From government rhetoric to community actions: we have agreements. We want implementation
Open Letter No. 10
Given the Ministry of Defense’s failure to act immediately to eradicate illegal mining in ancestral territories in Northern Cauca per the agreements signed by the national government and the Northern Cauca Afro-descendant Women’s March on December 11, 2014, and given the resulting increase in mining machinery in territories belonging to the La Toma Community Council, on December 29 at 10am the community decided to demand once again pressure the government to keep their word and demand that illegal miners remove their equipment. A group of more than 30 men and women gathered on the banks of the Ovejas River, in La Toma Community Council territory, where we found fully operational two backhoes that had arrived that Saturday to the region. We made them cease their exploitative operations, seized the two machines and awaited the arrival of the District Attorney so that we could turn the machines over to their office.
As a result of our pressure the Technical Investigative Body (CTI) from the Cauca District Attorney’s office arrived and we were able to turn over the backhoes to them and request that they confiscate them and investigate the owners of the 17 pieces of mining machinery that remain in La Toma Community Council territory. However, we repeat that this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, who promised to begin operations on December 4, and the National Attorney General’s Office under the supervision of Sandra Gonzales, who promised in a December 12 meeting with us to coordinate actions with all relevant institutions to advance an effective process to seize illegal machinery, and investigate and prosecute those responsible for this activity in our territories.
We reiterate the immediate risk that we are facing as a result of the lack of implementation of the agreements signed by local and national authorities. Our action on December 29 has attracted more threats against our leaders, especially against those that participated. Francia Marquez and Lisifrey Ararat, for example, have been harassed and threatened in their homes by unidentified armed men. The most recent threats occurred on January 4, and caused the leaders to flee the community.
We demand that the Vice minister of Participation and spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, Carmen Vasquez, as the coordinator and guarantor of the implementation of the accords, urge the relevant entities to implement each of the agreed-to actions. On December 29, her response to the imminent danger that we faced in confronting illegal miners was an excuse. Government excuses and incompetence toward addressing the issue of illegal mining has led to deaths, an increase in the vulnerability of our people and grave human rights violations in northern Cauca.
Taking into account that the security situation has worsened with these new threats and other attempts at retaliation for the actions taken, we demand that the government activate an emergency plan for the La Toma Community Council and the municipalities of Suarez, Buenos Aires, Guachene and Santander de Quilichao, as per the agreement. This was one of the promises made by the National Protection Unit and requires support and accompaniment from the Ministry of the Interior’s Human Rights and Black Communities directorates to ensure that holistic, culturally-appropriate protection and prevention measures are adopted.
At present, the national government has not complied with 98 per cent of the actions that were promised as part of the accords and this affects Afro-descendent communities in Suarez, Buenos Aires, Guachene and Santdander de Quilichao.
On December 1 in the Casa La Giralda, the Ministry of Defense agreed to a high-level meeting on December 4 with vice ministers, the Cauca provincial government and other relevant entities, with the purpose of defining the steps needed to eradicate illegal mining in ancestral territories in Northern Cauca, without putting the communities at risk. However, the objectives of the meeting were not met because the authorities convened a mining roundtable at which the owners of the illegal mining equipment were present, which obviously impeded discussing security issues and the dismantling of illegal mining. For this reason illegal miners felt they could increase their presence in our territories, which forced our action on December 29. Meanwhile, the owners of the seized equipment continue at large, threats have not been investigated and our communities remain at high risk.
The agreement also contains guarantees that workers, who earn their living risking their lives under backhoe shovels, as occurred in the San Antonio mine incident, not be made to pay for the owners of illegal mining businesses, and that to the contrary they be the beneficiaries of measures that offer them the opportunity to engage in safe and dignified work. Therefore we insist on the implementation of the accords signed on May 1, 2014, which contain measures intended to improve conditions and prevent social and economic crises in the region.
- On December 11, Sandra Gonzalez, the representative of the National Attorney General’s Office, promised to coordinate a meeting the week of December 15 with the Assistant Director of the regional CTI en Popayan and other provincial and national entities responsible for eliminating illegal mining, with the goal of planning coordinated and therefore more effective actions. That meeting was supposed to lead to a concrete plan for coordinated actions. The fact that we had to take action on our own on December 29 demonstrates that this promise was not met.
- Also on December 11, the National Protection Unit promised to activate emergency protections, meaning that imminent risk to all of the men and women that participated Northern Cauca Afro-descendant Women’s March had been satisfactorily established as to justify priority processing for immediate individual protection measures. In spite of the fact that the UNP received all required forms and documentation on December 22, as of today only two people have received their individual measures, while the rest of the community remains at risk.
- The National Protection Unit also committed to sending protection resources to the La Toma Community Council on December 8. We verify that the Council received 25 nonworking cellphones and four motorcycles in an advanced state of disrepair, of which only one was immediately operational. They were delivered with no maintenance resources. The equipment was not delivered to the Community Council in La Toma; rather, members of the Community Council had to pay for their own travel all the way to Cali to claim them. This equipment is part of the protection measures that the UNP promised to the Council as part of the agreement guaranteeing their collective protection. While it’s true they provided the equipment, we want to make it clear that it does not work.
- Immediate, holistic protection measures and actions require permanent institutional presence in the regions. We testify that in the regions where threatened communities and individuals live, there is no oversight or institutional presence that can guarantee the necessary emergency actions.
- We wish to additionally highlight the total absence of the National Inspector General in the accords process, in spite of the fact that the investigation and prosecution of those responsible by action or omission for illegal mining and its violation of our rights, is that office’s responsibility and is a part of the accords. Their absence illustrates the lack of political will to investigate the corruption surrounding the issue of illegal mining in Northern Cauca.
These agreements are part of a series of commitments made by the government in response to the demands of the Northern Cauca Afro-descendant Women’s March for the Defense of Life in our Ancestral Territories that they take appropriate action to combat illegal mining in Northern Cauca, where there are 2000 illegal backhoes and 267 mining titles and concessions authorized by the government without prior consultation, in violation of its legal and constitutional mandate, and to address the vulnerable situations in our communities in a holistic and culturally-appropriate manner. The agreements comprise five acts signed by the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense, the Attorney General, the National Police, the Ministry of Mining and Energy, the Ministry of the Environment and the guarantors of the process, which include the National Ombudsman’s Office, the United Nations, Colombian elected officials and national and international human rights NGOs.
We also highlight the political will demonstrated by the Cauca provincial government’s Women’s Office, the Governor’s Secretary and the National and Regional Ombudsman Offices, which were the only entities present at the meeting in which the agreements were presented to the La Toma Community Council on December 20, 2014, and the only authorities that responded to our urgent action on December 29. We would like to see other national and local authorities show the same level of responsiveness and commitment. We also hope to see decisive action from the guarantors to urge authorities to follow through on the commitments they made and achieve the agreements’ purpose.
We emphasize that since we began our occupation of the Ministry of the Interior’s offices on November 27 we have remained in permanent assembly until the government’s agreements are implemented, and within the framework of permanent assembly we are ready to take whatever actions necessary to achieve this.
The Cauca provincial government declared a red-level environmental alert in the northern region of Cauca, the National Ombudsman’s Office published a report on the imminent risk for La Toma and the guarantors of the negotiations process have repeatedly corroborated that the lives of women, the men of the Maroon Guard and their children are at serious risk. The negligence and lack of political will on the part of national and local authorities put us at even greater risk during our march, on December 29 and each additional time that we have had to intervene to defend our territories and lives. Therefore, we hold all of the national and local authorities in charge of implementing the agreements responsible for the current vulnerable situation in which we find ourselves and for anything that happens to us as a result of their lack of implementation.
We continue in permanent assembly, building peaceful and democratic alternatives in Northern Cauca that may be examples for peace and democracy in all of Colombia, and defending life in our ancestral territories.
We support responsible and sustainable mining
Our territories and lives are not for sale. We love them and defend them.