Tensions at Colombia’s largest gold mine highlight climate justice quagmire

Caption of Youtube video Mina de Buriticá: minería moderna de Colombia para el mundo. By Zijin-Continental Gold. Fair use.

On May 30, 2024, four communities in Buriticá, home to 10,000 residents in western Colombia, sent an SOS letter to public authorities, urging action against the increasing violence near the country’s largest gold mine. This mine is operated by Zijin Continental Gold, a subsidiary of the Chinese company Zijin Mining, which sued the Colombian government in November 2023 for not protecting it from attacks by local miners.

These local miners do traditional and small-scale mining in the region. They are called “ancestral” miners because they have lived and mined there for centuries before national and international corporations came. However, in the eyes of Zijin, they are illegal, or informal miners. The Colombian government sees them as both a community with valid claims to the land and a threat to Zijin's operations.

The environmental, social, economic, and legal tensions in Buriticá underscore the complex relationship between large-scale mining operations and local miners. Beyond the environmental impacts, including deforestation and water exploitation, Zijin is now facing escalating social disruption, which is quickly becoming the face of climate justice issues in Colombia.

Recently, local miners blocked the entrance to the gold mine. The blockade prevented residents from accessing food, health services, and education for children, the community letter says.

En medio de la grave situación que estamos afrontando en el municipio (…), recurrimos a ustedes como entes representantes del gobierno, para que se de una atención URGENTE a la crisis y vulneración de derechos que estamos viviendo (…)

In the middle of the grave situation we face in the Municipality, we go to you as government institutions to grant URGENT attention to the crisis and the vulnerations that we suffer (…). 

The regional body of ancestral miners initially signed a petition asking Zijin to grant them 140 hectares which they claim to have mined for over a decade. Traditional mining is essential for the livelihood of over 300 families and thousands of informal miners.

These miners who often work in deadly conditions in dozens of tunnels around Buriticá, some within Zijin’s concession, also urge the company to formalize their activities and stop labeling them as “illegal miners.” They are seeking to secure their rights to work safely in the mine.

This blockade has been going on for 3 days at the La Estrella potery in the Buriticá Mine (since Tuesday, May 28, 2024). This has not only affected the mobility and supply of food and supplies of 1,500 workers, but of more than 700 Buriticans (continues)

Zijin pledged to mitigate the negative impacts of its mining activities and uphold the rights and well-being of local communities after it acquired the Buriticá mine, Colombia’s most prosperous gold deposit, in 2020.

Yet, frequent roadblocks and armed attacks allegedly carried out by informal miners or criminal gangs have paralyzed the company’s operations. They not only lead to economic losses but also secondary environmental impacts, as traditional miners resort to mining in sensitive areas, further contributing to deforestation and ecosystem degradation.

In response, Zijin filed a lawsuit in November last year, indicating that it might consider withdrawing its operations from the town if the conflicts persist, a prospect local communities fear could exacerbate the situation. The case is currently under review by Colombia's Constitutional Court and could risk 4,200 jobs and USD 95.4 million in taxes and royalty payments.

This move came around the time of Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s most recent visit to Beijing. He met China’s President Xi Jinping, who welcomed the Latin American country to join its global infrastructure development ambition “The Belt and Road Initiative” and commit to promoting green growth together.

A history of violence in Buriticá

Zijin Mining, whose largest shareholder is the Chinese government, extracts metals such as copper, gold, lithium, and other metal mineral resources. Founded in 1986 in Longyan, China, the company now has mining projects in 17 regions in China and 15 countries across the globe, including lithium mining in Argentina and copper mining in Peru. The Buriticá mine is the biggest gold mine that Zijin acquired in Latin America.

“Our vision is to become the best modern gold mine and the first environmentally responsible mine in Colombia,” said James Wang, CEO of Colombia Zijin-Continental Gold, a subsidiary of Zijin Mining, in the company’s 2020 sustainability report. The company’s goals include preserving biodiversity, using water resources responsibly, and maintaining harmony in the community.

Timeline by Global Voices.

The conflict in Buriticá is not new but intensified after Zijin Mining acquired the mine from Canadian Continental Gold in 2019. The gold mine, which is expected to produce 4,000 tons of gold per day has a history of violence, including worker deaths allegedly caused by informal miners. However, the growing frustration of ancestral miners and the presence of the criminal group Clan del Golfo, which uses the mining tunnels for its criminal operations, has further intensified the conflict.

Timeline by Global Voices.

One year later, Wang told Reuters that “It’s really, really challenging to handle these areas.” Thousands of informal miners have worked in harsh conditions in dozens of tunnels and about 150 clandestine processing locations in Buriticá municipality, Reuters reported. 

Zijin says that it actively engages with miners as well as local communities through projects aiming at formalizing informal mining workers and promoting social development. Yet, consistent blockades and armed attacks have repeatedly disrupted the company’s operations as well as threatened the safety and stability of neighboring communities.

Wang argued that the government needed to “give more support and to implement law and order in the region.” In 2024, the company admitted that it failed to effectively control the company’s costs from rising in overseas projects like the Buriticá gold mine.

Timeline by Global Voices

Ancestral miners in Buriticá denounce stigma

While gold mining sounds controversial in the modern context of large-scale resource exploitation worldwide, in some communities, gold mining is deeply connected to people’s culture, lifestyle, and survival. Mining in Buriticá dates to before Spanish colonization began in 1541. Today, at least 350,000 Colombians make a living directly through small-scale gold mining activities according to Harvard Review of Latin America.

In 2020, Patricia Gamba explained in an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) report that gold mining in Buriticá is an ancestral practice. She writes:

The main sociocultural characteristic of Buriticá and its neighboring municipalities is that mining (…)  especially those related to gold production is an ancestral practice. For this reason, there are groups with a common history around gold production and with shared experiences. These groups interact with each other and have collective behaviors, as they live within very similar political and economic realities.

Despite that, since 2022 Colombia’s government has given out over 7,000 mining exploration titles to national and foreign companies eager to exploit the country’s precious resources, and cracking down on “illegal mining” in Buriticá. 

Miners claim that the Colombian government breached a September 2022 agreement by continuing to crack down on small-scale mining and prosecute protest leaders, thereby undermining ongoing Mining Code reform discussions in the country.

In February 2023, authorities ordered the destruction of informal mining infrastructure in Buriticá, sparking an indefinite miner strike across 16 municipalities. Negotiations between miners and the government began then and are ongoing amid sporadic blockades and protests.

As violence increases, gold mining in Colombia presents a challenging arena for local communities as ancestral practices, international conglomerates, and global demand for the precious metal create competing interests and obligations. Meanwhile, officials must decide where they stand amid these competing interests and how to balance the protection of land, communities, and international corporate interests.

Global Voices reached out to Zijin by email for comment on the legal proceedings. The company has not responded to our inquiry.

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