Knowledge is Power: Community tools for protecting land, water and life

Communities around the world are standing up and saying no to the extractive industries. Here are a few inspiring stories from our partners in Colombia, Philippines and South Africa, all supported in some way by the thriving Yes to Life, No to Mining movement.

On the 26th March 2017, the people of Cajamarca, Colombia, voted NO ‘the world’s largest gold mine’ being built on their territory.


Cajamarca, a town nestled in water rich paramo ecosystems.


In a decisive ‘popular consultation’ on the future of mining company Anglo Gold Ashanti’s planned La Colosa mine, 98% of voters rejected the mine in favour of clean water, air, agriculture and healthy ecosystems.

Located in a key food-producing region in the Andes Mountains, agriculture is Cajamarca’s source of wealth. Food growing activities in this farming region are nourished by clean water from highland paramo ecosystems that act as key water catchment areas for some of Colombia’s largest rivers.


Farmers sort and select seeds in Cajamarca. Photo: Viviana Sanchez.


The vote to ban mining in Cajamarca is one of the latest, and largest, victories in a wave of popular consultations on mining taking place across the Americas.

Organised by the people, for the people, these consultations are enabling communities to take democratic control over decisions made about their territories and the future of all species who call them home.

Disrupting the nexus of powerful state and corporate extractive interests that usually decide the future of destructive projects, popular consultations offer a glimpse of what real, democratic community participation and consent processes look like.


A graphic showing some of the popular consultations on mining in the Americas to-date. Credit: Diana Rodriguez.


For all their talk of seeking and respecting consent and community involvement, mining companies and their governmental allies have reacted aggressively to popular consultations like the one held in Cajamarca. But despite challenging the constitutionality of popular consultations on mining in the Colombian courts, their efforts to undermine local democracy have so far been unsuccessful.

In late-2016 the Colombian Constitutional Court declared that municipalities have a constitutional right to hold consultations on mining. This has set the stage for many more consultations to take place and placed mining at the heart of political debates about Colombia’s political and economic future.


Tools for education, tools for change

Gaia has been supporting the emergence of popular consultations as a tool for territorial defence for several years.

In 2013 we first connected with Mariana Gomez Soto, a young anthropologist and activist from the small Colombian town of Doima. At the time Doima was facing the threat of a vast mining waste dam being built in a nearby valley. If built, the dam would have held over a billion tonnes of toxic sludge from the planned La Colosa mine.


A resident of Doima holds a sign that says “the oysters of our river shine brighter than the greed of gold”. Photo: Felix.


Gaia helped connect the people of Doima with other communities resisting mining operations worldwide in Ghana, the UK and beyond. Our collaboration resulted in a short film, In Solidarity, and helped to support first a blockade and then the people of Doima’s own popular consultation on the future of the dam.

“It was amazing, a real triumph for democracy”, says Mariana of the day Piedras (the municipality in which Doima sits) voted to ban the dam and other mining developments.

“Of 5,105 people eligible to vote in Piedras 3,007 turned out and 2,971 voted against mining developments and said yes to protecting the environment in the municipality… It (the popular consultation) has shown the whole country how a community can pressure the government to recognise gaps in environmental and mining laws and act on this pressure, representing the people’s interests as it should.”


Residents of Piedras gather to vote to protect their territory from mining developments. Photo: EJOLT


Since then, in close collaboration with Mariana and inspiring Colombian organisations, Gaia has been supporting the growing movement of Colombian municipalities holding popular consultations on mining by sharing public education materials on the true impacts of mining.

More than 10,000 copies of Gaia’s UnderMining Agriculture report and infographic have been printed in Colombia. This tool has had a big impact, supporting local organisers in their efforts to raise critical consciousness about mining impacts, especially in rural areas.

Local organisers have been using UnderMining Agriculture in the run-up to popular consultations, like that in Cajamarca, to inform voters on their way to the polls.

The report has been shared at community forums and mass public events where people have gathered to discuss taking democratic action to protect the sustainable future of their territories.


A young man shows of his copy of UnderMining Agriculture at a forum called Biodiversity vs. Mining in Southwest Antioquia. Photo: ADIDA.


Educational groups like the Association of Teachers of Antioquia (ADIDA) have also made use of the report to rally other educational institutions to take a stand. Their efforts have helped the Colombian municipalities of Támesis and Jericó successfully campaign to ban mining in their territories.

“Undermining Agriculture shows the way the national priorities have to be revaluated. The governments and citizens have to have to protect the conditions needed in order to produce food today, as well as for future generations. The lands devoted to farming as well as water resources on which these depend must be recognized as “untouchable zones” (or no-go zones) by mining and other extractive industries. “ – Letter from ADIDA, the Association of Teachers of Antioquia.


A Global Strategy

Gaia’s UnderMining Agriculture infographic. Graphic: The Gaia Foundation.

Powerful, accessible communications tools like UnderMining Agriculture have become one of the most effective means through which we have been able to support communities on the frontline of mining conflicts, and the local partners who work with them.

Through our extensive global networks, and thanks to the reach of the Yes to Life No to Mining network, we have had other significant successes in disseminating community-oriented informational tools about the extractive industries to the people who most need them.

In the Philippines, people’s network Amianan Salakniban is taking Gaia’s 2016 film, In Defence of Life, to rural communities, students and civil society groups, to raise critical consciousness about the devastating impacts of mining and strengthen the resistance of the many communities facing mining projects on their lands.

“For Amianan Salakniban, the film has been a great tool for bringing the story of the communities to the people and engaging them to be active in helping communities with the same situation. It became easy for us to explain to the oblivious the issues, the harsh realities of mining, and in turn, debunk the false notions that it made the lives of the people better. It also became easier to explain the need to repeal the unjust and biased law that favors for foreign corporations to trample over indigenous peoples’ territories.”

– Sandra, Amianan Salakniban

In South Africa, members of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice organisation have been using In Defence of Life as a community education tool in their struggle to prevent the expansion of a vast coal mines bordering Africa’s oldest state-recognised protected area. They have also made use of other Gaia films, including Seeds of Sovereignty, at events like the Isolesizwe Film Festival to suggest positive alternatives to mining.

Members of MCEJO gathered for the Isolesizwe (‘Eye of the Nation’) Film Festival in 2016. Photo: MCEJO


Internationally, Gaia and Steve Cutts’ award-winning animation, Wake Up Call, has been viewed by more than 3 million people. Wake Up Call has been shown on the main stage at Glastonbury Festival; included in educational curriculums in Brazil, Japan and the USA; featured in a South Korean museum exhibition about junk and more.


The thoughts of young people in the USA before and after watching Wake Up Call. Photo: Chrysa Papalazarou

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