In the South of the Cordoba department, large-scale mining projects are being developed covering the Puerto Libertador, Montelibano and San Jose de Ure municipalities. The promised land bets on the mining locomotive on which Colombia embarked and passes over the Zenu people who resist in the territory, despite everything.
By: La Liga Contra el Silencio
Posted: April 22, 2020
We cannot see what her heart holds, but we can hear her panting breath and the sound her boots make as they sink into the reddish soil of Alto San Jorge, in which subsoil there is gold, copper, coal, nickel, silver and platinum.
Darlis Rojas Parra, leader of the Zenu indigenous reservation, walks with agility and confidence through a mining-rich area that includes the Puerto Libertador, Montelibano and San Jose de Ure municipalities. Forty-three mining titles have been granted by the National Mining Agency (ANM in Spanish) in this territory, ten of which have been suspended, but are still in force. All together totalize 1,272 km2, according to data from 2019. (See the list of mining titles in Puerto Libertador and Montelibano.) For the ANM, Cordoba is the fifth-most important mining area in Colombia, after Antioquia, Cesar, Cundinamarca, Boyacá and Norte de Santander. In the heart of this disputed territory, located in the South of the Cordoba department, North Colombia, Darlis’ people occupies only 9.6 km2 of the 50 to which its inhabitants should be entitled, as her ancestors told her.
“We live in one of the richest territories in the world, but unfortunately for us as social leaders, as indigenous communities, that is a curse,” Rojas tells us as she goes against the wind coming from the San Jeronimo mountain range and raises the wings of her vueltiao hat, a national symbol woven by her ethnic group.
She stops right in front of the backhoe that pulls construction material off the hill to tell us how, since 2017, she started receiving pamphlets making threats on her life. In June 2018, the threat became real. “I was in my car, a guy approached to me and pulled out his gun. I was with my mother and my daughters. My eldest girl peed herself. It was a chaotic moment,” she remembers. The message the stranger gave her is still vivid: “You’re gonna leave the organization, we don’t want to see you here. Who do you think you are? Do the indigenous people think that they can do whatever they want?” Many humiliating things.
They threatened her and 21 other people in the reservation, according to her community’s highest authority, major cacique Rafael Florez. And this happens because everyone fights for what belongs to them: the land. “Leaders have been killed. We live in a condition of threat because we are defending this – she hits the land with her boots. We are threatened because we claim our right to live here with dignity. What we indigenous people want is to live in peace,” she affirms.
Nevertheless, the 22 leaders of the Zenu community enjoy some security measures, as confirmed by the major cacique. For this report on Lands in Resistance, the National Protection Unit (UNP in Spanish) reported 11 cases with administrative actions that set measures in 2019 and four vehicles assigned to the threatened leaders, one of them armored.
Despite this and the complexity of moving across the territory, Darlis took the risk of showing us the bowels of her land. We left her house on January 17, 2020 without her escort. A few days later, she would find out that her employment contract had not been renewed.
The Promised Land
“We are walking on the promised land. It does not hide its wealth, but they’re taking it away,” she says as she walks around the place where she was born.
First, it was nickel. Four decades ago, the deposit was discovered in the territory of the Montelibano municipality and today the mining resource is extracted by Cerro Matoso S.A., a mining and industrial company belonging to the multinational SOUTH32, which has permits to work there until 2044.
Until May 2015, Cerro Matoso belonged to BHP Billiton. In 2015, the largest demerger in Australian business history was completed, and different operations, employees and selected contractors left BHP Billiton to form the independent company SOUTH32, of which Cerro Matoso is part. After a series of legal actions, the ethnic minorities managed to get the Colombian justice system, specifically the Constitutional Court, to order Cerro Matoso to finally hold a prior consultation -though extremely late- to address the Zenu reservation’s claims. And although the company has been doing so, the communities insist that it is not enough because the damage caused by nickel production has been taking place for over 37 years. For this reason, they have faith in a plan B still being studied by lawyer Javier De La Hoz, which intends to hold BHP Billiton and SOUTH32 civilly liable – in international courts – for the damages that Cerro Matoso has caused the territory after decades of operation. However, no action has been taken to date.
But nickel is only one of the many sources of mining wealth in the area which generates enormous rifts with the Raizal communities. There are also reservoirs of other minerals. “The multinationals come, become the owners and we feel invisible,” Darlis reflects. In whose hands is the land being left? Those 1,272 km2 of mining territory belong to 13 companies and mining consortiums. In the area they occupy, there is room for three times the city of Medellin. The equivalent of twice the Cerrejon coal mine located in the La Guajira department.
Combining the area of the Puerto Libertador, Montelibano and San Jose de Ure municipalities -4,398 km2– the 13 companies and their 43 titles occupy 29% of the territory.
Besides nickel and gold, copper, silver, platinum, iron, chrome, cobalt and carbon are also extracted. This explains the interest of the mining industry that has been operating there since the late ‘80s and undoubtedly puts this region at the center of what the previous government called the “mining locomotive.”
Only the aforementioned Cerro Matoso S.A. has six titles in the area. It occupies most of the territory, 891.43 Km2 -almost 70% of the 1,272.71 Km2-. Five of these titles are aimed at extracting about 40 thousand tons of nickel per year, apart from iron, chrome and cobalt. The sixth title is operated through Consorcio Las Palmeras, which purpose is the production of coal for the thermal power plants managed by Gecelca S.A. E.S.P. (Generadora y Comercializadora de Energía del Caribe), a partner of Cerro Matoso S.A. in this project.
Ricardo Gaviria Jansa, CEO of Cerro Matoso S.A., is a Barranquilla native who has worked all his life in the mining sector, hence his close relationship with leaders, officials and former officials in the sector.
Another important company in the San Jorge territory is Minerales de Córdoba S.A.S, which belongs to the Canadian Cordoba Minerals Corp., in turn a subsidiary of High-Power Exploration (HPX).
Minerales de Córdoba has 22 mining titles, which cover 141.71 km2 of surface, meaning 11% of the total area of the zone. It focuses on the production of copper, gold, silver and platinum, among others. It is currently the co-owner of the El Alacran mine, which is projected to be one of the largest open-pit mining companies in Latin America. According to estimates, there is an estimated production of 417 thousand tons of copper, 724 thousand ounces of gold and 5.9 million ounces of silver.
El Alacran mine had been managed by Cobre Minerals S.A.S, which is registered as the license holder (40 km2), in a place where industrial, traditional and artisanal mining meet and clash, since miners from this region have been producing gold for 30 years.
The San Pedro Council – also comprised by Zenu indigenes – and the El Alacran Miners’ Association state that they are currently affected by the exploration work and the issue will be more complex once Minerales de Córdoba begins open-pit mining.
Carlos Enrique Aguirre Perez, president of the El Alacran Miners’ Association, a man who has been extracting gold from this artisanal mine all his life, talks about the company: “They say they are in charge and they are the owners, but we have been here for many years and our work is worthwhile.” He also refers to the fact the central government never wanted to give them mining titles. Around El Alacran, 120 families live from artisanal extraction.
Members of the community in the Juan José town and the urban area of Puerto Libertador have reported that in the area, where several rivers converge, there are at least 20 backhoes. Paramillo National Park officials have made recommendations on how to regularize this activity in order to protect the basins and buffer zone of this protected area, which protects one of the most biodiverse mountain forests in the Colombian Caribbean.
Finally, there are a handful of titles that belong to powerful companies and individuals in the country. One of them is Sator, owned by Grupo Empresarial Argos. Sator is the holder of two coal licenses in the Puerto Libertador municipality and occupy 104.42 Km2, meaning 8.1% of the special mining area.
There is also the businessman Juan Manuel Ruiseco Vieira and his family, who hold seven mining titles that occupy 50.16 Km2, through three companies: Juan Manuel Ruiseco V & CIA S.C.A., Seeling Road Grupo Inc. and Zanesfield Trade Company Inc. (the latter two incorporated in Panama by third parties and represented by Ruiseco’s son). The Ruiseco are also shareholders of another four companies, including port and mining companies with projects in Santander. All these companies, according to the records of the Chamber of Commerce, operate in the same offices in Barranquilla.
The other titles in the mining area are distributed in companies, such as the one owned by Melquiades Carrizosa Amaya -member of the House of Representatives for the Conservative Party until 1998 and former General Coordinator of the CRTR- with Ruben Dario Velez Velez.
The Zenu communities insist that the State’s decisions regarding the territory are designed to favor the mining companies rather than the inhabitants. “Mining is not everything, we need productive projects, State security so that we do not feel so alone,” Darlis assures.
Death Is Around
In the same territory where these mineral exploration & production practices take place, disputes over land have been exacerbated. The most affected peoples have been the Zenu, Embera Katio and Afro-descendant minority communities, who have been cornered in their own ancestral territories by the presence of various irregular groups.
In addition to the growing wave of mining, the unstoppable illegal economies have triggered deaths in the territories, mainly the cultivation of coca leaves that reaches 46.36 km2 in the entire Cordoba department: 10.14 in Puerto Libertador, 9.74 in Montelibano and 4.42 in San Jose de Ure, according to data from the 2018 UN Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (Simci), published by the Colombian Drug Observatory (ODC in Spanish). There are 1,690 km2 of coca fields nationwide.
From 2010 to 2019, 616 people were killed in the three municipalities: 167 in Puerto Libertador, 388 in Montelibano and 61 in San Jose de Ure, according to the National Police. While in the first municipality the number has been decreasing, in the other two it has grown, especially since 2018, all of them classified as homicides according to the National Forensic Medicine Institute’s Forensis Report.
Only San Jose de Ure went to 21 homicides in 2019 from 1 in 2017. That is a 2,100% increase in just two years. In Montelibano, the increase was 369%, to 59 homicides in 2019 from 16 in 2017. Violent deaths there have almost quadrupled since April 2018.
Violence in the territory is not unknown to the government. The Ombudsman’s Office issued four early warnings between 2018 and 2019 for the three municipalities. The alerts cover selective killings, forced displacement, confinement, forced disappearances, sexual violence, combats with the intervention of the civilian population, recruitment and use of minors, stigmatization of the civilian population and especially of indigenous and community leaders and promoters of the coca leaf replacement policy.
Who is threatening the population and its leaders? According to early warning reports from the Ombudsman’s Office, several groups operate in the area: the ELN guerrilla, the Carlos Vasquez, Ruben Darío Avila and Juan de Dios Usuga fronts of the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Agc), heirs to the paramilitary structures, and two dissident factions of the FARC that abandoned the peace process and call themselves the “New 18th Front – Roman Ruiz Cacique Coyara FARC-EP” and the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Bloc (Bvpa, called ‘Caparros’ by Public Forces).
Despite the fact that the People’s Liberation Army (ELP) has no presence in South Cordoba, the armed strike decreed by this subversive group in February 2020 was used by criminal gangs in the municipalities of the mining area to demand the population not to leave their homes.
Back to Darlis and Luis Joaquin Rojas, governor of the Zenu Central America indigenous council, who accompanies her on her journey. “Puerto Libertador became a mining area and the territories where the reservation is located, the ancestral territories, are for mining. So, they buy the lands and they are crowding us, which is very hard for us,” says Luis Joaquin.
He agrees with her when she questions the state’s actions in the territory, but he also asks her not to talk so much. “Daughter, you know things aren’t easy around here.” He says so while taking off his hat and drying his forehead. He loves her and in his own way protects her, he is her father.
The governor goes between gentleness and moderation: “This is a very important area for all of us and we have always been here and will continue to live here, but we are always low profile. The more land companies buy, the fewer job and study opportunities there are,” says Luis Joaquin. “That’s why I think the government has to get involved in this.”
His face becomes severe, worried, then he says, “I don’t know where the threats come from, but I have been resisting. I don’t have a security scheme. My security is God.”
Rafael Florez, the major cacique and maximum authority of the Zenu Reservation, who began to be threatened through pamphlets and phone calls, thinks similarly: “I have the security scheme, because you know that great leaders who speak out for the right of the communities, those are the ones who are most persecuted. The State granted me that scheme. Two men and a car, since last year.”
The escort looks at him from the window of the vehicle. It is a hard job to follow in the footsteps of these Zenu representatives who, in spite of the intimidation, do not stop touring the areas inhabited by 1,301 members of the Alto San Jorge reservation -made up of five councils-. In the community, 15 leaders have cars to move through the mountains that cover the mining wealth of the territory.
Rafael Florez explains that the founders of the reservation intended to start a legal action to have their territory legalized, but they were killed. “My uncles were sacrificed on the first day, the three of them together, over there in Barranco Colorado, where the reservation starts (when they were gathered)… The entire council was sacrificed, all of it.” The events reported by Rafael occurred in 1998.
Florez also refers to the reports made by the Zenu people of Alto San Jorge about the systematic nature of the threats, persecutions and 48 murders between 2004 and 2015.
Darlis listens to the Cacique and nods her head at every word. “He has suffered and knows what we’ve been through… He has endured!” says the woman.
For Rafael Florez, it is clear that they must continue to fight, “we must continue to demand territorial respect, lodge demands, and file writs of protection. We defend our territorial rights and the environment in Alto San Jorge,” he says from San Antonio and La Meta, in Tierrandentro, a rural area of Puerto Libertador, where they are building the headquarters of the reservation.
Rafael looks at Darlis and speaks to her: “We are resilient, here we were born and here we will die. That’s the indigenous resistance.”