Hundreds of people wearing white t-shirts to indicate their pacifism protested against Chinese mining company Zijin in Buriticá town square on 9 February this year. This municipality of 10,000 inhabitants, located in Colombia’s northwestern Antioquia department, historically lives off agriculture and informal mining. On that day, as on previous occasions over the past two years, its residents showed their discontent with the company that owns one of Colombia’s largest and most significant gold mines.
"We don't want the state to be a daddy who gives us everything, we want to have agriculture and mining projects. It’s all we are asking for. They promised it," an informal miner who preferred not to be named told Diálogo Chino, as he sat chained to a statue of an indigenous man killed in colonial times for refusing to reveal where the gold lay. The statue was donated to by the mine’s former owners, Canada’s Continental Gold. Many residents often use the names Zijin and Continental interchangeably to refer to the mine’s owners.
Zijin bought the mining project from Continental Gold at the end of 2019 for 3.6 trillion Colombian pesos (between US$900 million and $1 billion) and the acquisition was finalised in early 2020. It included a licence to exploit gold in an 1,893.8-hectare area for 14 years. Under Continental Gold, the project earned praise for its high level of community engagement and promised support of local social projects.
However, since Zijin's management began, three strikes have taken place in the municipality. The first was in March 2020, a few days after Covid-19 lockdowns began in Colombia. The second was in October 2021, which ended with the intervention of Esmad, the anti-riot squad. February’s was the third. The municipality’s various demands have not permitted the Chinese company to work without interruption.
Accusations against Zijin
Gold seems to be everywhere in these parts. According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, 77.45% of the 47.6 tonnes of gold produced in the country came from Antioquia, mainly the municipalities of Buriticá, Caucasia and El Bagre.
A miner who worked for Zijin says that the first strike took place because while the whole country went into confinement "and everyone was locked up, they [Zijin] were working as if nothing had happened. This strike was to demand that they respect the quarantine". He also complains that his contract was not renewed because he took part in the protests. "They are putting in more personnel from China and they are not taking into account the people of the area," added the interviewee, who asked to remain anonymous.
(Video: Ernst Udo Drawert / Diálogo Chino)
Another informal miner interviewed by Diálogo Chino said that a further reason for the stoppages was the lack of employment guarantees and support from the multinational for projects in the municipality. In 2021, the unemployment rate in Buriticá was 5.23% compared to a nationwide average of 14.7%. However, the gold-rich municipality’s rate of informality was 79.6%.
In response to these allegations, Zijin told Diálogo Chino that they maintained their work during the pandemic "because mining activity was framed within the exceptions decreed at the time by the national government" and a biosecurity protocol they presented to relevant authorities was approved. Similar permissions that allowed for continued mining operations during Covid-19 lockdowns were granted to companies in other Latin American countries, including Peru and Ecuador.
In terms of jobs, the company says it employs 3,885 direct workers and contractors. "63.7% of operational personnel and apprentices are from the municipality of Buriticá and the mine's area of influence," says Sergio Petro, Zijin's head of public affairs and director of sustainability in Colombia. He added that there were no dismissals for participating in the protests and that only 4.8% of the company's personnel are Chinese nationals, who "came to Colombia to carry out well-defined tasks that require specific experience".
Carolina Urrego, a specialist in international relations between Colombia and Asia who has followed the Zijin case, said: "it is very common to demonise companies for the activities they carry out,” but asked; “are governments really establishing the rules of the game in which they are obliged to comply with social and environmental standards that respect human rights? … taking care of citizens is the responsibility of the state.”
Guarco, the water reserve
According to the miners interviewed by Diálogo Chino, another issue that contributed to the latest stoppages is that Zijin is beginning to explore gold reserves in the village of Guarco, to the north of the town of Buriticá. This is where the municipality's water reserve is located and its residents fear for their water source.
Organised armed groups come in to settle matters that should really be settled by the state
The company said its exploration activities correspond to one of the mining titles granted by the state and that these "are carried out outside the areas of environmental importance in this village".
David Berrío, a Buriticá councillor, said the problem is that the municipality has a very old land-use plan, and that Guarco is not considered within the environmental reserve zone. For this reason, "they can carry out exploration without any problems".
To avoid future damage, the municipal council is taking steps to have Corantioquia (the Regional Corporation for Sustainable Development of Antioquia) establish the zone as a protected area.
Informal mining and Creta
A researcher from Antioquia, who prefers not to be named, stressed the differences between illegal and informal mining. The former "is carried out outside the law, for example by armed groups", while informal mining is that which can be formalised by a legal framework.
"There are various paths to formalisation, depending on who does it and their situation. The point is that there is no way to make illegal mining legal," he said, adding that often an informal worker ends up working for illegal structures that fight among themselves for the business.
The entrances to illegal mines are usually covered and camouflaged to avoid being seen by the army or the police. What goes on inside is modern-day slavery. Dozens of people work for 8 to 12 hours per day, carrying bags heavier than their own bodies on their backs. The work is organised by a foreman who obeys illegal groups who pay for space and labour. To combat these practices, the use of force is very common in Buriticá.
Councillor Berrío worked with the municipality’s previous administration (2016-19) and was one of the coordinators of Creta, a military operation designed to put an end to illegal mining. This was financed by Continental Gold, which, according to Berrío, invested around US$20 million between 2016 and 2019, and involved some 1,300 police and more than 300 soldiers. Around 300 mines were closed. But the focus has now shifted to informal mining. “I estimate that there may be 150 or 200 mines," said the councillor. "Informality and illegality have not disappeared. After this experience, one realises that the way to attack informal mining is with will, not with force."
(Video: Ernst Udo Drawert / Diálogo Chino)
Berrío added that while the state gives guarantees to the multinationals to exploit reserves, it "does not want to recognise the informal miners and attacks and stigmatises them". He said that when the state does not have a sufficient presence, as in Buriticá, "all the organised armed groups come in to settle matters that should really be settled by the state", confirming one of the miners’ accounts.
"What they did [in financing Creta] was to make the business viable in order to sell it to the Chinese", says Berrío.
Waiting for promises
Another reason for persistent protests is that of the 4% of Zijin’s profits that it pays in royalties, only 1% of the total goes to the municipality. In 2021, the company paid more than 43 billion pesos (approximately US$11 million). Yet, a little more than 430 million pesos (over $100,000) went to Buriticá. Some Buritiqueños, including mayor Luis Hernando Zapata, believe that this share does not correspond to the amount of gold mined on the land.
of the profits that Zijin pays in royalties goes to Buriticá municipality
A further bone of contention is the outstanding promise to support the municipality with different mining projects. Mayor Zapata told Diálogo Chino: "Continental Gold brought a social investment strategy, where there was motivating information for the territory, where the expectation of the municipality was employment, productive linkages, business initiatives, and training." However, according to the mayor, so far Zijin has only supported road construction projects and infrastructure repairs, such as the roof of a church. In addition to nine mining formalisation projects, only two of which have been successful.
Sergio Petro says that Zijin paid more than 33 billion pesos (more than $8 million) and invested "more than 4.6 billion (almost $2 million) in community infrastructure". It adds that the company has a "consolidated formalisation" programme.
The Ministry of Mines and Energy said: "[Colombia] has defined as a priority to accelerate the diversification of mineral production in order to meet global needs." By 2022, gold production is expected to increase "between 5% and 10% on the previous year", continuing a recent trend. For this reason, Zijin is a key player and must formalise its involvement in Buriticá.
For years, Chinese companies have adapted their social and environmental policies to conditions in host countries. However, there may be signs that this is changing. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the global infrastructure development strategy launched by China in 2013, has begun to give impetus to Chinese multinationals to apply stricter environmental controls to their overseas investments.
Zhang Jingjing, an environmental lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law (United States), where she directs the Transnational Environmental Accountability Project, said that Zijin is a mining company with experience investing in 12 foreign countries. Despite this, she said, in Colombia "it has not been able to fully manage the relationship with the surrounding community", and although it may have legal authorisation to undertake the project, its “social licence” is less than assured.
This story was produced in partnership with El Espectador. Lulu Ning Hui contributed to the report.