Defending Water Against a Mine: Hydrous Sociality, Environmental Struggles, and Popular Consultations in Colombia

On Sunday July 28, 2013, denizens of Piedras, a town located in Central Colombia, went to the polls to participate in the consulta popular (popular consultation) on the establishment of large-scale mining activities in this rice-producing town. In 2012, Piedras had become the stage of a conflict created by the Anglo Gold Company’s (AGA) attempt to establish the La Colosa mining project’s processing plant and tailing dam in the town. La Colosa’s extraction site was planned to be in Cajamarca, a closer highland area in the Colombian Andes with large underground gold deposits. However, the zone’s seismic instability made it ill-suited to establish a waste storage facility. In contrast, Piedras’ location on the alluvial plains of the Opia River, a flat area with fewer geological risks, made it more appropriate for that enterprise.

Town where the coalition of water defenders emerged, Tolima, Colombia. Source: the author.
[Image description: a black and white map shows several major arteries coming together in the center around a township called Santa Rita from a birds eye view with topography markers. Three black dots with white centers mark Ibagué, in the center, Piedras in the upper right corner of the map, and Cajamarca just to the left of Ibagué.]

In Colombia, a popular consultation is a type of local referendum in which a measure or issue affecting a Municipio (municipality) is submitted to popular vote. Colombians had used popular consultations to define townships’ administrative boundaries but not to address a mining project. Piedras’ consultation was the first time in the country’s history that a group of citizens used a constitutionally mandated form of direct democracy to intrude into the established protocol used to initiate mining development. During the consultation day, accredited electors received a paper ballot bearing a six-line question at the polling sites.

Piedras Popular Consultation’s Ballot, 2013.
[Image description: two rectangles are stacked one above the other showing the front and back of a voting ballot. The top contains a block of text describing the vote, asking if the resident of Piedras supports mining with two large boxes to check sí (yes) or no. The bottom shows official insignia and a label “Voto Para Consulta Popular Piedras – Tolima.”]

A “Si” indicated the voter favored those activities in the town, whereas a No denoted the opposite. As several videos recorded that day show, people enthusiastically went to the voting sites. In one of the videos (Video 1), a forty-year-old woman said: “We do not want the mine here. We do not want the mining company to destroy the river because our livelihoods come from the river. In my case, my husband is a fisherman.” At 4:00pm, polling stations closed, and the vote counting started. Two hours later, Colombia’s Elections Office issued an official statement saying that approximately three thousand citizens, accounting for 98.8% of the total vote, declared themselves “not in favor” of having large-scale extractive activities in the town. Piedras’ residents had resoundingly rejected the La Colosa’s facilities.

The day of Piedras’s Popular Consultation. Video by El Nuevo Día, 2013a.
[Image description: the still image shown opens to a video about the vote when a viewer clicks on the screen.]

The idea and activities to organize a popular consultation against La Colosa emerged from the previous actions against the mining company. Since 2009, in the nearby municipalities of Cajamarca and Ibagué, a multi-sited anti-large-mining coalition had been opposing the extractive project. As part of a larger research project, I have studied the formation of this coalition, focusing on how territorial, water, and life defense practices disturb the development and consolidation of the Tolima region as a new extractive frontier.

Amidst the activities, alliances, narratives, and mobilized emotions that culminated in the deployment of the popular consultation, the defensor/ra del agua (water defender) and el pueblo (the town) stood out for their contributions to the consultation. Water defenders were crucial in persuading Piedras’ residents to vote for the “No.” In my work, I do not assume these political subjects are a priori formations geared up to deploy dormant democratic tools. Instead, my work relies on environmentally oriented ethnographic and historical explorations to explore how activists in Piedras assembled a hydrous political sociality that preceded and facilitated the use of the consultation.

As anthropologists Dace Dzenovska and Iván Arenas (Dzenovska & Arenas, 2012) have suggested, material practices and discursive formations shape the contours of what we understand as “people” partaking in political actions. In opposing the waste facility and organizing the popular consultation, Piedras’ activists and allies became water defenders and assembled a legally binding collective voice to refuse the La Colosa project. In what follows, I offer a glimpse of how this sociality was crafted and nurtured. Fathoming how people in different parts of the world advance ground-breaking forms of collective action and decision-making centered on nature is relevant in times when the possibilities for collective self-rule regarding the environmental crisis seem to have shattered.

“Doima says No,” 2013. El Nuevo Día, 2013b.
[Image description: a photo shows a crowd of people facing toward the viewer with a group at the back holding up signs with individual letters reading D-O-I-M-A D-I-C-E N-O (or, Doima says No).]

The fashioning of La Colosa’s opponents as water defenders took place in the space of the regional anti-mining coalition. Amidst conversations, events, and the production of written and audiovisual materials to oppose the tailing dams, activists of Cajamarca, Ibagué, and Piedras came together. They shared previous experiences with water injustice and learned how La Colosa’s waste facilities would affect Piedras’ rivers and aquifers. In so doing, they consolidated the defense of water as a political praxis and a positionality.

Ina and Alicia, two female community leaders of Piedras, played a significant role in creating and cultivating the connection between La Colosa’s opponents in Piedras and the regional anti-mining coalition. I want to highlight their stories to illustrate how different kinds of people cultivated themselves as water defenders and foreground women’s contributions to these struggles. Ina is a high school teacher and a local public intellectual who spends her weekdays at Doima’s school (one of Piedras’ rural counties) and her weekends in Ibagué with family and friends. She regularly participates in teachers’ trade union activities and occasionally writes for regional newspapers. When I met her, she told me about her engaged research projects on fishing traditions in Tolima. Alicia is a small farmer and a rural organizer based in Campoalegre (one of Piedras’ rural counties). For many years, she has acted as a community leader in her county’s Rural Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal), explicitly leading and overseeing the construction of the local water system.

Ina learned about the tailings dam during a meeting that the Anglo Gold Ashanti Company held in Piedras in 2012. She explained that she “felt suspicious” of the mining project because the company’s personnel did not mention environmental risks. Ina was aware of Ibagué and Cajamarca-based activism against La Colosa and reached out to them. Some of them were University of Tolima’s students and faculty, who were part of the regional coalition. These advocates did not know about the waste facility. They have been focusing on industrial mining impacts on the mountains and peasants’ livelihoods. However, after Ina communicated what was happening, they began to search for more information about the tailing dam.

Meanwhile, Alicia learned about the mining company when she began to see white SUVs moving around Campoalegre. The vehicles belonged to the Anglo Gold Ashanti Company. A neighbor told Alicia about Ina’s contacts, and she got in touch with them. Alicia wanted to understand the facilities the mining company planned to build in Piedras. Aided by one international NGO, Cajamarca’s activists established contact with a hydrogeologist (the late Robert Moran) who drafted a report on the mining site and the facilities’ long-term impacts on rivers and other water sources.

Through this report and other sources of information, the anti-mining coalition uncovered that the mining company wanted to take the rocks and mud extracted from Cajamarca to Piedras using a conveyor belt. In Piedras, using different kinds of machinery, workers would crush and grind these materials to reduce their size and start releasing the gold. The ore treatment would include cyanidation, a chemical process that needs large amounts of water(Mining Technology, 2010). Treating these materials would produce discarded elements called tailings (El Nuevo Día, 2013a). Mining companies deal with these byproducts by storing them in dams. These infrastructures might pollute water for years (Pacheco et al., 2022). Also, although not very frequent, the collapse of a tailings dam could release materials that generate massive toxic mudflows that engulf settlements, forests, and crops (Owen & Kemp, 2019; Silva Rotta et al., 2020).

With this information, members of the anti-mining coalition started to hold meetings, organize events, and produce instructional materials to render legible and intelligible the tailing dam’s impacts. These organizing spaces and activities became relational spaces for shaping and nurturing the trope of water defense. One of the first leaflets the coalition created to address Piedra’s dispute featured two small male farmers talking about the mining project. Under the title of “Don Jacinto,” a small farmer greets his fellow neighbors, the audience of the leaflet.

“Don Jacinto” Panel 1 by Fabian Prada, 2013. Prada.
[Image Description: a comic strip with five panels, three on the top row and two on the bottom row introduce a man with a mustache wearing a hat named Don Jacinto. Their conversation is explained by the author.]

In the second panel, Jacinto runs into a second small farmer “who seems crestfallen.” This character only says he is “feeling disconsolate about what is happening in the town.” Immediately, the main character says, “I’ve heard that milled rocks from Cajamarca will be brought here to spray them with cyanide to take gold out of them.” Then, the second peasant asks, “Does that mean that we will have money?” Jacinto rapidly replied: “Only for the company’s owners and investors, not for us.” Then, he adds, “a few of us might become wage workers while the company will pollute water, land, and our life.”

“Don Jacinto” Panel 2 by Fabian Prada, 2013. Prada.
[Image description: a comic strip with two panels, each showing Don Jacinto standing next to his friend in a conversation the author describes.]

In the third panel, the second peasant expresses his surprise about this info. “He had not seen the company’s arrival in that way.” However, after the conversation, it was obvious to him how problematic the arrival of the mining facilities could be. In the final panel, Jacinto adds: “We cannot allow that this region, the only one with river oysters, gets destroyed by mining. We will cry Bulira’s tears.” Amidst the evolving mining dispute, anti-mining activists regularly mentioned the role of the Opia River and the Ibagué Fan Aquifer as water sources for agricultural production. Small farmers argued they needed water for their different crops and underscored how they have been experiencing long-standing forms of water injustice.  

Since the 1960s, large and medium landholders in Piedras promoted large rice production. In establishing these crop fields, these landowners grabbed significant portions of land and built irrigation infrastructures to control water use in this drought-stricken area. Of course, small farmers have been complaining about these water disparities since then. Small farmers’ experiences with water inequality suffused Piedras’ anti-mining coalition with a deep historical concern about water. However, they also permeate the nascent coalition with living watery class tensions.

In many ways, the public invocation of oysters was an attempt to ease these tensions. The Opia River harbors the only species of freshwater oysters (Acostaea rivoli) in Colombia. In recent years, the IUCN declared it critically endangered. The defense of this aquatic mollusk was a sort of neutral cross-class common ground where large and small landowners could meet. The reference to Bulira’s tears alludes to the Pijao indigenous story about how freshwater oysters were created. Bulira was the daughter of a Pijao chief who was devastated after her lover was murdered. Heartbroken, she spent days and days crying in the Opia river. Her tears, the story told, became the oysters of the river.

“Don Jacinto” Panel 3 by Fabian Prada, 2013. Prada, 2013.
[Image Description: 3 panels show Don Jacinto concluding the conversation with his friend, described by the author.]

Jacinto says in the final panel that “water values more than gold; our land is not for sale. We are going to defend it.” This motto encapsulated the claims of the nascent coalition against the mining facilities. As the activists’ common political goal became more specific, Piedras’ advocates brought more people in. In 2013, Piedras and Ibagué’s activists organized a public event called an “Assembly in Defense of Water.” They invited AGA’s representatives and regional authorities to question them about the La Colosa mining project’s impacts on water. Activists took the floor at several moments of the event to dispute the company’s assertion that the treatment and waste facilities would not affect water. Advocates mentioned the use of chemicals, the large amounts of water that gold treatment uses, and the underground leaks that the tailing dam might cause (Pacheco et al., 2022).

The connection between activists from Piedras and Ibagué is illustrative of the form of coalitional politics that the water defense entailed. A shared public language about water informed the coalition, but local bodies of water’s material features also shaped it.  While Piedras residents’ worry emanated from real constraints regarding water in the town, for Ibagué’s activists, the connection was less clear. Neither the open pit mine nor the mining facilities were in Ibagué, the regional capital. What connected Ibagué and Piedras was a subterranean water reservoir called the Ibague’s Fan Aquifer. Both towns’ large and small agricultural producers have used this 6 million cubic acres underground pool.  Though affected by access disputes, Ibague’s Fan Aquifer was a common resource to people in both cities.

Through the creation of materials and the organization of events regarding the potential pollution of this communal aquifer, Piedras and Ibagué activists promoted a sense of relatedness to the other town. Coming together to respond to this challenge configured a form of coalitional politics founded on a shared preoccupation with water, its scarcity, and its pollution, which preceded the deployment of the popular consultation.

This message about the inexorable pollution of Piedras’ water sources due to the lixiviation process and the tailing dam facilitated the emergence of a space of experience marked by the mobilization of feelings such as sadness and worry regarding the future of water. In this space, the temporality of Piedras and Ibagué dwellers’ concerns shifted from current issues concerning local water inequality to future issues about regional rivers and aquifers’ survival. The supposed inevitability of the facilities altered the milieu of Piedras inhabitants’ apprehensions: from preoccupations grounded in the household (the small farm lacking irrigation and experiencing water grabbing from large rice producers) to worries rooted in the town (a collective locale that would equally undergo water pollution and scarcity).

It is in this context that the notion of water defender materialized. It began to refer to someone who participated in creating and mobilizing public affects about water while simultaneously contributing to preventing harm to rivers and aquifers. This shift provided an opportunity for the anti-mining coalition’s members to rework their political subjectivities as water defenders. The coalition configured an emergent hydrous political sociality that preceded and facilitated the use of the popular consultation.

Popular consultations deployed in current environmental struggles (particularly in Latin America) cannot be reduced to a “matter of rules.” Consultas (consultations) are not simply the unproblematic activation of participatory institutions but terrains where claims spatial and political claims are made. Popular consultations entail the complex production of individual and collective political subjectivities intertwined with nature.

Dzenovska, D., & Arenas, I. (2012). Don’t Fence Me In: Barricade Sociality and Political Struggles in Mexico and Latvia. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 54(3), 644–678.

El Nuevo Día. (2013a, January 13). Los proyectos de AGA serían de más impacto para el Tolima. El Nuevo Día, 10A.

El Nuevo Día. (2013b, March 13). Suspendidas operaciones de Anglogold Ashanti en Doima. El Nuevo Día.

Mining Technology. (2010). La Colosa Gold Project. Mining Technology.

Owen, J. R., & Kemp, D. (2019). Displaced by mine waste: The social consequences of industrial risk-taking. The Extractive Industries and Society, 6(2), 424–427.

Pacheco, F. A. L., de Oliveira, M. D., Oliveira, M. S., Libânio, M., do Valle Junior, R. F., de Melo Silva, M. M. A. P., Pissarra, T. C. T., de Melo, M. C., Valera, C. A., & Fernandes, L. F. S. (2022). Water security threats and challenges following the rupture of large tailings dams. Science of The Total Environment, 834, 155285.

Prada, F. (2013). Don Jacinto [Cartoon].

Silva Rotta, L. H., Alcântara, E., Park, E., Negri, R. G., Lin, Y. N., Bernardo, N., Mendes, T. S. G., & Souza Filho, C. R. (2020). The 2019 Brumadinho tailings dam collapse: Possible cause and impacts of the worst human and environmental disaster in Brazil. International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 90, 102119.

*Cover image: Defending water in Tolima, 2019. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: A group of residents march down a street carrying a sign that says, “XI Gran Marcha Carnival en Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio,” on a sunny day, with a green mountain in the background]

Edited by Emily Webster, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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