The small town of Piedras became the first community in Colombia to hold a public referendum on the fate of a mining project – and later banned what would have been the largest gold mine in the world. Now they are coming to London to share their experiences.

Trucks decorated with the abundant fruits

Caption: One of many trucks decorated with the abundant fruits of small-scale farming in Cajamarca’s Carnaval. Photo Credit: COSAJUCA

“London represents much more than a political capital – it is also the global centre of finance for extractive industries. Capital interests and political agendas originating in the UK and throughout the Global North help drive socio-environmental conflicts around the world.”

A Colombian delegation is coming to London to mark the anniversary of a ground-breaking popular consultation that has stopped what would be the world’s largest gold mine in its tracks – while raising up sustainable alternatives – in the midst of the country’s elections.

Mining is presented by companies and the majority of the world’s governments as a driver of development, despite being one of the most destructive and deadly industries on Earth. So it is no surprise that communities are frequently labelled ‘anti-development’ and ‘anti-progress’ when they stand up to reject mining projects.

The small town of Piedras in July of 2013 became the first community in Colombia to hold a popular consultation – public referendum – on the fate of a mining project in its municipal territory. Four years later – on 26th March 2017 – what would have become the world’s largest gold mine was banned by the people of neighbouring municipality Cajamarca, in a popular consultation that gave citizens the chance to decide the project’s future.

Alternatives to mining

The ability of a community of small-farmers to autonomously organise and claim direct ownership of a legally-binding democratic mechanism has served as an inspiration for dozens of communities facing similar threats.

Since Cajamarca’s landmark victory there has been a “boom” in popular consultations across the nation. 54 municipalities are currently organising similar consultations against extractive projects. Nine others have already held their own consultations, with each and every one delivering a resounding ‘no’ to planned mining, gas and oil extraction.

Activist Mariana Gomez Soto is one of three envoys of Cajamarca’s pioneering efforts who have travelled to the UK to share Cajamarca’s story. She says the boom in popular consultations has big implications for Colombia at large: “People are not just asking for an end to mining”, Mariana said.

“They are calling for a new paradigm and a new development model that includes alternatives that are rooted in and serve the well-being of the planet and the people.”

Mariana is joined in the UK by ethnobotanist Ricardo de la Pava and Director of Sustainability at Crepes and Waffles, Felipe Macia. Since the consultation, they have been working with the small-scale farmers of Cajamarca to support alternatives to mining that are rooted in rejuvenated local democracy and the ‘true treasures’ of Cajamarca.

Practical work

Before, during, and since the Cajamarca’s popular consultation, grassroots collectives based in the region, such as COSAJUCA, have demonstrated – with trucks vibrantly decorated in fruit and vegetables and thousands of free servings of sancocho in the central square – the true wealth and abundance of Cajamarca. These demonstrations and acts are grounded in a centuries-old agrarian culture that is firmly rooted in Cajamarca.

Mariana, Ricardo and Felipe represent an emerging alliance of peasant farmers, grassroots activists, NGOs and businesses committed to sustainability and social justice.

Recent collaborations with national restaurant chain, Crepes and Waffles, and Bogota’s Museum of Modern Art (MAMBO) have helped give visibility to the resilience and commitment of Cajamarca’s peasant farmers and activists at a national level. And Crepes and Waffles has committed to purchasing arracacha- a type of Andean parsnip – directly from growers in Cajamarca, shortening the supply chain while actively promoting Cajamarca’s autonomy through celebrating arracacha-based dishes.

Ricardo, an ethnobotanist who has been working with growers in the region, explains the importance of this collaboration: “The first thing has been to build relationships with the producers associations directly.

“We started with the arracacha growers association. This was very practical work, identifying what kinds of arracacha could be transported easily, for example, in what quantities, and making sure this works for and represents significant trade for the association. We have been buying almost half a tonne, 500kg per week, since November 2017.”

“Abandoned and impoverished”?

The recent exhibition in Bogota’s museum of modern art entitled ‘Vital Gold’ subverts the notion of the metal as representing ultimate value, while re-centering what represents ‘true treasures’ of different territories and communities throughout Colombia. For the people of Cajamarca, arracacha represents this ‘vital gold’.

It is this ‘gold’- socially rooted, culturally rich and ecologically healthy – that Crepes & Waffles wants to support as part of a wider vision.

“We intend to pave the way for businesses to act as change agents in order to create an economy where success is defined by the wellbeing of people and ecosystems. Converting Colombia’s unique natural richness into mining pits represents an irreversible loss for the global effort to prevent climate change and an eventual ecological collapse”, Felipe Macia said.

While the popular consultations have become a beacon of hope and inspiration for communities throughout Colombia, they have also been targeted by conservative politicians and the business press.

Cajamarca was falsely depicted as a ‘ghost town’ in an article published in February of this year. The piece accused the popular consultation for driving out economic activity and investment, leaving the community abandoned and impoverished. The same narrative has been repeated by government and corporate officials alike.

Popular consultations

“Anyone who knows Cajamarca and where it’s located – on an important trading road – would understand that Cajamarca is not a ghost town. This is just part of the story that anywhere that rejects mining is condemned to be poor”, say Mariana.

This story plays a leading role in putting the lives of environmental defenders at risk- demonising their efforts to take agency over the future of their territory. As the municipality of Cajamarca, and other communities across Colombia are showing, nothing could be further from the truth, and popular consultations have gained a prominent place in the Colombian public’s consciousness.

With legislative elections having just taken place on March 11th, and presidential elections on May 27th fast approaching, the popular consultations have featured high in the national political agenda with regards to the environment and local democratic control.

“In January five of our presidential candidates came together for a debate on topics relating to the environment. Of the five questions they were asked, the first was about popular consultations and mining. This is a success of the social movements- they’ve elevated the discussion to this level and the politicians are having to take a position. Nonetheless there are some right-wing candidates who have said that they will limit the popular consultations. They want more mining and to open the country to fracking.”

Mariana, Ricardo and Felipe are coming to London to celebrate the anniversary of Cajamarca’s victory as well as to meet with UK government officials and advocate for popular consultations as a democratic mechanism, and for their role in the peace process.

International complicity, international solidarity

“The message of Cajamarca in this context is that the peace process needs to create sustainable possibilities for the communities and areas most affected by the conflict,” Mariana said.

However, London represents much more than a political capital – it is also the global centre of finance for extractive industries. Capital interests and political agendas originating in the UK and throughout the Global North help drive socio-environmental conflicts around the world.

For that very reason, activists and NGOs, like ourselves based in London have an important role to play in addressing those interests, taking direction from frontline communities.

Regional, national and international solidarity are of critical importance to the success of these struggles, Mariana added. “Communities need to be connected nationally and internationally to share their strategies and responses to mining, because if not they can be left isolated, without information or the ability to respond early.

“It was very important for us to reach out internationally to learn from others who had stopped mines.”

Written by Gaia’s Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, originally published March 28, 2018 in the Ecologist.