Rio Tinto in Colombia: joint venture in destruction?

London Mining Network

Muriel Mining, Rio Tinto, and the impact of the Mandé Norte/Murindó mining project on indigenous Embera and Afrocolombian communities in the provinces of Choco and Antioquia, Colombia

1. Introduction
Rio Tinto is currently associated with a highly controversial mining exploration project in Colombia: La Muriel Mining Corporation’s Mandé Norte/Murindó project on the borders of the provinces of Choco and Antioquia in the north west of the country.

The project is being pursued on collectively-owned Indigenous and Afrocolombian land against the express wishes of the communities involved. It has been accompanied by intimidation, deceit, manipulation and falsification of community consultation procedures, militarisation, terrorisation and forced displacement of families. According to Rio Tinto, the company retains ‘an option to joint venture with Muriel’ though it currently has ‘no active engagement in the Murindo project’.

The headquarters of La Muriel Mining Corporation is in Denver, Colorado, USA, and it has offices in Medellin and Bogota in Colombia. The company’s Director is Georges Juilland. The Juilland family own a number of mining companies in different countries among them Panama-based Goldplata Mining International, which owns La Muriel Mining Corporation and Toronto-based Goldplata Resources, also active in Colombia. In 2005, according to mining journalist John Chadwick, La Muriel Mining Corporation entered into an agreement for a 30%-70% joint venture with Rio Tinto. Chadwick notes in an October 2008 article that “Muriel Mining … negotiated an agreement with a major mining company (presumably Rio Tinto), which is earning a 70% interest in the property through work expenditures and a series of payments.” The Colombian Church organisation Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz describes this as a ‘shared risk agreement.’

2. Cerro Cara de Perro (Dog-face Hill)
The mining project is in an area declared a Forest Reserve by the Colombian Government in 1959. In 1970, Indigenous People obtained legal recognition of their territory, and in 2000 Afrocolombian people achieved recognition of their ancestral rights in the area. The land therefore legally belongs to these communities. The Murindó Indigenous ‘Resguardo’ (Reservation) is one of the largest in Colombia. ‘La Rica’ is considered a sacred place by the communities because it is there that the ‘Jaibanas’ send spirits to provide protection to the community.

3. Mineral potential and the mining project
Ingeominas, the Colombian Government’s geological surveying office, investigated the mineral potential of the area in 1975 as part of a project financed by the United Nations. It found a large quantity of copper, molybdenum and in places gold. The survey was completed in the 1990s. The deposits are on the eastern slopes of a small mountain range north of the town of Murindó and about 165 kilometres north east of Medellin. The Phelps Dodge company, which owned the concession, sold it to Muriel Mining Corporation in 2001. But only in 2005 did communities in the area learn that a number of companies wanted to exploit the area known as Cerro Cara de Perro (Dog-Face Hill). Exploration began against the wishes of local people and has caused a number of impacts on local people and the environment (see section 5 below). No environmental impact study exists.

4. Lack of consultation
Among other irregularities, the communities report that the people consulted by the mining company to obtain their consent to the project do not live in the affected area. There has never been a proper consultation with the people who will actually be affected by the project. Members of low-income communities were pressured by company representatives to sign documents. Despite community demands, no discussions are taking place aimed at the halting of the project.

In January 2009, a delegation of Indigenous people met with the Human Rights Ombudsman to tell him that the consultation process was illegitimate.

5. Impacts to date on land and local communities
Local communities allege that there have been multiple violations of human rights and Indigenous rights, including:
– Failure to recognise Indigenous territorial rights
– Militarisation of the zone to protect the interests of the mining companies, with illegal raids and use of hoods to hide the identity of agents this has generated real panic during military operations
– Use of apparatus which inhibits movement around the area and presents a threat to life and safety
– Continuous brutal intimidation of communities
– Forced displacements
– Local people have repeatedly had to suspend their daily work, with consequent economic losses
– Severe health impacts caused by disruption to people’s means of livelihood and ability to travel within the zone of exploration, including the deaths of four babies
– Loss of primary forest (in which the mining camp has been set up and where soldiers are based)
– Profanation of the sacred hill, causing massive stress and uncertainty among the communities, for whom the hill restrains the spirits of evil
– The situation has led to suicides and suicide attempts because of the fear that what is sacred is being destroyed.

Despite repeated requests by local people, neither the company’s owners nor the national government, who are responsible for what is going on, have yet visited the area to engage in dialogue.

6. Legal situation
A number of separate legal actions have been taken in Colombia with the aims of protecting the lives and livelihood of the local people, ensure a legal consultation process is carried out, stop deforestation, demilitarize the area and get the company to leave. A case may also be made before the Interamerican Commission.

7. Consultation in February in the communities affected by the project
The ‘popular consultation’ was the first of its kind to be carried out in Colombia. Such consultations have been used elsewhere in Latin America to gauge support for and opposition to mining projects. They are based on the principles of community custom and local autonomy. This consultation was also based on Indigenous rights to territory established by the Colombian constitution of 1991 and the principles of International Labour Organisation Convention 169. The purpose of the consultation was to ensure that the Colombian authorities, Muriel Mining Corporation and Rio Tinto would know and accept the communities’ decision about the mining project in their territories.

The consultation, an initiative of the Indigenous communities themselves, produced a resounding ‘No’ to mining in their territories. The intention is that with the help of the legal actions being taken, the consultation will be legally recognized by the State. Voting took place over three days in four places, with the participation of 17 communities from three Indigenous Resguardos all Emberas and a community council from the Afrocolombian communities.

This document is closely based on a briefing by Guadalupe Rodríguez, Salva la Selva/ Rettet den Regenwald, Berlin, based on information provided by the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Colombian Inter-church Commission for Justice and Peace), the Organización Indígena de Antioquía OIA (Indigenous Organisation of Antioquia)and others. Photos are from the OIA.

London Mining Network, 14 April 2009