Australian Mining's Colombian Push


The resource boom is spreading. Mines, gas wells and shipping ports are opening at a rapid rate throughout Australia, and now Africa and Latin America are targets for rapid resource exploitation. According to organisers of the South American Diggers’ Conference, in 2011 South America was "the world’s leading destination for both mineral exploration and mine investment".

The Australian government is keen that Australian companies get a piece of South America’s mining boom. One country considered a promising new frontier is Colombia.

Austrade’s Dan Sullivan said in December 2010 that while Canadian companies dominate investment in South America, Australian companies have more to offer in experience with remote large-scale mining, as well as in "community relations". To assist Australian companies with Latin American investments and activities, Austrade, the Australian government’s trade and investment organisation, opened an office in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, in July this year.

"What began as a trickle of Australian mining projects in Latin America,
largely off the back of the success of the joint venture between BHP
Billiton and Rio Tinto at Escondida in Chile, has turned into a flood
across the continent," Foreign Minister Bob Carr told a recent conference in Sydney.

Most Australians still associate Colombia with guns, drugs and guerrillas. But Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has new plans to turn Colombia into a "mining powerhouse". 40 per cent (pdf) of Colombia’s land has been licensed to, or is being solicited by, multinational companies in order to develop mineral and crude oil mining projects.

While increased security in certain areas in recent years has made the country more attractive for international investment, mining areas continue to be the site of violent conflict, some of which is at the hands of right-wing paramilitary successor groups. Communities and local human rights organisations have denounced payments allegedly made by mining companies to these paramilitary successor groups in order to displace communities from lands in which they plan to mine.

In the enthusiasm for expanding mining in Colombia, there appears to be little recognition that there are ongoing social issues in Colombia related to the use of land and the rights of local communities, as well as threats and violence towards people working for positive social change. Many of the areas slated for mining development are already home to small farmers or artisanal miners, and many communities are at risk of displacement to make way for this massive increase in mining.

Peace Brigades International provides protective accompaniment to human rights defenders such as lawyers’ collectives, peace communities and social organisations at risk of political violence in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Kenya. Increasingly, the organisations that we accompany are working on mining issues, organising their communities, and highlighting alternative possible means of economic development.

The risks of this work are high; human rights defenders working on land and environment issues face the greatest risk of death in Latin America, according to a 2011 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya.

One of the organisations that PBI protects in Colomba is the José Alvear Restrepo
Lawyers Collective who has worked with communities affected by one of the world’s biggest coal mines, El Cerrejón. Part owned by BHP Billiton, the scale of this single project makes the company Colombia’s single biggest foreign investor.

Local communities complain of a life of poverty and marginalisation at the edge of the mine, as well as adverse health effects from coal dust and polluted water. El Cerrejón began in the 1980s before an obligation to consult with indigenous communities was inserted in the new constitution of Colombia in 1991. In practice however these constitutional consultation processes are underutilised and many indigenous peoples fall outside their scope.

Even in the face of these risks, many communities in Colombia, such as in Mande Norte, are holding their own grassroots referendums and saying that they don’t want mining projects in their areas. Dissatisfied with the community consultation process undertaken by the mining company, in 2009 the community leaders of Mande Norte organised for a comprehensive vote which resulted in a resounding rejection of mining in that area. This was insufficient to stop the project, and instead community leaders faced increasing threats from armed groups.

It’s obviously important to remember that not everyone on the ground opposes mining. And the Australian government’s statements on international mining, which extend beyond Austrade and into Ausaid’s "Mining for Development" program, all talk about the potential benefits to communities and the need to respect local environments and practices in new mining developments. Australian companies are promoted as having developed best practice community consultation mechanisms that are ready to be exported to the world.

But the Australian mining companies encouraged to enter Colombia will be entering a highly contested and often violent political context. Colombia remains a very dangerous place for human rights defenders and communities seeking their land and livelihood. Mining companies will be inheriting, and perhaps benefiting from, this legacy of displacement and repression. Whether on the ground practice is able to match the high level statements from Australian political leaders about mining best practice remains to be seen.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.