You are here


Colombia: Soraida Chindoy - the Indigenous guardian defending the sacred Putumayo mountains

  • An Indigenous woman from the Inga community in the Condagua reservation in Putumayo, Colombia, is leading the struggle against a Canadian mining company that plans to mine the community’s sacred mountains for copper and molybdenum.
  • Within Soraida Chindoy’s territory is the Doña Juana-Chimayoy páramo, where eight rivers have their source and where there are 56 lagoons. The site, where the Amazon rainforest and the Andes meet, is sacred to the Indigenous population.
  • Her campaign against mining was borne of tragedy. In 2017, she and her family were among the almost 22,000 people affected by the landslide in Mocoa, when Mother Earth provided a stark warning as to why it is so important to take care of her.

On May 9, 1983, Soraida Chindoy Buesaquillo’s placenta was planted in the mountains of Putumayo, where Colombia’s Amazon rainforest meets the Andes.

Her mother, Concepción Buesaquillo, was a midwife by trade and spoke of the importance of this Indigenous Inga ritual, which, according to tradition, ensures a connection between the newborn and Mother Earth. Mother Earth will then guide the child for the rest of their life, allowing them to grow as strong and sure as a mighty tree.

The eighth of ten children, Soraida’s eyes are as black as her hair, which she wears in a ponytail that reaches her waist and down to her chumbe, the pink belt that forms part of her traditional dress. She never leaves home without taking mambe — a powder made from coca leaf and other substances used by her community for spiritual and medicinal purposes — and a necklace made with caimo (Pouteria caimito), whose seeds imitate the sound of a flowing river. She plays with the necklace when she sings in her native language to Mother Earth.

Growing up, Soraida Chindoy was taught to make good use of the land, to plant, fish, and harvest, but also to take care of it. She did so from the time she was born until she was a teenager living in the Condagua Indigenous Reserve, in the south of the country.

Heading off in search of work, she later moved to Mocoa, the capital of the Putumayo department, a 30-minute motorcycle ride from the reservation. But she never left behind her homeland, where her parents and some of her siblings still live.

Today, she is 40 years old and walks the reservation’s mountains barefoot, with a dexterity unique to those who have done it their whole life. While picking cocoa from a tree, she recalls the first time she felt that her family’s peaceful life was at risk.

“It was about ten years ago that I heard about the [mining] companies for the first time. It was all rumors. They said they were bringing good projects to benefit the community, that they were coming to help us, and at first I thought it was cool because no-one was coming here and there was a lot of need,” she says.

However, doubts began to creep in: Where did the money for these projects come from? Who was behind the company? Very little was known about it, she recalls, but she knew that the mountain was being assessed because, around 2010, machines began coming up from nearby trails.

Soraida Chindoy today leads her people’s fight against the Canadian mining company Libero Copper. The company plans to mine the Ingas’ sacred mountains to extract copper, a mineral that President Gustavo Petro’s government considers strategic for the energy transition due to its importance in the production of “clean energies”, such as solar panels and wind turbines. During his campaign, the left-wing leader vowed to stop issuing oil and gas exploration licenses and has recently advocated for the exploration of crucial minerals in the country to develop renewable energy as a climate change solution.

The country’s largest copper deposit, found in Indigenous lands

In the mid-seventies, the Colombian Geological Survey, at that time known as Ingeominas, was responsible for surveying natural resources and geological risks in Colombia. They discovered what they claimed to be the largest copper and molybdenum deposit in the country. The deposit was found in the area that in 1993, some 11 years later, would be declared by the state as a reservation belonging to the Indigenous Inga, Soraida Chindoy’s people.

The land where Chindoy was born is very special, and not only because of the deposit that, according to Colombia’s National Mining Agency, has around 636 million tons of copper. It is also home to the Doña Juana-Chimayoy páramo, where eight rivers and more than 1,140 surface tributaries originate. The territory is also home to 56 lagoons considered sacred by the Indigenous people, and represents the meeting point between the Amazon rainforest and the Andes.

The area was recognized as an Indigenous reservation, a status that implies community ownership and that is characterized as inalienable, indispensable, and non-seizable, with the condition that any project in the territory must have the approval of its ancestral owners. In spite of this, the Colombian state granted four mining titles in 2006, without prior consultation with the Indigenous community.

The British company Anglo American was the first to manage and obtain the four mining titles, which later passed to South Africa’s Anglogold Ashanti, and Canada’s B2Gold. But since May 2018, they have belonged to Canadian company Libero Copper, which operates in Colombia under the name Libero Cobre.

In a technical report dated January 2022, available on Libero Copper’s website, the company states that the “Mocoa Copper and Molybdenum Project” covers an area of just over 11,391 hectares (over 28,000 acres).

In June 2023, Mongabay Latam published an investigation by a journalistic alliance revealing that the Mocoa mining project would benefit two members of a U.S. political dynasty. The report also reveals that carrying the project out would involve, among other things, reducing the size of this protected natural area.

The investigation, which was led by the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), shows that the company reported starting exploration activities in Putumayo in October 2021. Two months later, the British company Anglo Asian Mining plc became Libero Copper’s largest partner.

Anglo Asian shareholders include John Henry Sununu, a U.S. Republican politician, former governor of New Hampshire, and former chief of staff to George Bush Sr. His son, Michael Charles Sununu, is a member of Libero Copper’s board. In addition to belonging to a family that has featured in American politics for more than 40 years, both have been controversial for questioning the veracity of scientific information on climate change.

A track record that reinforces mining fears

Grassroots organization Rizoma, Entretejiendo la defensa de los Bienes Comunes (Weaving a Defense of the Commons), specializes in supporting communities that oppose mining in Latin America. The group documented that Anglo Asian’s mining projects have generated social and environmental conflicts in other countries such as Azerbaijan.

In addition, Ian Harris, President and CEO of Libero, was formerly Vice-President of Corriente Resources, another Canadian company that led the El Mirador copper mining project in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon. It later sold the project to the Chinese consortium CRCC, which has been accused of causing deforestation and committing various human rights violations in Ecuador.

Soraida Chindoy fears that the social and environmental problems brought about by mining activity will also transform her homeland.

“In the future this will all become a desert, our water sources are going to dry up. We are already seeing the displacement of animals. You now see monkeys and birds that were previously only found in the virgin forest looking for other nesting sites. This is the damage they [the mining company] are causing, and many do not understand,” she says.

The community also believes that the company underestimates their understanding of the environmental impact their activities can cause. “They think we are too stupid to understand. One day I asked them what they were going to do with the water they use to extract all those minerals, where they would dump it. ‘We recycle it, they told me.’ Really, they are all the way up the mountain, and then they will take all that water down there to recycle it? I don’t think so,” she says.

The Libero mining title, as published on the National Mining Agency’s website, has four active blocks. The first (FJT-141) was granted in December 2006 to exploit copper, molybdenum, gold, silver, platinum minerals, and all their derivatives over an area of 1,912 hectares (about 4,720 acres), until December 17, 2037. The other three blocks are for the construction and installation of the mine, as well as the exploitation of stones and other minerals. These were granted in 2007 and are valid until 2038.

The problem with these titles is that all four overlap with the territory recognized as the Condagua Inga Reservation — where Soraida Chindoy was born — and with the Upper Mocoa Basin Forest Reserve, a protected area. In addition, when the titles were granted, studies, work and mineral exploration operations were carried out in the region without the Indigenous people being asked for their opinion.

By 2017 the mining project was clearly making headway, with machines going up and down to the site, and a helicopter flying overhead. But still there was no resistance from the communities. Even Soraida Chindoy herself admits they did not seem to pose a risk until, she says, Mother Earth gave a forceful reminder of why it is so important to take care of her.

The tragedy that triggered the territory’s defense

On March 31, 2017, Soraida Chindoy was on the second floor of the house she and her husband were in the process of building. It was already dark, around eight o’clock in the evening, when they heard a rumble. What followed, she says, was one of the worst nights of her life.

Due to heavy rains, the Mulato, Sangoyaco and Taruca rivers broke their banks and joined the waters of the Mocoa river, causing a landslide of mud and rocks that left 336 people dead and more than 400 injured. It also destroyed 17 neighborhoods in Mocoa, affecting 22,000 people, including Soraida Chindoy and her family.

Together with her husband and their two children, aged one and five, they managed to climb up to the second floor of their home, which was under construction, from where they could see their neighbors coming down, dead and alive. Despite the terrifying scene, they managed to shelter 28 people on the slab of what was left of their home.

“I just wished I could grow long hands so I could pull them all up,” she says. In the end, the four members of her family and everyone they were able to shelter under their roof survived. After such an event, Soraida says she considers life to be a miracle for which she will be eternally grateful.

As an Inga woman, it was clear to Soraida what had happened; Mother Earth was sick. But when she took yagé — a traditional drink that her community sees as the source of all knowledge, guiding them in spiritual and physical life — shortly after the landslide, it confirmed her suspicions. “When I took the medicine, I saw very tormented animals and they told me they were suffering,” she recalls.

Four days after the tragedy, Luz Marina Mantilla, Director of the Amazonian Institute for Scientific Research (SINCHI), confirmed the role of environmental damage in the landslide in an interview with Blu Radio.

When asked about what caused the rivers to overflow, she said, “Putumayo represents one of the most complex deforestation areas in recent years. When we cut down the forest, this has a very serious effect on water retention and the water cycle.”

Her claims are supported by recent figures compiled by Global Forest Watch. The organization reports that, between 2000 and 2022, the department of Putumayo lost some 14% of its tree cover.

Reborn from the rubble

“After the tragedy I said that if God gave me the opportunity to live again, I would raise my voice for those who have none. So, I started consulting the elders and reading on the internet about the impacts caused by copper companies,” says Soraida Chindoy.

Since 2021, the Autonomous University of Barcelona’s Institute of Environmental Science and Technologies (ICTA-UAB), MiningWatch Canada, and affected communities from nine American countries have been compiling such impacts in the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice. Their website brings together reports of deforestation, contamination of agricultural land and water sources, as well as heavy metal residues in the bodies of animals and people. It also features evidence of militarization and human rights violations, and other issues caused by copper mining projects in the Americas.

When Soraida Chindoy began to understand the potential threat to her ancestral land, she joined the group Guardianes de la Andinoamazonía (Guardians of the Amazonian Andes), an organization created by local people living near the copper area in Mocoa.

In 2022, they organized the first Water, Life, and the Mountain Festival to help the people of Mocoa understand the environmental and social consequences of copper extraction. As part of the event, an Indigenous guard made up of the Nasa people — who inhabit another nearby territory — organized a march to one of the camps that the Canadian company has in the mountains.

“The guard saw horses that were being used to carry things up the mountain, felled trees, and a large machine that looked like a drill,” explains Soraida Chindoy.

The visit prompted the Amazon’s environmental agency (Corpoamazonía) to start carrying out inspections in the area. Since then, a tug-of-war has been in full swing between the agency and the mining company, leading the National Mining Agency and Corpoamazonía to demand that Libero Copper suspend any exploration and exploitation work in the area, because there is no environmental license, and the titles are in a protected area.

However, the mining titles and the Canadian company’s Mocoa Project remain in place. According to a Corpoamazonía report presented at a public hearing in April 2019, in this area there is “the crown of an active landslide with a surface area of approximately 13 hectares [32 acres], and other smaller mass movements are active.”

This claim was later reiterated by Corpoamazonía engineers during a public hearing on April 30, 2022, in which they explained that the four mining titles are in an area susceptible to landslides and, therefore, could generate (torrential floods leading to) landslides of water and rocks, such as the one in 2017 that left Soraida Chindoy and her family injured.

For this reason, Soraida says she has sought to make her cause visible through civil society, community activities and social networks. Because of this, she has become an important and highly visible figure in the fight against mining extraction in Mocoa.

Defending the common good

“Soraida is a person who looks for ways to make herself heard and to make people aware of the injustices that are happening in Mocoa because of Libero Copper. It is admirable how she is always looking for information to have a basis with which to defend her territory,” says Julli Mantilla, a researcher with the Environment and Society Association, who met the Inga defender in the midst of her fight for her land.

The Indigenous leader’s husband, Leandro Arteaga Yela, agrees. “Soraida has great wisdom and draws her strength from traditional medicine. She is not afraid to express what she thinks, nor to make demands or motivate the community. Her voice has managed to get many people, who were skeptical at the beginning, to join the fight against mining companies,” he says.

Many eyes are on Soraida Chindoy, especially since she attended the pre-Amazon summit held on July 7 and 8, 2023 in Leticia, Amazonas. There, she and other Indigenous women leaders met with the current Colombian Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Susana Muhamad, and expressed their concern about the risks to their territory from potential mineral extraction.

The Minister stated that, when faced with a choice between copper or water, she would always choose water. She explained that for cases such as the Condagua Reservation, an “umbrella decree” would be issued.

“The Ministry of the Environment is going to start issuing orders blocking some of these areas, one of which is where Libero Copper is,” said Muhamad.

Mongabay Latam consulted the ministry about these claims made to Soraida, and they explained that this decree was published on January 30. It states that “temporary natural resource reserves” may be declared in Colombia. This suggests that, when the degree comes into effect, the environmental authorities will review the concession contracts already in operation and, if they affect protected areas, they could terminate the mining companies’ contracts.

This document is a first step to stopping mining in protected areas, but it has yet to be implemented. As of the date of this article’s publication, it has not yet had any impact on the Condagua Reservation. In the meantime, Soraida Chindoy has to deal with what it means to be an environmental and territorial defender in Colombia.

There are many who do not agree with the work carried out by people like her. In the streets of her city, Mocoa, some complain about her fight against mining.

“They recognize me easily and when I am at traffic lights, either on a motorcycle or on foot, sometimes they stop to tell me to stop fighting, to let them work. I imagine this is because they have a job with the mining company,” she says.

Although she is grateful that, so far, she has not received any threats or attempts on her life, she and all those who know her understand there is a need to be cautious.

“Sometimes we feel uncertain or a little afraid for Soraida’s safety, because the leaders have always been the focus for people or organizations that are uncomfortable with those who think differently or dare to say what the rest of us keep quiet,” says her husband.

According to the latest report by the NGO Global Witness, 60 environmental and territorial defenders were murdered in Colombia in 2022. This figure places the country as the most dangerous for environmental leaders.

Soraida Chindoy knows this, but she says that she faces her reality with courage. “I am not afraid, because I know I am defending something we need. If we, from the smallest to the biggest, don’t stand up for it, who will? I know that lately they have been killing us, the leaders who are taking a stand, but if we stay at home they will also kill us, so I would prefer to be killed while we are speaking out.”

The leader has continued her activism along with the other members of Guardians of the Andean Amazon. From August 18 to 20, 2023, they organized the second Festival of Water, Mountain and Life in the capital of Putumayo. The event was intended to raise awareness among citizens about the riches of the Andean Amazon rainforest, and the risks that come with possible mineral extraction.

For the festival, Soraida Chindoy made a costume of an Andean bear, an animal that lives in the area she defends and that, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, is a Vulnerable species. Soraida wore her costume throughout the festival’s activities. With it, she wanted to encourage adults and children to see why it is worth fighting for the mountains where her placenta, like that of many other Ingas, was planted.


Illustrations courtesy of Leo Jiménez.

Editor’s note: This news coverage is part of the project “Amazon Rights in Focus: Peoples and Forest Protection”, a series of investigative articles about deforestation and environmental crimes currently happening in Colombia. It is funded by the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions are taken independently and not on the basis of donor support.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 20, 2024.