Colombian Town Chooses Farming Life Over a $35 Billion Gold Mine

Wallstreet Journal photo

By Kejal Vyas

CAJAMARCA, Colombia — There is $35 billion in gold under the lush mountains near here, and the national government says mining is critically important as the country emerges from its long war with Marxist rebels.

But this farming town of 22,000 people has voted to leave it there. They say they would rather continue to cultivate their beans, bananas and arracachas, the carrot-like vegetables they regard as gold of their own. On Sunday, in a binding referendum, they opted to ban all mining, fearing it will contaminate the water, destroy the mountains and hurt their community.

The referendum throws into doubt South African miner AngloGold Ashanti’s proposal for one of the world’s largest open-pit excavations — more than twice the size of Central Park — along with Colombia’s embrace of the role of multinationals to advance remote regions once torn by decades of violence.

Three other towns rich in minerals now say they will replicate Cajamarca’s anti-mining campaign and referendum. The national government is playing down the impact of Sunday’s vote, but the stage is set for legal battles that will likely play out across Colombia’s multiple, competing courts.

“This is the greatest dilemma facing the country: How are we going to promote foreign investment if the rules of the game aren’t clear?” said Santiago Angel, president of Colombia’s mining association, which advocates for mining companies.

The central government, which granted AngloGold an exploration license a decade ago, controls what is underground. Local officials rule above the surface. Referendums such as the one held here are legally binding under a 2015 decision by the nation’s Supreme Court.

Cajamarca is a town of modest tin-roofed houses, and its people are fiercely proud of their farms nestled in a valley surrounded by cloud-covered, green mountains. The residents say they represent the rest of Colombia.

“The good in all of this is that Cajamarca is now the focus of the whole country,” said Felipe Sanabria, who was hauling a wheelbarrow full of beans as he spoke. “Maybe we’ll sell more beans.”

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