La Colosa is AngloGold Ashanti’s proposed project for an open-pit gold mine spanning several rural municipalities in the department of Tolima, Colombia – including the municipality of Cajamarca. In 2017 the Cajamarca community managed to successfully achieve a binding referendum (consulta popular), in which the community overwhelmingly voted to ban mining activities in its territory. In this David-and-Goliath victory, this rural community was able to put the brakes on the plans for one of the world’s largest open-pit gold mines – promoted by one of the largest mining companies in the world AngloGold Ashanti and with the full support of Colombian law.
Since then, however, the company and the government have actively sought to undermine the legitimacy of the referendum and to advance the proposed gold mine, notwithstanding community opposition, the documented environmental limitations, and legal and procedural constraints.
The case is paradigmatic of the systemic challenges that communities face to actually claim and exercise their human rights in a context of dramatic asymmetries of economic, legal, and political power.
Cajamarca – the “Breadbasket” of Colombia
Cajamarca is a rural municipality in the department of Tolima. The peasant identity and agricultural vocation are defining features of their territory. While there have been exploratory studies for decades, there is no history of large-scale mining in the region.
The Cajamarca municipality is part of the Chilí-Barragán and Los Nevados páramo ecosystems. The páramos, or Andean moorlands, are critical to the surrounding natural environment, to the water supply for several cities, and to the cultural identity of the region. Cajamarca is included in the Central Forest Reserve. Despite this privileged location and protections, the region suffers from water scarcity as a result of droughts, aggravated by climate change, as well as over-demand.
The La Colosa Project – A National Priority
La Colosa is a project of AngloGold Ashanti (AGA), it is a planned open-pit mine centered in Cajamarca that would produce an estimated 30 tons of gold per year. AGA have stated that this would be among the 10 largest precious metals mines in the world. The infrastructure required includes the open pit mine, a tailings dam for chemical waste, water treatment plants, connection to the national electric system, and a pipeline for the transport and processing of the gold. The project is in the exploratory phase, but is currently suspended as a result of the 2017 local referendum.
Why we are fundamentally opposed … to the La Colosa project? We undertook several investigations… to identify [the]… impacts that this project could bring… damage to ecosystems, contamination of the soil, water, air...
Over the past 20 years, successive governments11 have prioritized attracting foreign investment for large-scale mining, especially of precious metals. The 2001 Mining Code declares all mining projects—in every manifestation and phase—to be in the “public utility and social interest.” This declaration has specific legal consequences minimizing the obstacles and claims that can be made in opposition. In 2013, the government categorized La Colosa as a “Project of National and Strategic Interest” (PINES) .
Defending the rights of the affected communities
Independent, state, and even company-sponsored research confirms the massive impact the La Colosa project would have on the enjoyment of a range of human rights, including those related to livelihood, water, food, cultural identity, and a safe, clean, and healthy environment.
As a result, grassroots, peasant, youth and community movements came together in 2011 to form the Environmental and Peasant Committee of Cajamarca and Anaime (Comité Ambiental y Campesino de Cajamarca y Anaime). Cajamarca is most famous for having successfully held a local referendum on the AngloGold Ashanti proposed mine of La Colosa.
The individuals and organizations that led the movement for a local referendum (consulta popular) have been stigmatized—by the company and by the state—as opponents of development. Statements and actions undermining the legitimacy of the consulta popular affect the safety of the leaders of the campaign as have defamatory statements and actions by AGA employees.
The climate of fear and intimidation has been fueled by threats received by environmental and peasant organizations, and by the assassination of four community leaders who opposed extraction activities on their territories. These killings remain in impunity. Several leaders had to leave Cajamarca and relocate because security concerns and in 2011 and 2013 there were particularly grave incidents of peasant community members involved in the opposition to the mine being (incorrectly) signaled as members of guerrilla groups. Likewise, in 2019 community leaders received threats from paramilitary groups.
As an environmental movement, our demands to respect our rights has been carried out peacefully, through social protest, legal means and the available participation mechanisms; and yet, [despite wining the public consultation] our rights have still not been recognised.
On 26 March 2017 Cajamarca held a consulta popular with the ballot question: “Do you agree, YES OR NO, with mining activities and projects in the Cajamarca municipality?” and 98% of those who voted said “NO” to the mining project. The Cajamarca Municipal Council adopted the results and issued Municipal Agreement 003 of 27 April 2017, which bans mining activities in the municipality.
The national of Mining and Energy publicly rejected the consulta popular in Cajamarca. In 2018, after strong efforts by industry and the Colombian government to delegitimise the referendum, the Constitution Court dramatically reversed its previously held position on the standing of local referendums (consultas populares) in the context of extractive activity. At that time, a total of 10 local referendums nationally had delivered “NO” votes against extractive activity in their territories. the Court ruled in favor of the company finding that a consulta popular invoked by a local government cannot unilaterally intervene in decisions about the extraction of subsoil resources in municipalities. However, the Constitutional Court did not refer to Cajamarca or the other nine local referendums that has already taken place. Normally, decisions by the Court cannot be applied retrospectively.
Our …concern is that they are replacing the armed conflict with these socio-environmental conflicts. That is, they are imposing new types of violence on us.”Member of Cosajuca in 2018
 This designation means that the project benefits from an additional series of measures aimed at procedural fast-tracking and legal security, intended to facilitate its smooth and timely implementation. Under this categorization, for example, companies can execute private and/or administrative evictions, unilaterally establish compensation amounts, and judges can issue summary judgments in expropriation disputes. Cajamarca residents, like Colombian society at large, were not involved in the processes that put the La Colosa project in this priority category. This priority designation – both via the Mining Code and the PINES – has set the project on a legal and political path of absolute imbalance, with no opportunity for engagement and consideration of the rights of the affected communities.