With a majority voting “No” in a popular referendum Sunday, local communities in Colombia's Cajamarca department scored a historic victory against transnational mining giant AngloGold Ashanti, likely putting a definitive end to the La Colosa project and setting a precedent for the whole country.
The National Registrar released election results showing that 6,165 people voted “No” to all mining exploration and excavation activities, while only 76 people voted "Yes." The referendum was the first time a municipality in Colombia banned mining practices deemed to be damaging to the environment. The department is a part of the central province of Tolima.
The result is now expected to force local authorities to prohibit mining in the town, according to lawyer Diana Rodriguez consulted by daily El Espectador.
However, AngloGold Ashanti's representative in Colombia Carlos Enciso told the daily that the consequences will be “minimal,” quoting a recent ruling issued by the state's council that the effects of the popular consult cannot be retroactive, but only applies to future projects.
Rodriguez responded that the company does not have "an environmental license to carry out exploration activities," thus making it "absurd if the company were to continue the project.” Others argued that business deals fall under the jurisdiction of state laws, making mining activities in the region illegal.
Although popular and local support is not necessarily a requirement for this kind of project, the government and the companies have historically acknowledged its importance, and a correct and ethical firm should understand such a level of rejection as a sign to remove the project, said Rodriguez.
Under right-wing President Alvaro Uribe in the early 2000s, the government granted 9,000 mining titles, allegedly without taking into account obligatory environmental regulations or local approval.
In the past 16 years, mining companies have requested over 20,000 exploration titles, covering 20 percent of the South American territory, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism.
President Juan Manuel Santos has sought to make mining the centerpiece of the country's economy but has been met with stiff resistance from several local governments challenging mining licenses in court.
A prior version of this article said that the referendum took place in the Cajamarca region of Peru. This is not the case.
Originally published March 26. Updated March 27, 2017 at 6:30