Archive for April 2012

La Toma – Fear of Displacement   Leave a comment

http://www.ricfrancis.net

La Toma, Colombia (in the Suárez municipality of north Cauca) is a predominately Afro-Colombian community of approximately 1,400 families. Following in the tradition of their enslaved ancestors who settled in the area in 1637, the vast majority of its citizens earn a living through small-scale gold mining.

While working on a photo-documentary project about the community, I joined several miners as they made their way up and down muddy and very steep slopes on their way to work. Occasionally we passed through the front or back yard of a neighbor’s home, where we were greeted with offers of fruit or cold drinks. Eventually we arrived at a watered-down open-pit gold mine where women, men and children defied the difficult terrain and easily maneuvered while hauling rock and soil. This combined with their use of sledgehammers to smash large rocks is back-breaking work, which they performed without complaint. At this particular site there are seven workers, all family members, and they range in ages between 14 and 66. At one point several in the group form a relay line and toss buckets filled with soil and small rocks from one to another; as a full bucket is thrown an empty one is simultaneously returned. They chatter constantly and the air is often punctuated with laughter. They enjoy the camaraderie and seemingly the work too.

The landscape of the La Toma region is scenic as it is marked by mountains, valleys, brilliant blue skies and small simply-built homes. There’s a simplicity to life that the residents wholeheartedly embrace: enjoy the fresh air and resources of the land, work hard and stick together as a community. However the very resource (gold) that makes life possible now threatens their existence. Outside business interests are looking to capitalize on the wealth of the land. The community was threatened with eviction after the Colombian government granted a mine exploration permit to a Colombian businessman. The Afro-Colombian community refused to vacate the land. A key argument on the community’s behalf was that the government made promises to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (in 2009), to review mining permits it granted to third parties without the previous consent and consultation of the La Toma Community Council.

Francia Marquez, 29-years old, a member of the La Toma Community Council and an activist stated, “Gold mining provides us a way of maintaining financial independence. Our lives revolve around mining activity and life as we know it has been complicated by the foreign transnational companies, which are interested in exploiting our land.” According to Ms. Marquez, the Colombian government has never invested in developing the communities around La Toma; the community council of La Toma is comprised of five communities, i.e., Yolombo, Dos Aguas, Gelima, La Toma and El Hato. “Left to fend for ourselves we continued to work in the mines, as did our ancestors. The government now claims the right to exploit the minerals in the subsoil and said we must leave,” added Ms. Marquez. The recent tense standoff came to an end when Colombia’s constitutional court suspended mining titles to outside mining interests.

Despite the victory the community remains under threat of displacement; they are aware and wary of the appeal of their land to industrial gold mining corporations. In recent years the Colombian government has issued 7,500 mining exploration titles to mining companies (both foreign and domestic). Many of the titles have infringed upon the rights of communities like La Toma where residents put up a sustained protest. As a result of their opposition, according to community leaders, several residents received death threats in the form of emails and text messages signed by a paramilitary group called Aguilas Negras (The Black Eagles). In November 2009, Ms. Marquez got an ominous visit from unknown men at her mother’s house at 2:00 a.m. Ms. Marquez explained, “my mother answered a knock at the door and a man asked for me. My mother told him I was in nearby Cali (she lied, I was inside). She asked him what did he want with me. He said it’s for a job. A job a 2:00 a.m., she asked. She knew he was lying. She went on to inquire about the men who accompanied the stranger. He stated they were just some guys. My mother feared they were going to find and kill me. Fortunately they went away.”

There have been killings of miners and local activists which residents attribute to the mining conflict. The area is a haven for violence given the activity of paramilitary and guerrilla groups. The Colombian national police patrol constantly in the streets and market of nearby Suárez, where community meetings often occur; they project an intimidating presence in their jungle uniforms and automatic weapons. Nevertheless, the market area bustles with activity as people board buses and shop for food while merchants blare music from their storefronts, especially on Sundays. Several locals mentioned that, for now, life has returned to normal.

It remains to be seen if the suspension of mining titles to industrial mining interests will be sustained. The gold-rich land is both a blessing and a curse to the community of La Toma. The U.S. Congress approved the free trade agreement with Colombia during my visit. Ms. Marquez and others were quite vocal with disapproval of the agreement saying, “it doesn’t help us, it violates our rights.” They fear the agreement will encourage exploitation of their land by their government and outsiders.

Unquestionably the land is rich in gold. It has sustained Afro-Colombians for generations. Maintaining the rights to the land could prove to be difficult as the shadow of corporate interests continues to linger over La Toma. Having lived on the land for well over 300 years, the Afro-Colombian community views their potential displacement as a human rights as well as a territorial issue. The consequences of a forced removal would be disastrous to the way of life their ancestors pioneered. “We will remain vigilant to new threats. Our enslaved ancestors worked these lands, so will our children. We’ll never leave,” said Ms. Marquez.

Additional photographs from this story can be viewed at http://www.ricfrancis.net.

 
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