Now comes Cumaral, Meta, on June 4. The debate on the costs and benefits of oil and mining exploitation is on the table. How to solve the clash of regional and national powers, that of the communities and the companies?
It’s night and the air smells of what the field smells like before it rains. From the sound equipment installed on the set of a van comes the voice of a llanero who sings a song: “Save us in the consultation Cumaraleño”. Thunder is the only light that interrupts the darkness of the plain. The cart is advancing and, suddenly, to the left on the horizon appears a huge red flare coming out of the earth. It is one of the wells of the neighboring municipality Apiay, oil District for 20 years.
“Because we do not want cumaral to become another oil town, let’s vote no this June 4 in the popular consultation,” sings another jingle. “My dad said that in those oil towns people seemed to be coming from the courtyard of hell,” says Carolina Orduz, leader of the Citizen committee that wants to veto the exploitation of oil in the municipality, which is 20 minutes from Villavicencio.
According to the Ministry of Mines, there are 44 municipalities that intend to convene popular consultations to prohibit either the exploitation of hydrocarbons (15 of them) or minerals (26) in their territories. People are frightened by a panorama that is very much like the “playground of hell” for them.
Cajamarca lit the mecha and Cumaral decide on June 4 if the Indo-Chinese giant Mansarovar can enter to exploit 22,000 hectares of the 62,000 of the municipality. Arbeláez, in Cundinamarca, is still in line. The data from the Register Office show that there are seven other popular initiatives that are underway, not to mention the consultations promoted by mayors or governors in order to manifest themselves in this regard. We’re talking about a boom in popular consultations.
The causes of this phenomenon are not as simple as the Minister of Mines, Germán Arce, has been raising. In fact, to see how it began to gestate, it is necessary to go back to August 2001, when the 685 law was passed: the mine code. In it, he was given an unprecedented impulse to foreign investment. Alvaro Uribe then paved the conditions of public order necessary for investment with democratic security. And his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, ignited the mining locomotive.
The avalanche of applications for mining concessions did not wait. An investigation made by the Center for Journalistic Research (Ciper) in 2011 showed that for those years 20,000 companies were calling for an exploration and mining concession. Only in the Uribe government, 9,000 were granted. Today, 8,866 mining titles are firm.
But the history of Colombia had already taught many communities and towns to be careful what they wanted. With the Bonanzas there were also many times the corruption. Rich people often didn’t even have an aqueduct. They were filled with corruption and hungry people. An emblematic case is the Jagua of Ibirico, which for those years became the richest municipality of Cesar and the second producer of coal in the country. There, only in 2009 were $85 billion in royalties, 21% of what the entire department received. The bonanza left behind a following of five former mayors with legal problems and a municipality of people who still have no sewers, no aqueduct and no health or education.
In 2012 the Santos government modified the way royalties are split up. Now, instead of going directly to the municipalities, it is the central level that deals the money. Guillermo Rudas, expert in mining-energetic issues, points out that if before the reform the municipalities received 85% of the royalty money, today is much less. Precisely because of the design of the system it is difficult to know for certain how much money the municipalities with holdings receive.
What is clear is the aftermath of mining and oil in them. An investigation made by the Comptroller in 2014 showed that the worst places to live in Colombia are the mining towns. Worse, even than the coca growers. The research, led by the same Rudas, explained that in mining villages the average poverty is 74%, in the oil tankers of 65% and in those that do not carry out extractive activities, of 43%.
That was the tipping point. The mayors who once passed without too much hindrance to the companies in exchange for an inordinate budget, began to resist. Not only they: Also the people who have to endure the environmental and social effects created by the holdings. Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Humboldt Institute, explains that the change in panorama made “people do not feel that they are receiving the right benefits that mining was supposed to give them in exchange for exploitation.”
It is no coincidence that one year later the entry into force of the new system of royalties will convene the first popular consultations: Piedras, in Tolima, and Tauramena, in Casanare. In both, it succeeded, with more than 90% of the votes, the prohibition to continue exploiting minerals and hydrocarbons. Those were the first drops of the downpour that today has shaking the Ministry of Mines and President Santos.
To persuade them, Minister Germán Arce has said that royalties represent 50% of public investment in the territories. That without them there would be no money to invest in families in action or in older adult programs or in schools. That the mining-energy sector represents between 10 and 12% of Colombian GDP. And all that is true, but looked at with magnifying glass, ministry data are, at least, unclear.
First of all, the researcher Guillermo Rudas seems a worrisome statement how much the public investment of royalty silver depends. Why? Because their prices are subject to a volatile market. This is how in 2012 the royalties for oil and gas amounted to $8.8 billion, while in 2016, with the international prices of crude on the floor, they added shy $3.9 trillion.
But that’s only part of the government’s half-truths. For Rudas, the debate has to separate mining of hydrocarbons. “We depend on oil and gas, not mines,” he says. Proof of this is that while the former put 82% of the royalties, mining only contributes 18%. Of the GDP generated by the sector, hydrocarbons are responsible for 70%. According to the Vice-Minister of Mines, Carlos Cante, the obvious imbalance is that mining is a little-exploited sector in the country, because only 10 years ago began to push. As he grows, he says, his contributions to the nation’s pocket will grow.
Rudas creates something else. It is certain that the situation has to do with the privileges enjoyed by the mining sector: The mine code excludes the activity of the payment of any territorial tax (such as the vehicle bearing) and VAT. Moreover, being made by foreign companies, most of their profits leave the country. The Vice Minister sings: “The government aims to exploit these natural resources so that in the future, like developed countries, we can depend on other lines of the economy.”
Another part of the problem, says Viviana Strikethrough, a researcher in the Earth-worthy organization, is that there was no clear dialogue with the communities to ask them where they want to apply their development. Also, the former Minister of Mines Amylkar Acosta accepts that from previous efforts “There is a deficit of dialogue with the communities and this is one of the causes of the recurrent disencounters”.
The problem, warns Brigitte Baptiste, is that if popular consultations become the preferred mechanism to resolve conflicts over land use between the central and territorial level, “we are preferring territorial autarchies that collective concertation and construction processes”.
For that reason, the researcher invites a dialogue and, above all, to review what is failing when it comes to arranging with the communities the projects and that it generates that the popular consultation becomes the only viable option for the citizens to feel that they are taken into account. The former Minister of Mines Amylkar Acosta invites even to design a “social license”: an endorsement of the community, analogous to the environmental license, without which a project could not operate.
The ministry already prepares a bill in which it raises a conciliation table with representatives of the Central and territorial Government and with the presence of experts, who makes the decisions about what he said is the “shared paternity on the ground and the subsoil”. For Baptiste, that has to be accompanied by a thorough review on the mechanism of the consultation, “to enrich it, not for remain”.
Lastly, says Viviana Strikethrough, what the communities are asking is that they take into account their idea of economic and social development. “We are not against oil,” says Blanca Cárdenas, who renounced his work in an oil palm plantation to devote all his days to promoting the vote for the No in Cumaral –. “We’re against it being taken out here and so, without asking.”
Originally posted in El Espectador, written by Maria Paula Rubiano
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