Following a 22-hour journey by bus, taxi, boat and foot we arrived at the gold mining community of Mina Caribe in the Serrania de San Lucas part of Sur de Bolivar. As the track leading from the regional centre Santa Rosa, had been made accessible to vehicles for another few kilometres, including a crucial uphill bit, we only had to walk for and an hour and a half, half the time it took on my companion's previous trip to the area one and a half months ago.
The army encampment we passed on the hill above the village gave a further clue to the militarized nature of the area - there had been two checks along the river, one for documents the other just luggage. That these soldiers weren't in the hills for the views was confirmed by reports by locals that the day before a local gold buyer had been arrested and taken off by helicopter for carrying a pistol without a license - I later learnt he was released a day later. Apparently army helicopters are used for such essential matters but if a local is seriously ill they have to be carried off on a stretcher to the road.
We were greeted with the drink of choice, at least among the men, beer, and after the pleasantries talk quickly turned to the more serious matter of the death threats issued last week against the local federation of farmers and miners (Fedeagromisbol), and the Colombian NGO I was accompaning, amongst other groups and priests in the region. After the trip I discovered that these death threats had been narrowed to specify leading members of these groups.
The following day a gathering was held in the village with representatives from most of the mining communities in the area, including some who had walked/ridden for hours to be there, and the turn-out seemed impressive with around 100 packed into the hall and some outside. Disappointingly but predictably, there were only a few women. The meeting was dominated by the pressing matter of the death threats, although time was found for many other issues. It was a chance for locals to find out about their representives' meeting with government officials in the regional centre of Bucaramanga a few weeks ago. The mining ministry had made committments to ensure the return of displaced people and the miners' continued existence in the region and the Federation had proposed a 'Zona Reserva Especial Minera' for the region. A follow-up meeting in Cartegena for the previous week had to be cancelled due to the death threats, and the government had only decided to send along minor officials anyway.
People complained that they paid taxes on the gold they exported from the region but saw little
in the way of social investment in the region, the army being the main official presence, as I was to discover for myself. The general lack of security was commented on with 32 murders occuring between December 2007-April 2008 in the local municipality. There was spirited talk with someone saying that their communities have been threatened for years but they have continued the struggle to exist in the mountains and someone else saying that although more people would probably die it was worth continuing this struggle.
There was much discussion of the rapid progress of the vehicle access track into the mountains, funded by the communities. In another month or so the road would reach the first mining community. All the communities contribut different amounts to the road and further fundraising ideas like raffles were raised. By the time the last agenda item, the environment, most had left, due no doubt to the long trek many had to make to their communities. However, some had clearly come to address this agenda item and spoke passionately about the damage caused by the practice of dumping sand containing the waste products of gold-mining like cyanide and mercury, in the streams surrounding the community, killing the fish - the water comes from much higher up the mountain so isn't an immediate concern. Structures have been built for the storage of waste until it can be treated but these aren't used by many. It was suggested that this could only be addressed by imposing fines on those guilty and someone pointed out practically that although this was a serious problem the lack of people still in the meeting meant nothing could really be done until there was enough local will-power. Someone told me that people from an environmental agency had visited and there were plans to clean up this environmental damage. All in all it was considered to be a successful gathering with much participation and a date was set for the next one. For me it alone was worth well worth the 22 hour trip.
The high levels of violence the area suffered at the hands of the paramilitaries has been well documented. They held had the area under siege and in 2001 this was broken temporarily by a 'Caravana Por la Paz' with an international presence. It seems this siege is still partly in place as the most direct route to the nearest city of Barrancabemeja is said to be controlled by paramilitaries, which means a two day trip if you don't want to travel at night. When members of the Federation have to travel there for meetings with officials or to sign papers it takes the best part of a week. Many in the communities rarely visit even neighbouring villages, let alone leave the hills. Everything is brought in on mules with electricity provided by a few generators around the village. For heavy loads helicopters have to be chartered but due to the cost they are used only rarely for essentials like mining equipment.
In the evenings community life, for the males, focuses around the village pool halls where they play a different version of pool with the balls lined up along the side and potted in sequence - it is however allowed to pot a ball out of sequence if the one in sequence is hit first. Points are also deducted for penalties based on the value of the ball to incur the penalty which can be costly if you foul on a 15. Like in the west a drinking culture goes with the game.
Staggering up to the village square one afternoon, not from access of alcohol rather a lack of oxygen due to the steep ascent, I was surprised by a few soldiers loitering around the edge of the square watching the little there was of life going by, mostly children and animals, and munching recent purchases. I was told they had been camped above the village for the last few days and came into the village to buy stuff. However they hung around a good few hours and the following day I saw one further away from the square hanging around outside someone's house. No-one seemed to be bothered as if these were regular visits. They are from the nearby military base and are a new battalion who haven't engaged so far with the villagers. The previous battalion would search people's houses and turn up with masked informers who supposedly knew who the guerilla were. They would also force their way into village council meetings. The locals are understandably apprehensive about what this bunch would be like.