ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Colombia has a lot of natural resources. Now, a long guerrilla war is ending, and former conflict zones are opening up to exploration and extraction. Plans are in the works to build one of the world's largest open-pit gold mines near the town of Cajamarca. Locals are having none of it. As John Otis reports, they recently voted to leave the gold in the ground.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: With a hammer, geologist Carolina Perez extracts a rock sample from an Andean mountain ridge. She works for the South African firm AngloGold Ashanti, which is exploring for gold here.
CAROLINA PEREZ: This is pyrite, and we have gold associated with the pyrite.
OTIS: You can't see the gold in the rocks because it's microscopic, but there's a lot of it. AngloGold estimates this mountain may hold 28 million ounces, worth about $35 billion.
PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: The Colombian government is counting on royalties and taxes from AngloGold and other mining firms to power its post-war economy. Under a peace treaty to disarm Marxist guerrillas, the government has pledged to invest huge sums in forgotten rural areas that gave rise to the rebels more than 50 years ago. But extracting the precious metal would require AngloGold to bulldoze the mountain and build a massive open-pit mine. That spooks people in the bucolic farm town of Cajamarca.
JUAN PULIDO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: One skeptic is farmer Juan Pulido, who leads me up a mountain slope overlooking the town. All around us are fields of passion fruit, avocados, beans, carrots and coffee trees.
PULIDO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Pulido says he fears mining accidents and contamination from cyanide, which is used to extract the gold, would turn these fields into a wasteland. He says the government awards mining concessions without consulting local residents and that their communities often end up polluted and impoverished. Pulido expressed his frustration last month in a plebiscite that asked Cajamarca voters whether or not they wanted mining in their community.
In a shocking result, the no side won with 98 percent of the vote. Mining advocates say that the outcome has paralyzed the industry by opening a Pandora's Box of legal uncertainties. For example, local plebiscites on land use are considered binding, but Colombian law also states that the national government controls underground resources, like oil and minerals. What's more, AngloGold already has a government license to explore and has invested $900 million on the Cajamarca project.
GERMAN ARCE: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Colombia Mining Minister German Arce warns that if law-abiding firms like AngloGold are driven out, illegal miners, made up of armed gangs that contaminate rivers with mercury and pay no taxes, will move in.
Back on the mountain, AngloGold's work continues for now. Still, the plebiscite stands as an embarrassing public rejection that threatens the future of the mine project here. Just the thought of a shutdown brings tears to the eyes of Perez, the geologist.
PEREZ: This is sad when you work hard here because I do the things good. Yes, I (unintelligible) mine because I love people and I love the product. I love my job.
OTIS: More mining conflicts are on the horizon. In the wake of the Cajamarca vote, several other Colombian towns plan to hold plebiscites on mining. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cajamarca, Colombia.
(SOUNDBITE OF DR. DRE SONG, "WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.