Colombia: Devastating Impact of Mining on Indigenous Populations

In November 2014, a group of Afro-Colombian women walked the 600 kilometres from their villages in the department of Cauca, to Bogota, the Colombian capital, to protest the devastating impacts of mining and violence in their region: sexual violence, assassination of community leaders, contamination of water, loss of livelihood (artisanal gold mining), and forced displacement. Their signs, songs, and clear demands to the government were in the name of defending life and their ancestral territories.

Soon after the march, the Justice Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Franciscan Family of Colombia (FFC) started finding ways in which to act in solidarity with the movement, one of which was to carry out a consultation to assess the impact of extractive development policies on Afro-Colombian women and their communities. FI sponsored and supported this effort, convinced that the information collected could be presented at international level, during Colombia’s upcoming review by the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in August 2015.

Based on this information and in dialogue with the FFC and community leaders, FI drafted a report that was submitted jointly to the Committee underlining deficiencies in legal, institutional, and policy frameworks, and documents the discriminatory impacts of policies that promote and allow illegal mining: the reality of unconstitutional and illegal mining, the impacts on the collective human rights of communities, especially in terms of water, forced displacement, and the situation of Afro-Colombian women; the right to prior consultation; and the situation of human rights defenders. The findings corroborate those of the UN expert on minority issues in Colombia: “The map of high-density Afro-Colombian populations overlaps almost completely with the map of areas of extreme poverty.1”

Two representatives – the coordinator of the FFC JPIC Commission and a representative of ACONC – travelled to Geneva in August, to raise awareness about the situation in North Cauca, and participate in Colombia’s review by the UN CERD. The report and comments made by the two representatives were picked up by the Committee on various fronts. The Committee raised issues that were consistent with the report, including how continuing armed conflict disproportionately affects indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations. It stated that Afro-Colombian men and women face “persistent structural discrimination and invisibility, (…) which manifests in itself in the inequality and gap in terms of Afro-Colombian’s exercise of economic, social, and cultural rights in relation to the rest of the population,” and directly mentioned the threats and violence that keep Afro-Colombians from exercising their rights over territorial lands. In parallel to what was stated in the joint FF, FI, & ACONC report, the Committee specifically called out the state for not having consulted the National Development Plan with the Afro-Colombian communities because some officials had publicly cited prior consultation as an obstacle for development.

As our two visitors head back to Colombia after an important review of their country by the UN CERD, intending to report back to the community on how their voice was relayed, heard, and acted upon by top decision makers at the UN, FI continues to seek ways to bridge local movements working against injustice with international policy makers at the UN.

1. Report of the independent expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, Mission to Colombia, UN Doc. A/HRC/16/45/Add.1 (25 January 2011), Par. 22