility to seek the support from the National Government because it is a National Parks’ jurisdiction that exceeds the capacity of the Mayor’s Office. The press office of the Administrative Department of Environmental Management (Dagma in Spanish), the municipal environmental authority, did not respond to questions made for this report about the actions taken in the area.
According to Robinson Galindo, Director of the Pacific Territorial Office of the National Parks, 700 hectares have been devastated by mining in the last two decades.
Illegal gold mining in Alto del Buey has not only brought irreparable damage to the environment, but also violence.
“Threats to leaders and assassinations are worrisome. And the problem is that Monge and Oramas had a high level of knowledge of environmental issues. They don’t kill those who don’t know anything. They kill the one who knows what is going on up there,” says another environmentalist who lived in the Farallones until the pandemic began in March last year.
He returned to Cali because he realized that his life was already compromised. After Oramas and Monge, he felt that the next one to be killed could be him.
At the entrance of the Farallones, kinkajous –monkey-sized carnivorous mammals– have recently been seen electrocuted hanging from light poles. They are like tiny bears, related to raccoons and coatis. After five minutes of going up the unpaved road, the cement disappears and you see burrowing parrots and blue butterflies hanging around near the power lines. It is inevitable to think that the animals have been threatened by the growth of the city towards the mountains. The dead kinkajous are a sign of this, according to a young guide who lives not far from there. Like many interviewees, he prefers to not reveal his name for this report.
The Farallones National Park is a mountain range in the western mountain range of the Andes, which since 1968 protects more than 196,000 hectares that connect Cali with the Colombian Pacific. These majestic and famous blue peaks, which can be seen from the city on days with little cloud cover, are the youngest rock formations in the Andes.
According to National Parks, 109 species of mammals live in this paradise, which encompasses four different ecosystems: Tropical rainforest, sub-Andean rainforest, high Andean forest and moorland. There are pumas, panthers, ocelots, foxes and spectacled bears. There are marsupials, five species of primates, anteaters, sloths, squirrels, rabbits, otters, peccaries, tatabros, deers, mountain pacas, agoutis, armadillos, nasuas.
About 540 species of birds, representing more than a quarter of their total in the country, which also has the largest number of them in the world, coexist with them. In addition, it is a reserve of unique and endangered species in Colombia and the world. The Calidris Association, which studies and protects aquatic birds, lists the Cauca guan (Penelope perspicax) as one of those 55 bird species that are both endemic to Colombia and endangered.
Tomás Muñoz is a farmer and environmentalist who has been living and studying the fauna and flora of the Farallones for 45 years. His experience has been of great help to biologists and expeditioners that have gone to the area to study the ecosystems and animals. The white beard and the explorer hat are his unmistakable signature. When it comes to talking about fauna, he can name just from the top of his head pumas, ocelots, spectacled bears and some marsupials that were unheard of twenty years ago. By the hand of the Icesi University, he is studying a bird typical of the area known as the multicolored tangara, whose feathers look like a painter’s palette: They are green, orange, blue, yellow. It is a majestic animal.
Farallones is especially a water and oxygen factory. These mountains are the source of more than 30 rivers and 80 streams that irrigate Southwestern Colombia. Six of those tributaries flow into Cali. The aqueduct of that city, one of the most important in Colombia, has the Cauca, Melendez, Pance and Cali Rivers as its sources. The latter rises in Alto del Buey, precisely the point where illegal gold mining is taking place. The Anchicaya River, the largest river in the national park, is one of the tributaries that serves the Bajo Anchicaya dam, operated by Celsia, for energy generation. This plant is located within the park’s perimeter, according to Celsia.
In addition to its water value, Farallones is a natural reserve that contributes to mitigating climate change for two reasons. First, it fulfills the ecological function of storing greenhouse gases, something it can only do if its ecosystems are preserved in the long term.
“the height of the Farallones formation generates an important climatic regulation that can be represented in the decrease of temperature by several degrees Celsius for the entire Andean region of the Park”National Parks
In addition, according to National Parks, “it is evident that the height of the Farallones formation generates an important climatic regulation that can be represented in the decrease of temperature by several degrees Celsius for the entire Andean region of the Park, especially for the municipalities of Santiago de Cali and Jamundi.” This is fundamental in order to avoid extreme weather events, in a country that is highly vulnerable to the social and environmental effects from droughts and floods. In fact, in the afternoons, Cali receives winds that come from the Pacific through the Farallones and that serve as a kind of balm that cleans the air.
Tomas Muñoz focuses on the moor mosses or bryophytes, which have been hardly investigated in the Farallones. “These mosses are the natural heroes because they absorb water and form a kind of mattress,” he explains.
In short, it is a biodiverse and extremely valuable territory for the city and the region of Valle del Cauca.
All this wealth is being consumed by illegal mining and timber mafias.
“With the pandemic, it skyrocketed. There was no one up there and they could do whatever they wanted. They recruited the same young people from the territory to go up the mountain,” says one of the environmentalists whose identity is kept secret.
Councilwoman Ana Erazo, from the Polo Democratico Alternativo political party, is one of those few voices in Cali that has put her finger on the sore spot of illegal mining and has raised her voice about a problem that generates dangers and risks to life. She is young, dark-skinned, thin and does not mince words. Sitting in the center of the empty and ceremonial council chamber in times of pandemic, she brings out a list of denunciations she has been making over the last few months.
According to what she has been able to document, there are 406 illegal gold mining tunnels in the mountain, 37 of which are still active. They are exactly in a place known as El Socorro mines in El Alto del Buey, very close to the Felidia and Pichinde Rivers.
“We have found that it is not only people from the city of Cali who are carrying out this activity, they are coming from Cauca and Tolima to extract gold. They are undermining the mountain so much that it could collapse, not to mention the deforestation. They are taking the animals, affecting the water basins with cyanide, the rivers are drying up because of these actions in the territory. This is unfortunate,” she says.
Her warnings coincide with reports from other people.
“This is serious because it is a young and very fragile mountain range. These are loose soils. If they are loaded with water, they collapse. Illegal mining has not only affected biodiversity, but caused a social deterioration, it has hurt families,” says another person who has witnessed it.
A few months ago, with the accompaniment of soldiers from the Army’s High Mountain Battalion No. 3, Erazo was able to reach one of the highest peaks of the Farallones. In a journey of only one kilometer she saw five tunnels. The images she took show the holes left by gold extraction, which from the top look like clay stains surrounded by what experts call lunar patches, lakes contaminated with mercury and cyanide. Those are irrecoverable soils, like wounds that fester in the ground, the Pachamama that Jaime Monge fought so hard to protect.
What are the authorities doing? By May 2020, the Army, with the support of National Parks, apprehended eight people during that month who had been caught allegedly illegally extracting gold in a protected area. At the end of the year, the Army claimed to have captured the “maximum leader” of illegal mining in the Farallones. However, today he is free, as are the other persons captured. This was acknowledged by Lieutenant Colonel Andres Valencia Velasquez, commander of the High Mountain Battalion, in a political control debate that Councilwoman Erazo convened on December 7. The officer said in this scenario that this situation occurred because in Colombia there is no crime for those who are not caught in a mine flagrantly. “They let them free and we have to recapture them. There are people we have captured four, five and even six times, unfortunately,” he said. About the officer’s statement it would be worth saying that, although it is true that there is no criminal type that allows stopping these activities except in cases of flagrancy, there are indeed crimes enshrined against the environment.
“They let them free and we have to recapture them. There are people we have captured four, five and even six times, unfortunately”Colonel Andres Valencia Velasquez, commander of the High Mountain Battalion
Controlling such a rugged and inaccessible area is a complex task. At more than 3,200 meters above sea level, even Army communications are interrupted. Low temperatures are not a minor issue for soldiers camping there. And there are not many of them guarding Alto del Buey. Only fifteen uniformed soldiers usually guard the area where El Socorro Mines are located. This force has two other units with the same number of uniformed personnel, plus a control post in the lower areas.
And this is not a new issue. Illegal mining has been going on there for more than a hundred years, according to the farmers. It is worth noting that the development of any type of mining activity in the areas of the National Parks System is prohibited in Colombia since 1977, according to article 30 of Decree 622 of 1977.
The Farallones have also been a place where an important part of the Colombian conflict took place. The ELN guerrillas, the FARC and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia dominated the territory until the mid-2000s, when the High Mountain Battalion was founded. Many remember that the Farallones were used by the FARC in 2002 as an escape route for an operation to kidnap 12 Valle congressmen and as the scenario of the forced marches to which the hostages were forced, eleven of whom were assassinated by such paramilitary group five years later. After the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the now demobilized FARC guerrillas in 2016, the paramilitaries returned to the Farallones with greater force.
In this part of the mountain range, there are countless entrances and exits leading to the Colombian Pacific. These are labyrinthine paths and routes that were well known to the guerrillas and are now dominated by the new groups.
“Chasing someone here is very tough, they take one way and escape through another without the army noticing. Here they trick you. Those who are not from here get lost. On the other hand, when have you ever seen a ‘devil’ get lost? Never,” says an inhabitant of the area.
Camouflage strategies for illegal mining have also been changing over the years. Some of those consulted say that gold profits have even changed land ownership.
The gold moves money and money moves the land. If there is a gold business here, they buy a farm, they put it into production, they plant a few small crops, it is a form of camouflage. In the meantime, they protect themselves. Meanwhile, National Parks confiscates wood all the time, these are lots that are moved at night and at dawn. During these periods of control by the authorities, these new farm owners start farming and pass themselves off as peasants. And when everyone leaves, they go up to the mine. It is the same tactic used by the guerrillas. When the army arrived, they took the hoe and kept the weapons under the ground,” says a man from the Farallones area.
Twenty years ago, when Alexandra Monge was in seventh grade, she went to Villacarmelo, where her father lived alone, looking for help with a physics experiment that she had to submit the next day.
Jaime, who years earlier in Cali had worked in electronics, fixing televisions and radios, built a miniature wooden house that night. Alexandra remembers it as a sophisticated structure in which rooms light bulbs were turned on using glass and magnets.
From that day on, Alexandra knew that her father was a recursive inventor, self-taught, who read everything from universal history to physics and biology, and who had an explorer’s irremediable heart. His five children remember that he always invited them to hike in the mountains. Once Jaime went camping with a brother on a high, cold peak. When they were about to go to sleep, in sub-zero temperatures, they realized they had forgotten their blankets and jackets. In a few minutes, Jaime made quilts out of leaves he found in the forest. Today, the family laughs when recalling that they slept warmer that day than if they had had heating.
Twenty-five years ago, many did not understand Jaime’s untimely decision to go to a jungle where he had nothing, when in Cali he had everything: A workshop, clients, a family.
“We wondered why such an abrupt change, and I think that some specific circumstances occurred and then he made decisions. Since he was a child, he always looked for nature, and then he was given the opportunity to acquire that farm. He left his other life behind, his business, and began to shape the project. It was what he had always wanted, living in an environment where there was fresh air,” says Alexandra.
Jaime’s arrival in Villacarmelo was marked by questions that were as existential as daily: “What now? How can I be useful? What am I going to do for a living? As soon as he went to live there, he began to get involved with the community. First -and without being paid a penny- he was a physical education teacher for the children of the village school. Then, the neighbors began to look for him to give injections or to fix a transformer when they ran out of energy.
“He always had a great command to speak, to express himself, he liked to be listened to, he had many ideas, he read a lot. Although his formal educational level was not high, talking to him was a privilege, he would talk to you about the Egyptians, the Sumerians, about trees, plants, and people were like ‘What about this man?’ And the community there made my dad a reference, they said, ‘he understands, he helps us,’” recalls his daughter. Jaime naturally became a leader. In the end, he ended up dealing with the most everyday issues of the neighbors.
Jaime’s first problem in Villacarmelo was with the ELN guerrillas, at a time when they were wandering around the rural district as if they were the lords and masters. Fifteen years ago, Jaime had to leave the farm with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“I remember very well that day I met him on the Fifth Avenue, at the Red Cross headquarters near the Exito [supermarket] (in Cali). He was very sad, disappointed. They gave him some help and he went to live in another city. The farm was left alone and a man invaded it and he had to return, shortly after, to recover it,” says Alexandra.
When he returned he had to start from scratch. With his son Andres, he set himself the task of going to the trails, to get to know such areas. To see the possibilities to take people to enjoy the immensity and richness of the Farallones. The idea was to do conscious ecotourism. When the FARC guerrillas left the area with the signing of the peace agreement in 2016, Jaime had already become a guide. Although tourists paid him little, the hikes served as training. The jungle was his encyclopedia. He became an expert on birds and trees, allied with Asocampesinas. It was his happiest time, says Alexandra. School groups from Cali came to Pachamama to receive workshops and talks. Some went by bicycle, others camped.
Jaime was noble and ill-tempered. He would get angry when they brought him seeds to plant trees that were not the ones he had asked for. “Mr. Jaime, but we did what we could, don’t be angry,” they said. He took a breath and then laughed. “Well, let’s plant these and see what happens,” he replied. Then the visiting children made a hole in the ground and, while smearing themselves with mud, learned about the treasures that were around Pachamama.
Marina Torres was one of Monge’s close friends. She says that he planted 2,500 trees, including guaduas, Colombian walnut trees, nacederos and oaks. Once a man cut down several of the latter to build a cabin and Jaime got furious.
Monge felt that his environmental discourse, which opposed mining and deforestation, was annoying. And in the area people say that this especially generated the reaction of the armed groups that manage the multimillion dollar gold mining business in the high parts of the mountain. Monge felt hurt by the contamination of the rivers and often spoke about it with the community.
And they killed him. As of February 2021, the authorities had not reported any arrests related to the crime. Monge’s murder remains unpunished. For more than a month we sought out Cali’s Secretary of Government, Jesus Dario Gonzalez, but he did not respond about the authorities’ actions in the case.
In Villacarmelo, farmers keep silent for their own safety.
“We are in a country covered with the blood spilled by those who see in the land interests other than natural ones, who see it as a model for economic development and not for life. The social movements have been denouncing this systematization of crimes. The victims are those who are battling it out in the territories,” says Councilwoman Ana Erazo, referring to Oramas and Monge.
“Those of us who are familiar with environmental issues in Cali know that these murders have to do with land conflicts, but particularly with the constant reports of illegal mining in the territory. The investigations have to point that way. They were talking about what is happening in the natural park and in the rural district. Jaime was a person who was trying to fight against the impacts that the rivers were suffering, and that was very important to him,” she adds.
Another source who knew Monge, who prefers to keep his name confidential for fear of the consequences, made this reflection:
“It has been confirmed that the defense of forests, moorlands, rivers and wetlands in Colombia involves a high risk. Why? Because they are coveted territories, they are strategically important from the economic point of view. Conflicts are where there is wealth, not where the territory is poor.”
The biggest problem is that gold is illegal in the mountains, but becomes legal in the city. And Farallones, from Buenaventura to Cali, is a gold mountain range.
“That’s why they turned the canyon of the Dagua River into a mess by extracting gold. They destroyed the river. They destroyed the riverbed, extracting millions and millions of pesos,” says an expert in the area.
In Colombia, those who think, those who speak out are killed, adds the environmentalist who had to leave the Farallones ten months ago.
“Name whoever you want: Galan, Gaitan, Pardo Leal, or pick the name of rural leaders, who show their faces, who have ideas, who discuss and defend the territory, or criticize the abuse of colonization or the use of our environment. They are the ones who think, who have a voice, those are the ones who die.”