Defenders of the Colombian Amazon sacred hills: disrespected rights

A handful of indigenous guards watch over the jungle to prevent a tragedy that their grandparents see in their dreams: the destruction of their “sacred houses”, the hills. A young leader remembers the day that the tranquillity was disrupted in his community. When he learned that there was a 30-year license granted on his territory to extract coltan, one of the most scarce and precious minerals, used by the world’s big technology industries when manufacturing cell phones, computers and electronic devices. In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the largest number of reserves of what is considered the new ‘black or blue gold’. In Latin America, there are mines in Venezuela and Colombia.

The right to prior consultation has been disrespected and the entry into the indigenous territories, for mining exploitation, has been done through deception in Vaupés, Colombia. The licence granted in an indigenous reserve is unlawful.

The previous surveys of the territory – where the Murutinga, Timbó de Betania and Bogotá Cachivera communities in Vaupés are settled – for the granting of a mining licence for the exploitation of black or coltan lands were made by means of deception.

Gilma Román, an indigenous professional of the Huitoto ethnic group, assured Agenda Propia that she was contacted by an intermediary from the mining company to carry out an independent consultancy on the reserve as a “protection and forest reserve area”, but she was never told “the truth of things”, that is, the consultancy was to obtain information that would later be used for the granting of the mining contract.

The woman mentions that it was after the engineer geologist visited the communities in 2017, when they learned that “there were some interests in mining the resources”. Then, together with her husband, Libardo Medellín, a former deputy from Vaupés, they brought the case to the attention of the Ombudsman’s Office, waiting for an investigation to be carried out.

She also said that in 2018 they met with one of the partners of the mining company in a shopping mall in Bogotá and let him know that the indigenous people are against any kind of mining, and that prior consultation was required to enter the territory. “The man said that if this was the case with some inconvenience, that he would not get involved any more. And that’s where the issue remained,” said Gilma, who ended by clarifying: first, that they do not know Claudia Patricia Gómez González, the representative of the mining title; second, that the consultation was not completed, and third, that she did not receive any payment for this work either.

This story was backed by Fernel Eladio Estrada Ramírez, representative of the Association of Traditional Authorities of the Road around Mitú – Bogotá Cachivera (Aatac), which brings together a dozen native communities. Fernel says that after communicating to those in charge of the mining license that the indigenous people did not want mining in their territories, the issue has been quieter in the region.

What is happening in Vaupés goes against the autonomy of the indigenous people. For priest Edwin Balarezo, director of the Community Center of Mitú, the government is violating and threatening the collective rights of the ethnic groups by granting licenses for the exploitation of resources.

The priest explains that the way these permits work is that the contracts are given to nationals, who then hand them over to “foreign companies for the exploitation of these ancestral territories, which enjoy the privilege of being protected and which have a community of human beings in their care.”

The religious institution, which accompanies the process with legal advice, knows that a Spanish company has a direct relationship with this mining contract. Agenda Propia found that the same firm would also be processing a contract in the department of Guainía and has connections with a dozen mining companies in several regions.

“You never came here for consultation,” Father Edwin says in an annoyed tone. He assures us that whether the entities are state-run or not, in many cases “they pay the captains, take them to Bogotá (the country’s capital), take them out, put them in good hotels and then send them with some lists to be signed in the communities.

According to the Constitutional Court, prior consultation is a “basic instrument for preserving the ethnic, social, economic and cultural integrity of the indigenous communities and for ensuring, therefore, their survival as a social group. In addition, the Colombian Amazon is “subject to rights”, which is why since 2018 the Supreme Court has obliged the State to establish urgent measures for its protection and that of its inhabitants.

In Colombia, Law 685 from 2001 stipulates that “minerals of any kind and location, lying in the soil or subsoil, in any natural physical state, are the exclusive property of the State”. This has generated debate in indigenous organizations that claim that what is stated in the law is contrary to their beliefs, because in the subsoil there are spiritual beings and elements that are sacred to their cultures.

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