State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Afro-Colombian women defend their heritage

'I'm really proud of mining, of course. In this region most women are miners, because that's how we earn a living to raise our kids. For me it's really unfair, because there are people who come from other places to occupy our mines. I mean, they want to come and take over territories where there's mining. The mines should be just for people from here, we make our living from mining, and if they come and take the fruits of our labour away from us, then what will happen to us? We'd have to leave here, but I think the only way we would leave is in our coffins.' Jazmín Mina, an Afro-Colombian woman miner.

Afro-Colombians have been carrying out small-scale, ancestral mining in the Cauca region of Colombia since the days when their emancipated enslaved ancestors settled here in 1637 to mine the gold found in the hillsides. Today the miners' descendants continue to chip away at the red earth in search of small specks of gold, and see it not only as a means of earning a modest living, but also as an activity intrinsically linked to their culture and ethnicity.

One of the most important towns in the area with a large population of Afro-Colombians was Salvajina. It was blessed with plentiful natural resources, fertile farmland, abundant water sources and, most importantly, huge reserves of minerals beneath the soil.

In 1985 the Colombian government decided to build a vast hydroelectric plant on the Cauca River. The subsequent flooding of the surrounding area meant that around 1,300 Afro-descendant families were displaced to the nearby town of La Toma, where, as compensation for the upheaval they had experienced, the government promised them electricity, running water, health care and schools. In 2011 the Afro-Colombian residents of La Toma were still waiting for those promises to be honoured.

Between 2002 and 2010, while gold prices soared on world markets, Colombia's government gave out 7,500 mining exploration titles to national and foreign mining companies, such as AngloGold Ashanti, eager to exploit the precious resource. In La Toma, many of these concessions overlapped with areas where Afro-Colombians have practised ancestral, family-run mining operations for generations.

Afro-descendants and indigenous communities in Colombia have the constitutional right to be consulted prior to resource extraction projects in the areas where they live. But La Toma residents, who were never consulted before mining titles were granted, decided to take the matter to Colombia's Constitutional Court. In April 2011, the court made a decision to suspend all further mining titles in the area – requiring that title-holders carry out 'adequate consultation' before proceeding with further mining plans. The decision is a victory for La Toma, but only time will tell if it will be effective in halting powerful multinational mining interests.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.