Muriel Mining: modern conquistadores
It was January 6 and we were in the Humanitarian Zone of Andalucia Caño Claro in Curvaradó when “La Hermana”, a nun with the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, got the call from headquarters in Bogotá.
Indigenous Embera Katio and Oibida communities in Jiguamiandó had spotted Colombian Army helicopters escorting Muriel Mining Corporation through their ancestral territory to the Cerro de Carreperro mountains, the human rights office in the capital said.
This is an escalation of the dispute that has raged since 2005 when Muriel was awarded a 30 year mining concession by the Colombian state to explore and exploit 11,000 hectares of indigenous and Afro-Colombian territory in the municipalities of Murindó and Carmen del Darien for gold and copper.
The Embera tribes located there say Muriel has failed to properly consult them before entering their territory, an action that violates the Colombian Constitution of 1991, International Labor Organization Resolution 169, and National Law 70 of 1993.
“Send everyone you’ve got to the region right away to support the indigenous mobilization occurring there.”
We jumped at the offer and started packing our bags before La Hermana even got off the phone.
“Here, there is palm,” La Hermana said. “There, there are minerals. In both places, multinationals want all the wealth and will destroy the rivers and the environment and leave people in misery to get it. This is the savage neo-liberal economic model. These are the plans of the multinationals.”
“Do you know what the river means to the community?” she continued rhetorically. “Food, bathing, washing clothes, it is their life. If the river is destroyed, they will have to leave. The communities know this.”
We didn’t have to be convinced. Indigenous Colombians versus a U.S./Colombian mining company? It didn’t take us long to pick sides. Before we knew it, we were on a dug-out canoe with a 9.9 horsepower motor and 13 Afro-Colombians, cruising down the Jiguamiandó river. After 4 hours, we stopped for the night at the Embera community of Alto-Guayabal.
It took another 8 hours on foot to reach Coredocito, where the conflict between Muriel Mining, the army and the locals was taking place.
The scene was buzzing with activity. Over 280 indigenous Embera and Afro-Colombians representing the communities of Alto Guayabal, Bachidubi, Bella Flor, Cañaveral, Caño Seco, Koredó, Coredocito, Guaguay, Isla, Lobo, Nueva Esperanza, Pueblo Nuevo, Puerto Lleras, and Urada were there and the place was hopping with impromptu meetings, drum-circles, and other festivities. A permanent fire was maintained under each house for cooking.
The morning of January 9, two members of Justicia y Paz and one from Pasc Canada arrived. We attended a large meeting, where the mobilized communities expressed concern about the ecological and environmental damage unregulated mining could inflict on their ancestral territories,
“From her, the mountain, we find pure air. From her, there is an ecosystem. There´s animals, there´s everything. But then the state tells us that, because of their new rules, that we don´t have rights. And why? Why don´t we have rights?” One leader asked.
Another tribal member stated that the alleged breaking of treaties between the state and the indigenous people was part of a trend of human rights violations that began when Spanish conquistadores first arrived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492.
“For us this is not a struggle to live tomorrow. It is a struggle to live today.”
On January 9, a delegation of indigenous and international observers marched from Coredocito to the foot of the Cerro de Carreperro mountains, where they confronted the Colombian Army unit assigned to protect the mining corporation. This confrontation led to an agreement between the indigenous communities and the mining corporation for a meeting to be held in Coredocito the following day.
According to an international human rights worker with Pasc Canada, some of the Colombian soldiers failing to properly display valid identification of their name, rank, and unit on their uniforms, and that a minority of soldiers present wore goggles or masks and otherwise concealed their faces. Although it is not clear whether the soldiers´ failure to properly identify themselves was deliberate or unintentional, failure of state security forces to properly identify themselves is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
A meeting between Muriel and the Embera tribes was held in Coredocito on January 10. When the company first landed in their helicopter, indigenous women surrounded the helicopter and held hands. It was some kind of traditional greeting, but the indigenous women must have freaked the mining company reps out because they took off, only to come back a few hours later, this time with armed escorts from the Colombian Army. The internationals all laughed their asses off.
Representatives of the aforementioned human rights organizations, the Embera and Afro-Colombian communities, and nearly 300 indigenous people were present when the meeting finally began. Also present were Pedro Lemous, a representative of Muriel Mining Corporation, Lajida Barrios, a woman who identified herself as a “ombudsman of the municipality of Carmen del Darien”, a Colombian Army officer from Brigade 15 who identified himself only as “Hernandez”, and another person, possibly North American, who only identified himself by the name Cristian.
During the January 10 meeting, Muriel Mining Corporation representative Pedro Lemous stated that the mining company had consulted with the indigenous and Afro-descendent communities and produced a 2007draft agreement between Muriel and some of the legal representatives of the communities authorizing the company to begin exploring the mountains for copper reserves.
“This is why we are here. Because we have letters of agreement from indigenous authorities in the Camical that have permitted the exploration process,” Lemous said. “These things are legal. We consulted with the communities.”
These guys are assholes, we said to ourselves. They are talking down to the Embera like they are children instead of equals. Fucking pricks.
But the Embera didn’t need any help from us. They were organized and rebutted every point the company representative tried to make. One member of the Afro-Colombian communities of Jiguamiandó stated at the meeting that the representative listed on the document as Euterio Romania was unknown to him and his constituents. Indigenous leaders also called the document a forgery, stated that the company produced minutes of meetings that never took place, and that agreements signed between the company and a minority of Embera cabildos dodged the traditional consensus process of the Embera people protected by ILO Convention 169.
“I´m not going to say to our friend here, you are violating the rules,” an Embera leader said.
“Because he has done everything legally, by mestizo law. He has had a previous consultance with the indigenous. He has arrived to an agreement, with those who were there. But the community here, our children, our women, our elderly, our youth, don´t know the agreement that has been made. We are ignorant to the things that it states. The cabildo mayors never arrived here to directly speak with us. We don´t know them. This is a grand error that the legal representatives are committing in the cities.”
“Here we are all in contrary to the agreement. Everyone here has said no we do not agree with the company. We have never arrived at a point to agree with them and we will never arrive at the point where we will sign.”
Lawyers with the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz agreed.
“It is not enough to talk to a few inhabitants, because they do not represent the majority opinion,” the organization said in a statement released to the public. “Given the lack of guarantees, the lack of clarity, the denial of the right to prior consultation, the indigenous communities of the Urada-Jiguamiandó reserve have stated their position.”
ILO 169 specifically states that the implementation of national laws in indigenous territories must be conducted in accordance with the traditional customs, laws, and institutions of the indigenous communities. Following this framework, then, the legal argument that the contract between sections of the indigenous community and Muriel Mining Company is improper, null, and void, is a valid one if the larger community can prove that they were cheated out of their traditional consensus process. The fact that the majority of Embera living in the region in question are mobilizing against the mining company´s position also adds strong evidence to their claims that the agreement is improper and illegal.
So who is this Muriel Mining Corporation?
Muriel Mining Corporation is a very mysterious company with a seemingly bad reputation when it comes to human rights.
When looking for Muriel on the internet you get a lot of hits, but all are websites mentioning Muriel Mining, the company itself doesn’t seem to have a website of its own.
According to the Colombia Support Network, the company is from Colorado, but browsing through the yellow pages leaves you nowhere. No address, no phone number, nothing.
The company is mentioned on the Portfolio website, a Colombian economic magazine, that says its office is in Medellín. No phone number in the Medellín yellow pages though.
When googling the company, the only thing you find is a continuous row of accusations of human rights organizations of the company financing paramilitary groups, torture, responsibility in the murder of 85 people in Urabá in the 1990’s, etc.
It seems the only time Muriel Mining seems to do business is when there’s some exploitation to be done and locals need to be shut up.
After the meeting was over, Lemous and Barrios asked if they could stay the night because it was too late to return to the city by helicopter. The indigenous offered them the same space we were staying in, but we booked it out of there ASAP and found another house to stay at. No way in hell were we breaking bread with those corporate assholes. Our indigenous hosts laughed and agreed that we had good taste.
The next day, we left to make the long journey back through the jungle so we could catch our plane out of the country. But other internationals and journalists were pouring into the region to cover the story. The next stage will have to wait a month or so, because the Embera communities of Jiguamiandó have organized their own internal voting process, scheduled for the 24-28 of February, in which women, the elderly, men and children older than 14 years of age, will decide whether to admit the multinational mining company into their territories.
In the interim, Embera leaders are calling on Muriel Mining Corporation and the Colombian state to respect the autonomy and territoriality of their tribe, and to cease and desist from all exploration activities in the Cerro de Carreperro mountain until the community has concluded their internal debate process.
“We have lived off this land for thousands of years. If Muriel exploits it, can they pay us enough money to ensure that we will live for thousands more?” one Embera leader said rhetorically.
The international community should support the indigenous in this case and call on Muriel Mining Corporation and the Colombian state to abide by the national and international treaties and laws that protect the indigenous way of life and respect their traditional consensus-style of participatory democracy.
Authors David Goodner and Megan Felt are U.S. students and were in Colombia with interchurch organization Justicia Y Paz.