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Colombia: In a village divided, farmers stall massive copper mine in Colombian Andes

  • A group of farmers and villagers are resisting the construction of a large copper mine in Colombia’s tropical Andes, where agriculture is a key industry; they recently blocked the company from completing environmental impact studies required by the Colombian government.
  • International gold mining giant AngloGold Ashanti has been working for more than a decade to obtain a license to extract nearly 1.4 million metric tons of copper from within the mountains surrounding the town of Jericó.
  • The company has also integrated into the town, supporting social programs, youth activities and local businesses; residents are divided over the mine, and many view it as a welcome social and economic boost for Jericó.

JERICÓ, Colombia — Argirio Tobón Tamayo tugs down the top branch of a coffee tree covered in waxy green leaves, bending it back to reveal coffee cherries in shades of yellow, green and red — the latter ready to be picked.

At less than 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall, Tobón Tamayo is the perfect height to pick the bright coffee berries off even the lowest branches, which he’s been doing here since he was 11.

“How are we not going to fight for this?” he asks.

His coffee and plantain farm sits atop La Soledad, a mountain above the colorful colonial town of Jericó, in Colombia’s Antioquia department, about a three-hour drive from Medellín, the departmental capital. But for more than a decade, the same mountain, with its rich deposits of copper, silver and gold, has been the target of mining giant AngloGold Ashanti.

The Quebradona project aims to extract nearly 1.4 million metric tons of copper over a construction and production period of nearly 30 years, plus 2.6 million ounces of gold and 28.1 million ounces of silver via two tunnels up to 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) deep. They’d run beneath three rural mountain neighborhoods in Jericó, where people traditionally grow coffee, plantain and newer crops like avocado.

Worried about the impact of the mine on their underground water supply, a group of farmers and villagers have blocked AngloGold Ashanti from performing the final environmental studies it needs for its pending mining license, although the company has gained support from other residents who say the mine will provide a necessary economic boon for the town.

Once operating, the company says the mine would bring in around $5 million in annual profit for the town and create at least 3,000 jobs.

But Jericó is sharply divided. Residents told Mongabay that the subject of the mine has split people within the same family. Others said they preferred to stay quietly neutral because the issue has become so controversial.

For their part, farmers are concerned their livelihood will vanish. Tobón Tamayo says he worries he won’t be able to grow anything at all if the mine drills into the area below his home and disrupts the water table. The area is predominantly agricultural, he says, and has never been a mining zone.

“It’s going to disappear. All this disappears. So what do we do?” he says. “We have a lot of love for the land because it has given us many things, and very beautiful things.”

The water he uses for his crops comes from natural springs in the mountain that bubble up from the underground aquifer, which acts as a water filter.

“I love water so much. That’s why I’m fighting for it.”

Experts say the mine’s potential impact on the aquifer and the farmers’ water sources isn’t clear yet.

“There is no evidence that they are cutting off underground water sources” since the deposit is quite deep, says Óscar Jaime Restrepo Baena, a professor in the Faculty of Mining at the National University of Colombia, who has studied the Quebradona project.

“[But] it may be that when [they] do an exploration, when [they] do an excavation, an aquifer appears,” he adds.

The lack of clarity is partly because Tobón Tamayo and 60 others marched in December onto farmland rented by Quebradona and dismantled a platform the company installed for the environmental studies. The group took apart machines set up to drill into the ground and take core samples to determine the mine’s potential impact on the aquifer.

The property owner then filed a civil complaint against the group with help from AngloGold Ashanti, and at a first hearing in April, the accused — farmers, young activists, town council members and nuns — protested with a march through town

AngloGold Ashanti has been working for two years to complete the environmental studies as, pending additional information, its mining license was frozen in 2021 by Colombia’s National Authority of Environmental Licenses, or ANLA.

To receive a license, ANLA says, the company needs to expand on how the mine will impact the groundwater. A previous study “clearly indicates” a connection between underground and surface water, yet the Quebradona developers didn’t fully evaluate the area’s aquifers. ANLA also says the company failed to fully determine how the mining cavity would hold up during ground tremors or earthquakes.

Restrepo Baena says another risk is that the mine could cause the land above the excavation site to sink, because the copper deposit could be detonated beneath the ground using a method called block caving, which is uncommon in Colombia. Block caving involves undermining a section of rock so that it collapses in on itself, falling into chambers from where the ore can then be extracted.

Environmental groups say they worry the mine would disrupt wildlife habitats in the mine’s biodiverse area of influence, including that of the Colombian night monkey (Aotus lemurinus), red-bellied grackle (Hypopyrrhus pyrohypogaster), yellow-headed manakin (Chloropipo flavicapilla) and scarlet-fronted parakeet (Psittacara wagleri).

To block the studies, farmers have kept constant watch on the land rented by Quebradona up in the mountains. So when the company installed the platform in December, they vandalized it secretly, in “the middle of the night,” says Maria José Cano, a 23-year-old Jericó native who organized the recent protests.

Quebradona wants the antimining group to promise it won’t disrupt operations anymore, Cano says, but “it’s not going to happen.”

As of mid-May, the legal process was still ongoing, with the town’s police inspector in charge of mediation between the two sides.

“[The protesters] have stopped us,” a communications official for the Quebradona mine, who asks that their name be withheld because they were not authorized to speak publicly, tells Mongabay. “That’s kind of where we are right now, what we’re facing.”

AngloGold Ashanti has invested millions of dollars in Jericó since it first launched the project in 2010, including in a youth gymnastics program, a marching band, renovations of a high school, a plant nursery, tree planting, tourism promotion, and direct investments in local small businesses. In 2023 alone, AngloGold Ashanti invested more than $1.1 million in the town, according to Quebradona’s annual report.

A busy breakfast cafe in the town plaza has a Quebradona logo displayed at the front. The owner of a home appliance store says the company accounted for nearly all of his holiday sales. Last year, the company gifted farming tools, technical assistance and sales help to 15 farming families in the region.

That includes funding for the Jeremías Cano Foundation, which local restaurant owner Carlos Cano founded after the death of his 15-year-old son, to offer sports, English classes and other activities for kids in their free time. They also host classes and offer work experiences for kids with disabilities.

AngloGold Ashanti has “been a generator of resources for the annual sustainability of the foundation,” Cano, not related to Maria José Cano, tells Mongabay. That includes paying for administration costs and human resources, he adds. “It has been a good base for us.”

Cano says he believes AngloGold Ashanti is a responsible company that has shown an interest in boosting the community and Jericoanos like him. He says he believes they intend to build the mine with care and the proper regulations.

“There’s a reality: that there is a mine there, there is a treasure stored in the earth,” he says. “Sooner or later, the national government, or any other company, they will take it out of there. They are not going to leave it behind.”

Mining in Colombia has a dark history, especially when there’s gold involved, Restrepo Baena tells Mongabay. The profits involved attract criminals, including armed groups, and give rise to illegal illicit activities like prostitution.

“If companies work poorly, these things happen. If companies work well, why does it have to happen?” he says. “It is not necessarily associated with violence.”

AngloGold Ashanti has its own image in Colombia, where it has faced fierce resistance for more than a decade, including from Francia Márquez, the country’s current vice president, who successfully blocked an attempt to construct a gold mine in her home region of Cauca, which would have displaced communities.

The company was also linked to human rights violations and the displacement of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people in the early 2000s, when it partially funded military units involved in intense fighting against guerrilla groups.

And villagers in another region of Colombia have stalled AngloGold Ashanti from building its La Colosa mine, which would tap one of the largest known gold deposits in the world. In 2017, residents of Cajamarca, Tolima department, voted overwhelmingly against the mine, and a judge recently upheld the vote.

John Jairo Henao, a former member of the Jericó town council who now represents the group Jericoanos with Vision, says he believes about 70% of residents are neutral about the Quebradona mine. He says the project would bring a much-needed jobs boost, in a town where people often are daily or weekly workers at the mercy of the tourism and crop-harvesting seasons.

“The fight is for economic power, for labor,” he says. But he acknowledges there are environmental risks, adding, “We have to keep an eye on it. These companies cannot be left alone.”

Last year, Colombian President Gustavo Petro visited Jericó himself, promising to push for a bill that would declare a “zone of protection” in southwest Antioquia, the lush agricultural region that includes Jericó, which would block mining activity. The proposal hasn’t advanced since February 2023.

Asked about the status of Quebradona, a spokesperson for the environmental ministry didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did ANLA, the licensing authority.

For now, AngloGold Ashanti’s mining license remains archived. Once new environmental studies are submitted, the approval can take up to two years.

Until there’s a resolution, the town remains on edge.

“At this moment, [I feel] very tense,” says Maria José Cano, the activist. “A lot of people love me, a lot of people also hate me. But I do feel more hate.”