Colombia: Mirage and Reality in Southern Bolivar

by Isaías Rodríguez Arango

Colombia - Mining Zone“Colombia is a social state under rule of law, organized in the form of a unitary, decentralized Republic, autonomous from its territorial subdivisions, democratic, participatory and pluralistic, founded on respect for human dignity and on the work and solidarity of the people who belong to it, and on the prevailing value of the general interest.” – Title I, Article 1, Political Constitution of Colombia (1991) (unofficial translation)

Colombians increasingly see our 1991 Constitution as a mirage.  The illusion is evident in areas hard-hit by armed conflict such as southern Bolívar province’s San Lucas Mountains – a mining area at the epicenter of a complex war. 

Small-scale gold mining provides a livelihood to hundreds of families in southern Bolívar.  But one of the world’s most aggressive international mining companies, AngloGold Ashanti, has its eyes on the region.  Local communities therefore face pressure from the government ranging from industrial regulation to paramilitary activity designed to force them off the land. 

The small-scale miners cannot meet newly-imposed environmental and safety standards without public or private aid.  At the same time, government agencies overlook deliberate violations of these regulations by industry giants.  High prices of essential goods and services increase the likelihood of economic displacement for the small-scale miners.

According to the regionally-based Comprehensive Peace Observatory, seven paramilitary groups are active in the Middle Magdalena region.  Their primary criminal activities include drug trafficking and extortion with the larger aim of maintaining social, political, economic, and military control of the area.  

In 2006, 6,000 paramilitary members demobilized in the region, but that same year 26 new groups emerged.  These criminal organizations have been accused of committing 1,051 targeted killings between 2006 and 2011.

In 2008, leftist guerrillas from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the rightwing paramilitary group Águilas Negras formed an unusual alliance in southern Bolívar, complicating identification of perpetrators of violence.

Despite government collusion with armed actors and mining policies that intentionally exclude small-scale miners, local residents continue their struggle to remain on these lands that their indigenous ancestors have long inhabited.

Isaías Rodríguez Arango participated in CPT-Colombia’s national delegation during holy week.