La Toma: not just a name, but an omen

By: Hugo Mario Cárdenas López | DIARIO EL PAÍS

Posted: April 23, 2019

Isidoro Lucumí was one of the first employees of the multinational in La Toma. “They arrived with the name Kedahda and as they couldn´t find room, they then appeared as AngloGold Ashanti and immediately began to invest in building a little road, and in giving incentives. One day I said to the head geologist, ‘Why are we investing so much time in this area?’ He answered, ‘La Toma is sitting on top of gold; that´s why it is so sought after.’”

Members of the community recall excessive kindness from the company in these early days. They gave tools to the farmers, donated books to the children at the start of the school term, bought footballs and kits for those who liked to play, and donated instruments to local music groups.

“Some said of them, ‘These people seem like they like progress,’ but others amongst thought that, ‘Nothing comes for free; they must have an ulterior motive.’ And there was already talk of a mining project, so we listened to our elders and we said ‘No’ to AngloGold”, points out Francia Márquez, a woman who has dedicated her entire life to ancestral mining and who led the fight against illegal mining on her land. For these efforts, for which she risked her life, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the green Nobel, in 2018.

Relations with AngloGold Ashanti, the world´s third largest gold producer, ended terribly. In the midst of this fight to hold onto their territory, say members of the community council, the first leaflets threatening their leaders arrived.

The threats came from alleged paramilitary groups. In order to plant fear in the region the Calima Block of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) committed 119 massacres between 1999 and 2004, according to the National Centre of Historic Memory. The fear was latent.

Only three years earlier, the Calima Block had executed a massacre in the nearby coastal region of El Naya, in which they murdered more than 30 people, on their return from Timba (Cauca) to the Pacific Ocean left a trail of death through the municipality of Suárez.

“It was very difficult for us when these threats arrived, giving our friends a week to get out of the area. When they arrived in the city, with no idea what to do there, they couldn´t take it, and after two months they came back. They said, ‘Let them kill me here because I´m not leaving La Toma again,’” Márquez remembers of that time.

There were days which those of the community, whose culture is expressed at the rhythm of traditional, folkloric rhythms such as chirimíastorbellinos and fugas and the encompassing sounds of violins and drums, were locked in silence. The streets of the hamlet at the top of the mountain, where every morning at dawn people rose playing in the dew, were deserted. The recommendation was that each home had a cellphone with at least one minute of credit so that they could warn of any strange movements. Everyone was on full alert.

Jairo Chará, coordinator of the local traditional mining committee, who survived an attack in his home on December 6th, 2006, in the middle of the territorial dispute with AngloGold, recalls how his community organized themselves to self-protect. “From then on, anyone who enters La Toma has to say where they come from and what their intentions are. If they have no obvious reason for being there, the community detains them and they have to explain down to the last detail what they came to do there,” he says.

But La Toma had not yet managed to contain the interests in gold mining when they had to take on another fight. This time it was the designs and intentions of the Pacific Energy Company (EPSA) to broaden another mega-project that they had also viewed historically as a risk.

The Spanish company Unión Fenosa proposed diverting the course of the Ovejas River towards the hydro-electric reservoir of Salvajina, which was built over the flow of the Cauca River in 1986 by the Autonomous Regional Corporation of the Valley (CVC) with the purpose of increasing energy production in the region by 20%. 

“The people said, ‘The Ovejas River is our life, it´s our dignity, and that doesn´t have a price. Not for all the money in the world will we let this river be moved.’ And like that people organized to fight for the river, too”, explains Francia Márquez.

The community leaders assure that EPSA used strategies to discredit their representatives and put them at risk in the region with the strong presence of illegal armed groups. In 2005, the Association of the Council of Indigenous People of Northern Cauca (ACIN), one of the strongest indigenous groups in the region, denounced the directors of the reservoir for having attempted to present signatures of attendance at two meetings as suppose evidence of support from the black communities for the diversion of the river.

The pain caused by the way in which the Cauca River, Colombia´s second most important, was snatched thirty years earlier was still fresh in the memories of the inhabitants of La Toma. That river had sustained them, and therefore they were very sensitive to anything regarding the reservoir at Salvajina, constructed to generate 270,000 kilowatts of electricity.

This concrete and iron structure completely altered the flow of the Cauca River over a distance of 31 kilometers, and it raised the water level by more than 100 cubic meters over the ancestral lands of the Afro-Colombians of La Toma. Their lands, crops, the best mines and a good part of their traditions were left submerged under 849 million cubic metres of water.

For Mayor Isidoro Lucumí, the memory of the impotence that people felt when they were removed from their lands remains fresh, and is today described as a false illusion they had of progress in their community.

 “When these people arrived they caught us with our eyes closed. An engineer told us, ‘You have a lot and it is worth a lot.’ I had a plot of 9,720 square meters and they paid me $300.006 pesos and I asked the engineer, ‘And these extra six pesos, what are they for? Where did they come from?’ His reply was, ‘You can take them or leave them. If you don´t, they´ll be deposited in a bank and then we´ll see how you take them.’ This was total humiliation. This is why we don´t want any more multi-nationals here,” says Isidoro.

The elders of the community assert that with the reservoir they were promised that because it was the biggest infrastructure project being carried out in Southwest Colombia at the time, it would bring tourism, roads, schools, health and all round better quality of life. This promise also turned to dust. It was a wolf in a sheep´s clothing.

“Instead, what Salvajina left was misery for my community. In Suárez, people have no electricity. The energy is miniscule and the people earning the lowest income receive monthly bills of 300,000 to 400,000 pesos (US $100-130). We also have this lake, but my community doesn´t have clean drinking water. Do people have to wait until it rains to drink water?” asks Márquez.

The construction of Salvajina required the displacement of more than 6,000 people. The municipality of Suárez went from 23,500 inhabitants in 1993 to 18,000 in 2006, according to the Black Communities Process (PCN), one of the most active Afro-Colombian community organizations at the national level.

The Ovejas River Once Again

Their dignified resistance, preventing the splitting of the mountain to divert the Ovejas River and holding off the arrival of AngloGold Ashanti from their territory, still were not enough to deter foreign interests from their land. The worst was still to come, and this time it was under the name of illegal mining.

Beginning in 2004 – the community recalls – there were skirmishes with people who tried to enter the river to search for gold, but they always managed to remove them from the lands. However, this siege of outsiders, usually arriving from eastern Antioquia and Chocó, was becoming more and more intense until in 2010 it reached a point that was the worst period they remember.

Threats against environmental leaders from criminal bands known as The Black Eagles, New Generation and The Stubble saw a surge after the demobilization of the paramilitaries, and continued to increase up until August of 2009. Anxiety converted into pure fear after the 7th of April 2010, when armed men assassinated eight miners on the banks of the Ovejas River, in La Toma’s backyard.  

As a result, those who arrive in the municipality of Suárez, located more than an hour from Cali, find a painting that seems to belong to the wrong exhibition. What appears from afar to be a bunker which from a lost diplomatic mission, is in fact a humble house at the dusty entrance to the town, furnished only with a plastic table and various white plastic seats, which serves as the meeting site for the Association of Community Councils for Northern Cauca (ACONC).

Inside the house a handful of leaders discuss the issues that affect them on a daily basis, while outside a convoy of the newest model Toyota trucks waits for them – armed and with a small army of armed men from the National Protection Unit, the governmental agency which is responsible for guarding people placed under threat.

But a tragedy just 40 kilometers from La Toma has brought them new trouble. On the 2nd May, 2014, in the nearby municipality Santander de Quilichao, a landslide in the mine of San Antonio buried three people, while 150 illegal backhoe loaders destroyed the bed of the Quinamayó River.

Francia Márquez participated in the local security council which was then set up to discuss the issue of illegal mining, and how to address the problem that their confiscated machinery as stuck there, but there was no way to transporting it, “and machines were disappearing by night until not one of them was left.”  A score of them ended up in the Ovejas River, on their territory. 

“The leaders could not even get near to the mountain to observe from there because they assigned each one of us a guard to follow us and who would tell them what we were doing. They knew we were not in accordance with this destruction they were causing and from this new threats were invented against us for ‘opposing development’”, says Aníbal Vega, treasurer of the Community Council of La Toma.

Out of this community´s desperation the famous March of the Turbans arose in defense of land and life. In November of 2014, 30 people walked from La Toma to Bogotá to ask that the government stop the destruction of the river.

One month later, the armed forces destroyed the backhoes. The community’s female leadership became the leading voice, including names such as Francia Márquez, Marilin Machado, Alexa Leonor Mina, Sofía Garzón, Yineth Balanta, Marlin Mancilla and Clemencia Fory. 

In spite of all the efforts, illegal mining brought the Ovejas basin to the brink of destruction. The fierce attack of the illegal miners with heavy machinery damaged the riverbed in several different places. With the river’s deformation came a tragic aftermath of pools of cyanide and water poisoned with mercury, with even more impacts on the women of the community. 

“The gold rush brought many people from all over the country, who for the most part were bad people, and this resulted in many sexual violations, and when it came to taking legal action, we didn´t know who to accuse because we didn´t know who these people were. There are many mothers, many women in our land who have children and do not know their father,” complains Aníbal Vega.

The community council itself does not know the exact figure of women who are living in this situation, because there is no official list of complaints, and they presume that many women opted to remain silent about their abuse.

With the destruction of the backhoe machinery in the Ovejas River there also came the death threats again Francia Márquez and her children, proffered by criminal groups who wanted to be paid the the value of the incinerated machinery. Francia was forced to leave in January 2015.

“When you are a woman and you are take on these sort of fights, they see you as weaker and they can get to you easier. A prime example of this is my situation: all of my companions are there in the community, but I am the one who cannot return, and I was the one who had to escape with my children. I´m the one who hasn´t been able to return because I have no guarantees,” affirms Márquez, who also received the National Prize for Human Rights from the NGO Diakonia Catholic and the Swedish Catholic Church after the Women´s March.

Defending Ancestry

The community council of La Toma is convinced that the battles they have had to fight have been promoted by a state which, instead of legally recognizing their territory and their collective rights such as prior consultation, chose to ignore them and gave up their lands to various parties who came after the gold in La Toma´s soil.

According to an answer from the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Cauca (CRC), the maximum authority on environmental matters in the region, the answer a freedom of information request sent for this story stated that tens of exploration and exploitation permits were granted to individuals such as Alonso Giraldo, Miguel Antonio Carabalí, Eusebio Lucumí and  Raúl Fernando Ruiz.

They were also given to companies such as AngloGold Ashanti and the Canadian firm Cosigo Resources, who featured in a well-known lawsuit in the Amazon rainforest and to whose legal representative in Colombia and Brazil, Andrés Rendle, was granted a mining license in Cauca in 2007.

historic ruling by the Constitutional Court in September 2015 stopped Cosigo Resources from exploiting gold in the area they had been granted, inside the Yaigojé-Apaporis National Park in the heart of the Amazon. The mining title had been granted by the government of Álvaro Uribe after the creation of protected areas and it went against the constitutional prohibition of mining within national parks.

However, the main worries in La Toma now came from the granting of a permission by the former Ingeominas (whose work in granting titles was inherited by the current National Mining Agency) to Héctor Jesús Sarria, a person unknown to the local people, for extraction of gold in an area totaling 99 hectares in the sector of La Carolina for 10 years, beginning in March 2006 and extendable to 2026.  

In a Ministry of the Interior report from June 2009, a certificate was issued to endorse the BFC-021 project, indicating that there was no Afro-Colombian population within an 18-kilometer perimeter. This backing meant that Sarria would not have to carry out the the process of the prior consultation that the Colombian Constitution and Convention 169 of the International Organization of Work of the United Nations, which Colombia signed, both demand.

After the community of La Toma blocked his entry, Sarria solicited an administrative protection requesting the removal of the Afro-Colombian communities from the territory. This protection was conceded in April 2009, and in March 2010, the Court of the First Administrative Circuit of Popayán ordered the eviction of the Afro-Colombian communities.

“When I learned they were going to remove us, I decided to study law. I had no money for transport or to pay for university, but I reminded myself that for our ancestors things hadn´t been easy either, and thanks to them we are not in shackles today”, points out Márquez, who, after 30 years of running freely between mountains and rivers, conducts this interview in a small apartment that serves as a refuge from the threats against her.

By her second semester of law she knew which fundamental rights they could use to legally defend themselves, and the prior consultation was one of them. With her companions Gabino Hernández and Yair Ortiz she prepared a guardianship action that was presented in May 2010 before the Superior Tribunal of Popayán, arguing that a violation of rights, rights to dignified living, the terms of the prior consultation, due process, autonomy and cultural integrity.

The legal petition was rejected in the first instance because La Toma was supposedly not a black community with a collective title, and thus was ratified in the second instance by the Supreme Court of Justice. The community did not give up, and solicited a revision by the national Constitutional Court.

On the 14th December, the highest court of Colombia’s justice system revoked the decision and recognized the fundamental rights of the Afro-Colombian community of La Toma to prior consultation and due process. Amongst other things, the court ordered that Ingeominas, “refrain from granting, or suspend, as the case may be, the licences for mining exploitation in the project of Mr. Héctor Jesús Sarria or any other in the hamlet of La Toma of Suárez, Cauca, until the prior consultation ordered in this ruling is carried out in a proper manner and the respective environmental license is issued legally and if applicable.”

The fight goes on

The La Toma community did not drop their guard and remained alert to the possibility of any legal or illegal attempt to destroy their land and their water. What currently propels them is asserting their legal rights and carrying out a prior consultation that could allow and environmental management plan on the Salvajina Reservoir.

“Thirty-five years have passed since the building of the reservoir and there is still no environmental management plan. Something serious could happen here with this wall and it would take out everything there is below, because there is also no contingency plan. Recently, EPSA started to make an imitation environmental management plan not taking into account the advice of the community council nor the indigenous guards,” says Marilyn Machado, a member of the community council.

EPSA was created in 1995, complying with the order in Law 99 of 1993 which required the separation of environmental regulation and businesses such as those which generate electric energy.  The Salvajina was then property of the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Valle de Cauca (CVC), a regional environmental authority, and was administered by the company Colinversiones.

From here a long lost list of both national and foreign owners began. The Colombian state passed it to the US company Houston Industries and to Venezuelan Electricity of Caracas, who in turn handed it to the Spanish company Unión Fenosa in 200 and later to Gas Natural Fenosa.

It is currently controlled by Colener S.A.S, an organization belonging 100% to Colinversiones S.A. and which today has Inversiones Argos S.A.  among its shareholders, with its energy generator Celsia, and the Bancolombia Bank of Investment S.A. Financial Corporation. Both belong to the Antioquia Business Group (GEA), on the largest in the country.

However, there has been no dialogue between owning companies and local communities.

“There was a meeting here to talk about the prior consultation and the directors of the EPSA arrived, escorted by vans full of soldiers and we all said, ‘We are not criminals so what is going on?’”, recalls Machado.  

Before issuing a legal recognition of their community, the Colombian state installed a military base on the La Toma community´s land. All of sudden their territory figured on military strategy maps under the label of ´red zone´. 

A document from 2013, the community says, indicates that it was through an agreement between the Ministry of Defence, the EPSA and the mining company Anglo American that they installed a base of the 29th Army Brigade in La Toma. 

This ´pain´, as the community call it, is the irony of having a military base as the only permanent presence of a state institution on their territory. It has been captured in various songs, played to a lamenting rhythm on violin strings, the European instrument that the slaves learned to make by hand to imitate their masters´ parties.  

Representational songs such as ´My Buddy is not Going´ composed by Sabino Lucumí, legal representative of the community council and who won second place in the 2013 Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival, the most emblematic of the Colombian Pacific. 

“This song not only expresses our how we feel in La Toma, but that we feel very proud because other communities have also taken it as an anthem and as a source of reflection because we need to protect the gold and the land,” states Eliomar Lucumí, composer and member of the group Cañabrava.

“Look at it closely, friend, look, look what you´re gonna do

The land of La Toma, we´re going to save

Against the big guys (multinationals) who want to remove us

And the others who won´t let us get out

We exploit our gold in the traditional style

Respect our culture, and leave us in peace

“The lands where we have built community and recreated our culture were not a present; they cost our elders many years of work and suffering in the slave mines”, reiterates Márquez.

Meanwhile Jairo Chará, who also plays guitar for Cañabrava, declares that “We Tomans are going fight with our last drop of blood to defend our land.”