Debate begins on the popular initiative in the council of Cerrito in the province of Garcia Rovira
By Luisa Maria Navas / CENSAT 'Agua Viva' - Jul 28, 2010
(Translated by Lucas Sanchez, a CSN Volunteer Translator)
One year ago, on the first of August 2009, the people of the municipality of Cerrito took the first steps towards their new initiative to protect the Almorzadero paramo, the high plateau that rises higher on one of its sides. The precise name of the initiative is the Normative Popular Initiative, which is a resource granted by the nation’s Constitution to express and give strength to the voice of the people.
The history of resistance in the town of Cerrito has been fundamental in the formulation and negotiation of this initiative, since it has provided the necessary elements and tools to push it forward, as well as the strength to sustain it.
What is a normative popular initiative?
It is a political right through which citizens can collectively present agreed upon projects before the town and district councils. The presentation of these initiatives then generates the obligation for these public entities to debate the project, though the project need not be approved exactly as it was presented and can be modified or even rejected in its entirety.
In order to introduce it, a committee of sponsors must be created and a committee speaker must be elected. Having met these requirements, the initiative is registered (in a format adhering to legal norms) at the civil registry, which then reviews the request and provides the forms needed to collect, in a period of six months, the support and signatures of 5% of the citizens registered to vote in the town.
If this is accomplished, the people’s project will be presented before the Council for discussion.
The installation of mining projects is a threat once again, stepping over the will of the people in the community, who, in various ways for over more than twenty years, have made known what it is they want for their territories. This time, the threat of the danger is much greater than in other instances and is directly pushed forward by the Colombian government.
The mountain is a significantly rich resource, particularly for the departments of Santander and North of Santander in northeastern Colombia; but its impact goes beyond these borders, since it’s the water source for creeks, swamps and rivers and because of the quality of these waters. The water’s purity is due precisely to the type of coal that is found in the mountains which performs the labor of filtering impurities before the water leaves their interior.
When the new protective initiative turns one year old, the history of resistance to mining in Cerrito will be almost twenty. The first instance of resistance was when a company managed to install itself for almost two years, between 1991 and 1993, offering employment and more development. But the people learned and understood through personal experience how mistaken and dangerous it is to allow a mining company to operate in a region that needs clean water for farming, which is part of the community’s identity. That company had to leave due to the strength of this conviction.
The next instance was in 2004. That year, another company tried to install itself, this time illegally, seeking to take advantage of the infrastructure left behind by prior mining efforts. The alert mobilized people until two things were accomplished: that the mayor’s office of the same municipality expedite a resolution that would order the suspension of mining activities in the coal mines, and that the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Santander, the environmental authority for the department, second with another order that would not only close the mine but also sanction the company.
It became clear, however, that the Colombian government’s intent was to convert this land into a mining region, perhaps bringing back and refurbishing colonial times and goals. Thus, in response to this alert, the people of Cerrito held a community forum at the beginning of 2006. It was known then that the government had a tender list for 200 thousand hectares of the mountain for the exploitation of its miraculous coal, an expanse of land very much attractive to transnational corporations. Through the forum, the community decided to exhort the national government to suspend any mining proposal or project in the Almorzadero paramo, pointing out that the negative impacts that would be generated could not justify mining in this territory.
A few months later, more than 800 young women and men took it upon themselves to defend and guarantee their right to this land, identity and culture, and proclaimed water as a fundamental right, while mayors from nine towns expressed in writing to the nation’s president their desire for a moratorium to be declared on mining activity in the Almorzadero paramo.
In 2006 the Vigilance and Oversight Commission for the Protection of the “El Almozadero” Mountain was formed.
In 2007 and 2008 the movement was active by making it known outside the departmental and national borders what could happen if not watchful. The departmental government even stated that there was no reason that could justify the mining of the coal and that it would support the defense of the mountain.
Response to the Most Recent Attack
In many ways, there has been effective action to protect the mountain against mining efforts. But coal executives and the national government persist in their attempts. There are very real possibilities that the government will grant permits for the mining of coal in an area covering 200 thousand hectares. The proof can be seen in what has already happened in the Santurbán mountain, a neighbor of the Amorzadero, that is presently being mined by a multinational corporation.
The popular initiative’s proposed legislation seeks to achieve the goal of designating the “El Almorzadero” mountain as a zone within the jurisdiction of Cerrito that is excluded from mining. It also states that local entities should regulate the use of land, specifically designating areas for special protection.
Ultimately, it seeks for the council to also approve a judicial norm that guarantees that the community will be consulted first, before taking decisions concerning the land use of the special zones, besides declaring the area of the paramo as excluded from all mining activity.
The Vigilance and Oversight Committee was decisive in pushing forward the formulation and negotiation of the Normative Popular Initiative. The municipal registry’s validation of the 804 signatures backing the contents of the initiative has already been obtained.
The project agreed upon and supported by the community of Cerrito will be debated during the 2010 sessions of the town council and, depending on its viability, will be approved by the mayor.