A Battle Over Copper in Colombia

In the fertile heart of the Andes, a local tug-of-war reveals the dilemmas of mining for metals critical to decarbonization.

By Austin Landis | July/August 2024

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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JERICÓ, COLOMBIA—Pinkish, hazy light fades behind the orange roof of the farmhouse. Inside, Luz Dary Tobón Tamayo stirs melting, golden-brown cane sugar into a stovetop pot of brewed coffee, the beans picked and dried just a few yards away. Shadows blanket the green mountain where the home is perched, a landscape dotted with leafy coffee plants and plantain trees.

She ladles the steaming mixture into large porcelain mugs as dusk settles over one of the highest points of Jericó, Colombia.

On this mountain, 64-year-old Tobón Tamayo has overseen her family’s harvest of coffee, plantains, beans, and onions for 40 years, and the water they use that springs from the mountain aquifers.

Now, she’s afraid a planned copper mine risks contaminating that fertile ecosystem and its water supply—or erasing her family’s farming livelihood altogether.

“Why wouldn’t we fight for what we have?” Tobón Tamayo says. “Water is life. And without water, who lives? No one.”

Other copper sites around the world have led to soil and water contamination from toxic runoff, deforestation, and loss of animal habitat and, in the worst cases, have made local residents sick. For farming families like Tobón Tamayo’s, who have only known their mountain community to thrive on agriculture, it’s hard to see beyond the potential damage of a mining cavity beneath their land, even as others in Jericó welcome the mine’s potential to inject innovation and resources into the community.

Tobón Tamayo is part of a group of farmers who have spent over a decade resisting the construction of a mine known as Quebradona, which would extract nearly 1.5 million tons, or 3.2 billion pounds, of copper buried in the rock directly beneath her home. It would become the largest copper project in Colombia, though small in scale compared to other global deposits. AngloGold Ashanti, a global gold mining firm headquartered in the United States, began the Quebradona project in 2010. In addition to the copper, the deposit has around 2.6 million ounces of gold and 28.1 million ounces of silver.

Jericó rests in the heart of Colombia’s tropical Andes, a few hours away from the country’s second city of Medellín. The town of 14,000 people is split over Quebradona. As some residents fight to stall the company’s efforts to move forward, fearing environmental damage, other Jericoans insist it would be an economic and social boon for the town.

This tug-of-war is a microcosm of a global contradiction: In the rush to meet worldwide demand for a mineral critical to decarbonization and a green transition, there is a risk that smaller communities will become environmental collateral damage—and their resistance contributes to a supply pinch that could drive copper’s price even higher.

Copper’s Supply-Demand Mismatch

Copper is “unquestionably” the one metal critical to decarbonization, explains Chris Berry, an independent analyst and president of House Mountain partners, a strategic metals consultancy based in Washington, D.C.

“Existing copper mines are starting to get exhausted,” he added. “Yet you have these really, really strong demand tailwinds.”

The need for copper could double by 2035, Berry said. Other estimates predict the world will need to quadruple its copper and nickel production by 2050, as countries work to meet climate targets. Copper is the key ingredient for conduction in most electrical systems, but the need is far higher for renewables like solar- and wind-energy production. A fully electric vehicle, like a Tesla, requires nearly four times the amount of copper that a regular internal combustion engine does.

With the world’s unexplored or undeveloped mines like Quebradona not yet off the ground—delayed by community resistance, lack of investment, or permitting requirements—copper prices will keep going up to incentivize production, experts like Berry predict.

Back in Jericó, Tobón Tamayo bounced along the town square’s pavement at an April protest. Standing just over four feet tall, she told Dollars & Sense that AngloGold Ashanti has offered to buy her supplies for the farm or to invest in their farming operations. But she said they’ll never win her over.

“They want to make it a mining town, and we’re not miners,” she said. “We want to say to [them]: Go away, we don’t want you.”

In AngloGold Ashanti’s 2023 financial report, they specifically warn global shareholders about the risk of community resistance. They gave the example of a different planned gold mine in Colombia called La Colosa, where they were forced to stop fieldwork after locals voted against it. A similar town council vote in Jericó was later deemed invalid by Colombia’s constitutional court, which is why Quebradona’s exploratory activity has continued.

The company grossed $4.5 billion in 2023, mostly from gold extraction projects in nine countries. Its top four shareholders are investment firms based in the United States, collectively holding more than $1 billion dollars in shares.

Copper prices crept up in the first half of 2024, averaging $4 a pound. The upward trend is likely to continue. According to the most recent analysis from 2017, the copper, gold, and silver from the Jericó mine are projected to bring in nearly $15.6 billion in revenue over a 21-year production period.

Globally, the copper market surpassed $300 billion in value last year, and is expected to surpass $476 billion by 2031. Given the financial stakes, “it’s up to the organizations that produce the copper to do so in a collaborative way with the communities,” said Steven Kukoda, executive director of the International Copper Association.

That’s why AngloGold Ashanti has gradually integrated into the town over the last decade, funding social programs, youth activities, infrastructure, and investing directly in local business.

AngloGold Ashanti’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Bet on Jericó

“When they arrived here, they began to explore what we in the town could provide,” said 44-year-old home goods store owner Duván Córdoba, a vocal supporter of the mine. “They wanted the money to stay here.”

AngloGold Ashanti was the only company to order products from him in December, he said, allowing the store to stay afloat.

Surrounded by refrigerators, bedding, and other kitchen appliances, Córdoba and his father lament the state of the economy, and the lack of stable jobs in Jericó. Tourism and agriculture—the town’s vital industries—often employ people by day, or by season.

Jericó is one of Colombia’s heritage towns, and is the famed birthplace of Santa Laura, the country’s only saint. During holiday seasons, national and international tourists flood the picturesque, colonial-style town to visit its churches and spend time in the mountains and lively plaza.

While work opportunities in the town’s biggest industries are often inconsistent, Córdoba explained, the mine would employ hundreds of locals over the decades it operates. “At this moment, I have five people asking me for a job,” Córdoba says.

“Let’s bring sources of employment to this area and start mining.” The father-son pair has attended a few of the weekly “Mining Wednesday” education sessions offered by AngloGold Ashanti at the Quebradona site, where people can visit and learn about how the mine would work.

In 2023 alone, AngloGold Ashanti spent more than $1.1 million in the town, equal to about one-fifth of the town government’s own budget. They have funded a marching band, a competitive gymnastics team for teens, local entrepreneurs, and a foundation that works with disabled kids. They renovated local schools, planted trees, and installed a large “I Love Jericó” sculpture where tourists can snap a photo overlooking the town.

“How are we not going to support this?” said John Jairo Henao, a former town council member and now spokesperson for pro-mining group Jericoans with Vision. “We have to keep an eye on it,” Henao said, but “the people want development, [and they] know how to defend the environment.”

AngloGold Ashanti has made it a priority to earn a “social license to operate” at mining sites around the world, per a 2023 report, by engaging local communities and forging partnerships.

Some Jericoans quietly told Dollars & Sense they feel neutral about the mine, preferring not to get involved in an issue that has created divisions between family members and neighbors.

“Everyone is for water,” said John Pimienta, who sells carrieles—multicolor leather bags traditional to Jericó—on a busy corner of the town’s vibrant central plaza. But “for water to reach [your house], it has to have some copper,” he said. “If the mine is a project that is controlled ... for me there is no problem.”

Environmental Impact in Question

Henao and Córdoba say they’re comforted by the environmental reports crafted and submitted by the Quebradona mine so far, in which they claim the mine won’t cut through underground aquifers and disrupt the flow of water above ground. The company also says mining material wouldn’t leach into the water table, since the mine’s two tunnels would start at more than 1,000 feet deep in the mountain’s rock, and reach more than half a mile.

But in 2021, Colombia’s environmental licensing agency (ANLA) said that the environmental impact reports lacked key information. They put AngloGold Ashanti’s application for a mining license on hold pending more in-depth studies.

The company’s environmental reports leave “great uncertainty” about the mine’s impacts on underground water sources, according to ANLA, including potential contamination of the aquifers. Furthermore, the company didn’t provide any data from some key farming regions under which the mining tunnels would run, including Tobón Tamayo’s land, meaning the company’s hydrogeological map is incomplete.

The studies are ongoing. In the meantime, it’s unclear how much damage the mine would do, said óscar Jaime Restrepo Baena, a professor in the faculty of mines at the National University of Colombia who has studied the Quebradona project.

“There is no evidence that they are cutting off the underground water sources,” said Restrepo Baena. But “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

“It may be that when [they] ... do an excavation, an aquifer appears.”

Either way, farmers and local environmental activists are firmly against it. And they have successfully blocked the company’s work—for now.

In December, Quebradona installed a platform on a piece of private farmland to drill into the ground and extract samples for their latest studies.

The next day, a group of more than 60 people, including Tobón Tamayo, went on the land and dismantled the equipment piece by piece in protest, then dropped it down at the town’s police station. The property owner filed a civil complaint against the group, setting off a legal process this spring.

At the first hearing in April, the accused marched in the sun along the town’s cobblestone streets, singing, playing flutes, and chanting to the beat of the drums: “Agua, sí, mina, no!” (“Water, yes; mine, no!”) Twenty-three-year-old Jericoan María Jose Cano led the march, and she has organized the recent protests with the group Imagine Jericó.

“Their objective with the complaint is for us to ... promise that we will not impede their work again,” she told Dollars & Sense. “It’s not going to happen.”

The company’s ability to do key environmental studies is at a standstill while the legal process plays out, which could last until the end of 2024.

“They have stopped us,” said a local Quebradona official who requested anonymity because they were not allowed to make official statements. “That’s what we are facing.”

The company estimates that the town of Jericó would get 20% of the $1.8 billion in expected royalties from the mine, which would provide well-paying jobs for about 3,000 people while open.

Typically, when someone finishes high school or college, they go look for a job in the larger city of Medellín, the official explained.

“If there are more companies in small municipalities, people will look at how they can enter into a career in their own town.”

Representatives from both AngloGold Ashanti and Quebradona turned down requests for interviews.

Mining’s Dirty Reputation in Colombia

While AngloGold Ashanti has generated allies and trust in Jericó, their global and national reputation is linked to human rights violations.

According to Colombia’s truth commission, which documented the horrors of the country’s decades-long civil war, which began in 1964, AngloGold Ashanti paid millions of dollars to military units in Chocó, the Pacific northwest region where they have pursued gold mining projects. In the early 2000s, some of those army units were involved in fighting guerilla groups, in a period of intense violence and bombings that displaced hundreds of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people.

In 2003, Human Rights Watch linked AngloGold Ashanti to the armed group Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The FNI, which controlled a key gold mining region, was responsible for the killing of hundreds of civilians.

The company has since committed to “respect human rights and, where practically possible, to leverage its position and influence to ensure that state actors, as well as our suppliers and other partners, protect human rights,” per a 2022 AngloGold Ashanti report.

In Colombia, Professor Restrepo Baena said, gold mining zones can attract violent crime, prostitution, and drugs, due to the large profits at stake. Illegal mining activity run by criminal groups can pop up around a legitimate project, which has happened at various sites, including Canadian company Gran Colombia Gold’s project northeast of Medellín.

The approach to the Quebradona mine has been different, the company says, with social consciousness and efforts to boost the community, not damage it. It’s difficult to determine the ripple effects of a new copper mine in Colombia, since there is only one in operation, where there have not been reports of major issues.

But with mining’s current reputation, the resistance can be fierce.

Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez first received national recognition for her fight against AngloGold Ashanti, when she successfully organized a women’s protest that drove a gold mining project out of her hometown.

Márquez is part of perhaps the most environmentally friendly government in Colombian history. President Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing leader, was elected in 2022 and has made decarbonization a central part of his platform.

Petro visited Jericó last January, promising new policies to protect water in the region, calling it the “cradle” of Colombia’s “life power.” “There will be no further progress in mining,” he declared.

But in the same speech, the president spelled out copper’s contradiction: “In metal mining, we have an urgency and that is that the transition towards clean energy ... implies more mining.”

Petro’s environmental ministry later published a proposal to declare the entire agricultural region southwest of Medellín, including Jericó, a safe zone from environmentally harmful activities like mining. The proposal still exists as a draft, but it hasn’t moved forward.

The environmental ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

More Than a Decade of Resistance at “Every Step”

Helicopters attached to metal detectors first flew over his mountain home in 2010, remembers 85-year-old Porfirio Garcés, when AngloGold Ashanti first began its exploration of the metal deposit. “These men began arriving, pretending to make us believe they were university students [instead of miners],” he said. “They keep lying to us at every step.”

Donning a traditional aguadeƱo brimmed hat and carrying a woven bag, Garcés passed out postcards as protestors gathered that morning in April, his hands creased but sturdy. He was one of the oldest locals to help take apart the mining platform in December.

The mine would “leave us nothing but a total desert,” he worries. Retired, Garcés lives near his family’s former coffee farm above central Jericó, which also sits on part of the copper deposit.

The local government has oscillated between pro- and anti-mine. In 2017, the town council voted to block the Quebradona project, but a decision from Colombia’s constitutional court deemed the vote invalid. Garcés, Tobón Tamayo, Cano and the rest of the group have protested throughout—and they worry that the new mayor, who began his term in January, will concede to the mine because of the company’s hefty local investments. The mayor did not respond to multiple requests for comment. “If we had not started this fight ... they would already be extracting,” said Garcés.

“The copper is out there to allow the world to meet demand,” said Kukoda of the International Copper Association. What’s missing? “An enabling environment,” from both governments and communities, Kukoda explains, and local resistance is par for the course.

In neighboring Panama, the government shut down a First Quantum Minerals site that accounted for 1.5% of the world’s copper output, after the public protested against the environmental damage caused by the site.

AngloGold Ashanti expects to submit the remaining environmental studies in 2027, partly depending on when the complaint against the protestors is resolved.

And it could take another two years for Colombia’s licensing authority to return a decision on the Quebradona project. If approved, the mine would operate for 21 years, then require another 13 years to close and monitor the site.

Mining is inherently a “dirty business,” said Berry, the independent analyst.

But with a growing need for copper—which powers everything from electric vehicles to artificial intelligence data centers to wind turbines—“you have to balance the environmental challenges with the economic benefits,” said Berry.

And that fight? As Berry puts it, it’s “as old as the hills.”

is an independent multimedia journalist based in Medellín, Colombia. She previously covered U.S. politics in Washington, D.C., with a focus on immigration policy.

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