Democracy vs. Mining: The popular consultations in Colombia

The citizens of the South American countries are making their voices heard

Colombia, Cumaral against mining

On December 2013, breaking news surprised the Colombian oil industry and the country, in general. Tauramena, a llanero municipality where it’s situated one of the largest oil wells in the country (Cusiana), through popular consultations, voted against the project “Odyssey 3D”. It sought seismic exploration, drilling, production, and transportation of hydrocarbons in an area that could compromise the town's water resources.

This decision, of course, did not seek to economically affect the municipality, since Tauramena, as well as Yopal, Aguazul, and other cities within Casanare, greatly depend on oil revenue (jobs, commerce, leases, etc.). On the contrary, it sought to achieve a balance between economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. It means that the preservation of natural resources prevails over economic benefits which, in most cases, means irresponsible and indiscriminate exploitation of water sources.
 
This action immediately echoed in other regions that are having their natural resources threatened because of oil and mining exploitation. The most recent case occurred in Cajamarca, Tolima, where the inhabitants of the region stopped a gold megaproject called “La Colosa”, promoted by AngloGold Ashanti. Around 96% of the citizens voted against the mining project.

The same happened in Cumaral, Meta, where the citizens were consulted on whether or not they agreed to start oil exploration projects in the area; 97% sharply answered NO.
 
However, despite the denial of the citizens, the National Government and private companies have tried to ignore the results, arguing that this decision is detrimental to the economic development of the country and that this implies increases in taxes and job cuts.
 
Following the proposal of the Popular Consultation in Ibagué, Tolima, the National Attorney General's Office sent a letter to the National Registry stating that a mayor or governor who calls for this mechanism of citizen participation incurs in an over-limitation of his functions; only the President of the Republic can summon governmental consultations related to the extraction of non-renewable resources.

Another argument is the high cost of the consultation; according to the entity, the 550 million pesos invested in popular consultations could be spent on solving social problems, like unemployment and insecurity.
 
Something is true, mining exploitation has boosted the economic growth of the country in the last 20 years, especially in regions such as those now driving the main popular suffrages. However, it is also true that of that money earned, little was diverged into the health system, education, and/or housing.
 
Other consultations are on their way to be approved and when it comes to the will of the Colombian citizens, there is very little that companies can do.

 

One can only hope.  

 

Latin American Post | Daniel Gutiérrez 

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto 

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