January 9, 2012
Dear U.S. Members of Congress,
We appreciate the opportunity to present our concerns regarding the case of Afro-Colombians in northern Cauca. President Juan Manuel Santos has declared mining as one of the engines of Colombia’s economy. Currently, 40 percent of Colombia’s land is licensed to or solicited for mining concessions. The US-Colombia FTA will deepen multinational and U.S. investment in Colombia’s mining sector. For this reason, the land conflict over gold in the Afro-Colombian territories of northern Cauca is of concern to U.S. policymakers.
Afro-Colombians have resided in the territories of northern Cauca since they were forced to work as slaves in the mines in the early 1600s. Since then, they have sustained their families with small-scale artisanal mining and agriculture. In 2000, the Colombian government accelerated the granting of mining concessions to national and international investors without the consent of the local residents. In the same period, paramilitaries arrived in the area and began to commit serious abuses, including the massacre of four residents in June 2000 in the area known as La Ventura. Since then, these communities became victims of massacres, displacements, and death threats at the hands of paramilitaries and guerillas. In April 2001, paramilitaries massacred and disappeared hundreds of civilians and displaced 6,000 families in the Naya region. This paramilitary incursion into Afro-Colombian and indigenous territories in the south of the country led to a violent reorganization of economic activities throughout the region.
Between 2001 and 2005, as paramilitaries displaced Afro-Colombian communities, multinational companies began to acquire land in the area through various means, including fraud, coercion and violence. In 2004 and 2005, paramilitaries operating in this area participated in a deeply flawed demobilization process with the government. The demobilization and reintegration process did not put an end to the violence. Many of these men left the AUC paramilitaries to create new groups with a very similar modus operandi and agenda, such as the Black Eagles and Rastrojos. Locals repeatedly report that these “new” groups, which are labeled as criminal bands (BACRIM) by the government, basically act the same way as the paramilitaries and use the same tactics. In many cases, locals identify these men as the same ones who demobilized in 2004 and 2005. Companies interested in exploiting natural resources in northern Cauca took advantage of the conflict and insecurity to expand their operations. By 2009, there were 35 mining concessions in the municipalities of Suarez and Buenos Aires in Cauca.
In October 2009, the Afro-Colombian community of La Toma in Suarez, Cauca received the first of many eviction orders from government authorities. Despite the community’s efforts to obtain official recognition of their rights to the land, the government has proven unwilling to recognize the communities’ legal rights. However, they were quick to grant mining concessions to an outsider named Hector Saria in 2000. Mr. Saria claims that authorities granted him the title because they did not register an Afro-Colombian community in the area.
After a long legal battle, the Community Council of La Toma brought their case before Colombia’s Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court ruled on behalf of the Community Council of La Toma in Ruling 1045-A on December 2010. This ruling states that (A) prior consultation must be carried out before the implementation of any economic project in La Toma and (B) all mining activity in the region is illegal, unless it is carried out by the members of the community using their traditional artisanal methods. However, between May and July 2011, more than eight heavy machinery excavators continued to operate illegally in the community. Companies continue to carry out illegally mine in the community, often with complicity of the public forces and local authorities.
Paramilitaries systematically began targeting the leaders of the Community Council of La Toma for defending their rights to the land in December 2009. These leaders have received at least 14 death threats signed by the Black Eagles in the last three years. Several of the death threats state that these leaders are considered military objectives because of their opposition to government policies and large-scale economic development projects. The most recent threats were received on January 6, 2012. These leaders are not opposed to economic development; they are opposed to the violation of their right to free, prior, and informed consultation and consent. Lack of political will on behalf of the government to respect Afro-Colombians’ constitutional rights and violent intimidation from paramilitary groups has made it impossible for the communities to decide the future of their territory.
The U.S.-Colombia FTA was not previously consulted with Afro-Colombian communities as required by law. The illegal imposition of large-scale industrial mining in these communities is typical of experiences in other parts of the country. While there are numerous legislative measures geared towards protecting the rights and cultural integrity of the black communities, the government has not exhibited the political will necessary to implement the measures. This was clearly evidenced by the Santos administration’s exclusion of Afro-Colombians in the construction of its flagship Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448). The violation of Afro-Colombians constitutional rights will be exacerbated with the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia FTA if action by the U.S. Congress is not taken.
Today, we ask that you please take action to protect the rights of Afro-Colombians by:
- Guaranteeing that the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia monitors and investigates problematic cases involving mining in Afro-Colombian and indigenous territories including the case of northern Cauca.
- Urging the Colombian government to effectively implement Constitutional Court Ruling 1405-A; protect leaders and communities at risk; and investigate the massacres, threats and abuses committed in northern Cauca.
- Recommending that the Ministry of Interior and INGEOMINAS guarantee the right to free, prior, and informed consultation and consent of Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples. Mining titles and concessions to outside companies and investors should be suspended and new ones should not be granted in regions where the internal armed conflict is present.
- Suggesting to Colombia that it take bold steps to dismantle the illegal armed groups operating in northern Cauca.
- Strengthening the sustainability of Afro-Colombian women’s organizations
Community Council of La Toma
Gimena Sanchez and Anthony Dest
Washington Office on Latin America
Charo Mina Rojas
Black Communities' Process International Working Group
Please watch “The War We are Living” part of the PBS Series Women, War & Peace here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/women-war-and-peace/full-episodes/the-war-we-are-living/
Since 2010, the security situation for members of these communities has significantly deteriorated. On April 7, 2010, eight Afro-descendant miners were massacred by paramilitaries in “Alto Ovejas,” an area that is part of the Community Council of La Toma. On June 22, 2010, Alex Gonzalez, who was frequently listed on death threats, and Hidelbrando Rokas were killed in targeted assassinations.
See Constitutional Court Orders 004, 005, 092 of 2009.