Traveling through the northern Colombian Department of Cesar, on the horizon one can see mountains to the east and to the west of the road. “Those mountains on the right are part of the Sierra de Perijá range,” explains the local driver, “but not those on the left. Those are new mountains that were not there a few years ago.” These 'new mountains’ are the accumulation of enormous volumes of waste rock, the by-product of the large open-pit coal mining operations that have been growing in the region in the past years.
Driven by global demand for energy resources and the government’s policies to attract foreign investment and to base economic growth on the mining industry, Colombia has doubled its coal production since 2000 and has become the fifth biggest coal exporter in the world. The government has fostered the exploitation of Colombia’s abundant natural resources with the hopes to be able to redistribute royalties more equally among regions and to pull more people out of poverty. The picture in mining communities, however, presents many challenges for development. These challenges were one of the focal points of field research conducted by adelphi this August in an effort to shed light on the linkages between natural resources, environment and conflict in the country, commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Colombia has a long history of armed conflict in which illegal groups have taken advantage of natural resources to finance their activities. Now, although the conflict situation has improved in many areas of the country in the past years, some armed groups have proven resilient and continue their strategy to attack and intimidate rural communities in order to advance their own interests. Illegal armed groups still operate in large extensions where mining concessions exist. Seeking to expand profit sources, some of them have realized the potential of the mining boom and have become directly involved in mining operations or in the extortion of small and mid-sized mining companies.
Additional challenges, however, arise also from the plans of legitimate companies to resettle communities in order to pave the way for mining explorations and operations. The land question around mining is controversial, as some of the strategic mining areas declared by the government are zones of small-scale farming, indigenous territories and cattle ranching areas. Some communities being re-settled belong to some of the most marginalized groups in the country, including Afro-Colombians. And although many express their high expectations and hopes of finding a new place to settle their communities, some communities remain in limbo as a result of unfinished resettlement plans. Increasingly, members of civil society are voicing their disappointment with the limited benefits that the local level sees from the mining developments in their regions and their distrust with companies and the government.
When asked about the potential results of these developments, an expert in the capital states his somber verdict: “The future of the economy is going in the direction of extractive industries, and so is the future of conflict in Colombia.” At the local and regional levels, however, civil society organizations, local and regional government, supported by partners like the German Development Cooperation (GIZ), have begun efforts to raise awareness of the potential problems and engage in a comprehensive participatory approach to promote cooperation and foster trust between communities, the governments and the private sector. Though much work remains to be done, the first steps to protect certain areas from indiscriminate operations and to transform socio-environmental conflicts in Colombia have been taken.