Losing the fight against mining would mean… displacement, death, it would be turning the mountains inside out. It would be the disappearance of the ancestral oral culture. It would put many people in a very bad scenario, people fighting for their survival, for where they live. It would be… to lose the Magdalena River, it would be to lose the Gualí River, it would be to lose endemic species – the frog, the orchid. People would be left with nothing. The people, the animals, the forest… It would be to lose… to lose… to lose it all. To lose it all. – Osiris Ocampo, Falán –


It all started some 400 years ago, when the Spanish discovered valuable metals in the mountains of what is now Falán, a Colombian village of 8,000 inhabitants. They opened mines with the aim of exporting as much gold as possible to Europe. These mines were exploited by colonial rule for hundreds of years, after which they were still managed by the British from 1890-1920. The impact on the local community and ecology were what is commonly known of mining: pollution, social disruption and poverty. There is (sadly) more gold to be discovered in Falán’s territory. Three multinationals are hoping to start their projects soon. This time via open pit mining, a form of extraction with much more social and environmental impact than the previous underground mining projects by the Spanish and the British. But resistance is strong. If it were up to the environmentalists in Falán, these projects would not go ahead and the colonization of Falán would stop right now.


The Lost City – a memory of Spanish colonization

Anyone who has heard of the village of Falán, located in the north of Tolima province, Colombia, probably also knows their Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City. This is the village’s main tourist attraction where you can discover a beautiful piece of nature by foot, ziplining or wall-climbing. Definitely worth a visit!

But the place has a dark past. You can visit ruins of the Santa Ana gold and silver mines and the adjacent village, both of which saw the light of day during theSpanish colonization in the 17th century. The territory was previously populated by indigenous communities, who were driven out of their territories or employed in the mines after the arrival of the Spanish. The mines were the direct property of the king of Spain, who called for the implementation of the projects and received the mined gold and silver with open arms. In Falán, on the other hand, both the indigenous community and a beautiful piece of nature were wiped off the map. This was the start of a colonial period that continues today.

The village of Santa Ana (now Falán) was founded, and inhabited by Spanish mining workers, and over many decades kilometers of tunnels were dug into the mountains in search of high concentrations of gold and silver.


Recession after English mines

After the war of independence, the concessions for the mines were given to British companies and operated again for decades, until the 1920s. At various sites in Falán and Frías (a municipal district attached to Falán), old mines were reactivated and new ones opened. Miles of new tunnels were dug in the mountains to engage in underground mining.

The inhabitants of Falán and Frías do not keep fond memories of this period. The stories that come back include dead ‘quebradas’, which are gorges between two mountains through which a water source runs. Due to pollution and water consumption from British mines 100 years ago, animal life is barely detectable in those places today.

Another story that recurs again and again is the story of economic recession and social problems as a result of mining. After the companies decided to stop mining for not being profitable enough, the entire village went through a difficult period. After 40 years of mining, the inhabitants had become very dependent on mining and therefore a sudden closure was accompanied by recession and social disruption. Temporary economic growth and job opportunities in the region were quickly exchanged for a long period of poverty and economic recovery. Those are the stories that still circulate in the village, where the vast majority of residents now depend again on agriculture. This is a slightly more stable form of income, but the region still suffers from a high poverty rate.

Moreover, because of this strong agricultural history, the inhabitants of Falán and Frías do not see themselves as miners – after all, the mines were always colonial and managed by occupiers. Just like the colonial period 400 years earlier, the exploitation of foreign mining companies brought a lot of problems to Falán. The mined gold was exported, while they left the impacts in Colombia. This shows striking similarities with the Spanish colonisation 400 years earlier.


A neoliberal course

More recently, Colombian economic policies and specifically changes in land-use policies are also indicative of the livelihoods and well-being of rural farmers today. Historically, the vast majority of Colombia’s population has been campesinos or farmers living off agriculture, cattle ranching, fishing, or artisanal mining, settled in remote and often hard-to-reach places in relatively autonomous communities. Since the 1950s, Colombian economic policy has focused on shaping the economy more ‘effectively’ by driving peasant families off their land so that large industrial farms and (more recently) monocultures can take their place. The history of this economic policy is bloody. Many campesinos were driven out or killed so that their land would become available. In addition, this economic policy was one of the causes of the protracted civil war, and many campesinos were victims of the violence between the guerrillas and the state. Many were dispossessed of their land and their lives in the countryside.

In the 1990s and 2000s, under pressure from international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Colombia’s economy (and mining sector) was neoliberalised. Companies were privatised, regulations weakened, and the sector opened up to the international free-market economy. As in the rest of South America, and many other ‘poor’ or ‘underdeveloped’ countries, extraction was henceforth done by multinational companies from ‘rich’ countries. They pocket by far most of the profits, pay little tax to the Colombian state (which should lead to ‘development’), while the local population is merely left with the immense environmental, social and economic impact, with no say in their own future. International neoliberal policies, and consequently the arrival of multinational mining companies, is another chapter in the long history of imperialism that dispossessed peasants of their land, and destroyed their economic resources, health, peace, and lives.


Colonisation in the year 2023

The story is not over yet. Once again, there is interest from other countries in the territory. Three multinationals were granted permits to explore 36,000 hectares for precious metals. This time with the aim of starting open pit mining, a form of extraction that is many times more disruptive to the wider region than the underground tunnel mining that previously took place in Falán. This is because in this type of mining, as the name insinuates, the entire mountain, including the ecosystem, is transformed into a ‘pit’ – a large dead hole where there used to be life. It also requires an enormous amount of water, uses a large amount of hazardous chemicals, and creates a lot of toxic waste.

Cerro de Pasco mine, Peru ©Simon Lenskens

Among the Falán residents there are justified concerns. Exploration alone raises concerns, as this involves drilling holes 200 metres deep into the ground in the wider area, affecting underground water flows and disrupting life on land. In Líbano, a village some 25km southwest of Falán, many farmers were forced to leave after the opening of the mine led to water scarcity. For a community largely dependent on agriculture, water and healthy soil are recurring concerns. Proud farmers talk about how fertile the soil is in this region, and how much of a future there is for, for example, organic farming of cocoa, coffee, guanabana, maís, yuca, avocado, … The list is endless. For many, being a farmer is not just a profession, but an identity and a way of life. What is threatened by mining exploration is not just their source of income, but the way of life they have built in and with their land. What is threatened is their home, and who they are.

They also express concerns for biodiversity. The area of Falán contains special animal species that are only found in that region, including some bird species and also the ‘rana morada’ or purple frog. The loss of these species, and so too any species that have not yet been discovered, is also a driver of protest. All these reasons come together. The concerns for water and healthy soil needed for their production, the development of an economic dependency, the disruption of biodiversity, and the destruction of their beautiful habitat are summed up in the words of Osiris Ocampo from Falán. “I think the main reason [for resistance] is love. The love for the territory”.


A divided people

However, not everyone in Falán is concerned. Small-scale agricultural practices do not earn a lot of money in Colombia, prices of fruits and vegetables are low while growing them involves hard work. Farmers are also highly taxed and receive no support from the government. These factors, together with the high poverty rate, makes many look forward to the new job opportunities that companies promise them.

In vereda Cabandia (a vereda is a district within a municipality) for example environmentalists Damaris and Nicolas stand alone in their fight against the impending projects. They attribute their neighbours’ support to successful bribery practices by the companies on the one hand, but also the low level of education and lack of access to information on the impact of mining. Their vereda is furthest away from the village center where the local school is located. Therefore, many children do not attend school and education levels are in general very low there.

But there are other veredas, such as vereda Santa Filimena, which chose to not support mining. No family there gives permission to the companies to drill holes on their land, and collectively they agreed not to work for the mining companies, who already recruit several residents for the exploration work they’re currently performing.


Propaganda in the backpack

However, the propaganda machine is running at full speed. The mining companies in Falán go far in convincing the population of their projects. Multinational Mirandagold is the front-runner in Falán regarding bribery strategies. Farmers there have already been given machetes, food and money as gifts. The company also donated an ambulance to the local hospital. They even created a special game for the children in Falán on Halloween, through which they could win tablets. The company sponsors festivals, Christmas lights and fun activities. Other children were given toys with the company logo in their backpack through the school. And the management of the Cuidad Perdida reserve reveived gifts such as liquor, food, and invitations to meetings with people in charge of the project. However, they did not allow themselves to be bribed and declined the offer. A company that goes to such lengths to convince the population seems to be hiding something sinister… Read more about strategies used by mining companies to push through their projects here.


Resistance and alternatives

But the Falánese will not let themselves be defeted! Supported by the Colectivo Ambiental Falán y Frías and the regional Committee Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida, protests are organised regularly. Despite of intimidation and threats. Several protesters already received intimidating visits from employees of the multinationals, and one of them was even threatened with death by the local police after participating in a protest. But even that does not stop them. Among the activists, it sounds unequivocal: we don’t want to repeat Falán’s history again.

Protest action in vereda Cavandia ©Damaris Perdomo

They envisage a very different kind of Falán. A Falán where mining can only be seen in the colonial ruins in the Cuidad Perdida. Where ecotourism flourishes and agriculture is reappraised.


What next?

What’s next? The next municipal elections will matter. Only one candidate, Miguel Rubio, is outspoken against the mining projects. Through his own social media channels, he has been protesting against the emerging plans and raising awareness about the impact of mining for years. So the elections in October will be decisive.

What Falán currently needs, according to Luis Barreto Jimenez of the local environmental committee, can be summed up in three words: organisation, education and campaigning. ‘We need to organise and unify the detached environmentalists and send correct information about the impact of mining Falán and Frías through streamlined campaigns, to counter the companies’ propaganda machines.’

Luis Barreto Jimenez in Ciudad Perdida ©CATAPA

This is currently being in process! Together with Catapa, for example, funds are being raised to work on this on a project-by-project basis. The battle is not over yet!


This article is the result of a research project carried out by volunteers from CATAPA’s study and lobby working group in collaboration with Colectivo Ambiental Falán y Frías and Willo Molenaar, anthropologist.

Would you like to contribute too?

Are you moved by what you read and wondering how you can contribute to this fight? One very real thing you can do today is making a donation to make the Right To Say No Andes gathering happen!

This gathering is the sixth edition of the partner exchange week of CATAPA  in the fall of 2023 in Ecuador: This is a week of knowledge, concrete practical skill and strategy sharing between affected communities on preventing mining projects from entering and on dealing with the impacts of the presence of mining companies on their lands. The gathering strengthens communities in their local fight and forces bonds and alliances that ensure a united struggle to protect their Right To Say No to mining in the Andes region.

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