This has been a historic year for Colombia, with the signing of the peace accords in September 2016 and the continent’s oldest guerrilla group, FARC-EP, laying down its arms and becoming a formal political party. The process has had many sceptics. Questions abound about how effective implementation will be and many city dwellers doubt whether the peace accords have affected the lives of those living in remote locations. Contrary to speculation, the ripple effects of the peace accords are appearing in municipalities across the nation.
Evidence of this is the dramatic increase in the use of consultas populares and consultas previas by local, mostly rural communities, anxious to defend their natural resources against powerful land-owners and companies, who have flocked to acquire rights and control over areas which remained off-limits during the conflict, especially those that lay within territory controlled by FARC-EP.
With these areas now under civilian authority, there is an unsettling uncertainty over what will happen to the country’s forests, water and land. Many believe that the government’s idea of peace has a more sinister undertone of opening rural spaces to more intervention and exploitation, and that the government will weaken the consulta process or sideline it completely.
People are stirring, however, from silences imposed by war and looking to safeguard their natural resources. The first such consultations, against gold and petrol mining respectively, took place in 2013 in Piedras, Tolima and Tauramena, Casanare. Subsequently, at least six popular votes have been held: Cabrera, Cundinamarca; Cajamarca, Cundinamarca; Cumaral, Meta; El Paujil, Caquetá; Arbeláez, Cundinamarca; and Pijao, Quindio. In total, over 40 municipalities, including a few in Antioquia, have registered their intentions to hold consultas populares on projects ranging from gold, petrol and mineral mining to hydro-electric projects. This winter of discontent is turning into an icy standoff between local communities and the central state.
The right to consultation
The government’s response has been to suggest that local municipalities are overstepping their legal and political powers. For their part, community representatives argue that the nation has signed up to various international declarations protecting the right to prior consultation. They are exercising their democratic rights, they say, including the international right to Economic, Social and Cultural determination and the pact for Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. They also highlight Article 105 of the Colombian Constitution, which enshrines the right of municipal councils to undertake consultas populares when they see fit. As recently as 2016 the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that such consultations were ‘obligatory’ in the case of mining projects.
Opponents argue that the national government is the ultimate owner of the country’s subsoil. Nevertheless, this remains a tenuous legal line, as Law 136 of 1996 strengthens local municipalities and their right to hold consultas populares– especially when mining activities cause ‘significant’ changes to the use of soils. The legal ambiguities and persistent disagreements reflect the contradictions of the state itself, which has a very progressive social constitution that is often undermined in practice by government policies.
Despite the legality of the consultations, the Minister of Mining and Energy, Germán Arce, is threatening to sanction local Councils that have prohibited mining projects. The government’s intransigence was again displayed in cancelling the consulta that was scheduled for August 6 in Pasca, Cundinamarca, allegedly because the question posed to the community was badly phrased. The legal tussle over community consultations has just begun and state representatives are not afraid to oppose and curb further votes. The question at the core of this debate then is whether communities have the right to block extractivist projects and override the central state’s notion of greater societal ‘good’.
Cabrera vs the dam builders
The first town to schedule a consulta popular since 2013 was Cabrera. Long before the vote, this enclave at the far end of Cundinamarca, bordering Tolima, had gained national renown. It was one of the first areas in the country to be formally recognised as a Zona de Reserva Campesina (Peasant Reserve Zone) in 2000. This designation is a community born initiative, which seeks to limit the expansion of the agricultural frontier, as well as strengthen campesino economy and production by strengthening links with the state through infrastructure and alternative development programmes. This together with a history of peasant resistance dating back to the late 1940s, provided the perfect stage for a community declaration opposing further resource exploitation.
YouTube video explaining the background to the Consulta and the voting itself, on February 26 2017, with interviews with local people involved. The result was: Total votos cast 1.506. NO 1.465 votes, Yes 23 votes, spoiled 5, blank 13.
Cabrera, unlike most of the other consultas, was facing the threat of a hydroelectric project, led by the multinational Emgesa-Enel. The company had been actively surveying the territory and the Sumapaz river basin since 2008, but had conducted pilot surveys of the region’s potential long before this. The river Sumapaz flows out of world’s largest Paramo ecosystem in the world, underlining the acute ecological importance of this location. Community leaders had long been sceptical about the supposed benefits this venture would confer – promises of jobs and the installation of clean drinking water systems.
Local residents recount the various attempts to ‘buy’ individual associations and districts through the offer of projects funded by the company. However, after years of dialogue, it was decided that a Cabildo Abierto or public debate would be held, to gain the municipal council’s public backing for a consultation. This constitutional participatory mechanism is conducted between councillors, delegates of local community action groups and the broader community to discuss issues that affect the population. In Cabrera, various local groups participated, from women’s organisations to youth and the local trade union. The consensus of the Cabildo was that a consulta popular should be held, to provide a legally binding vote.
Community leaders who lobbied for a ‘No [to the dam]’ vote campaigned within the Municipality, away from national attention, for up to 15 days before the vote. There was a real fear of reprisals, which many environmental activists have faced and continue to face in Colombia, but they were also trying to limit efforts by the company to delegitimise or postpone the vote.
The campaign itself consisted of meetings held in local districts, led by young people, as well as older activists. The Comité de Impulso de la Zona de Reserva Campesina (Organising Committee of the Peasant Reserve Zone) arranged for buses from each locality to take voters to the municipality’s urban centre on polling day. All transport costs were covered through a local raffle. Such initiatives were all planned and organised by residents to boost democratic participation and access.
The main concern shared by both young and old was to protect a water source that has been diminishing over the years. Resident Robinson Rincón notes that he voted ‘No’ because ‘Twenty to forty years ago there were parts of the river that we could not pass through, due to the water levels and now in the summer, the water does not come up to the knee.’ Cabrera is primarily an agricultural area, which like many farming communities, has been feeling the effects of climate change – a less predictable rainy season and harsher summers, with serious droughts. The prospect of a hydroelectric project in an area already facing water scarcities is of course far from appealing. Rincón also mentioned that the company talked of providing energy for export but he asks, ‘what about our territory?’ This has been the central issue driving the surge in consultas populares – local populations asking pointed questions about the fate of their natural resources, the future that lies ahead for their children and their lands.
Accept the decision of the people
We should take comfort from the existence and proliferation of these consultas populares in a country that has been used to resolving differences with arms. The strengthening of local democracy and participatory mechanisms is something to be heralded, as people are proving that they can defend their rights and represent their needs clearly and collectively. However, the government’s position is worrying. Paola Bolañes of the Comité de Impulso de la Zona de Reserva Campesina commented that ‘there is always the concern that the government will change the scope and effect that such participatory mechanisms have’. From her own experience in helping to organise and promote the popular vote, she urges other communities to use ‘the mechanisms that exist for citizen participation’.
As Paola and those living in Cabrera prove, as well as those in other municipalities that have held and those that will hold such votes, ‘we can set a legal precedent’. After all, peace in Colombia is surely this – the use of legal means to stand up for areas that have long felt dislocated, marginalised, forgotten and even exploited by the central state. The consulta popular is a beacon of hope, illuminating a way forward. The government needs to hold true to its discourse of peace and renovation by accepting the decisions made by the very people it now seeks to include in ‘New Colombia’.