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News > Latin America

'Democracy is Over': Colombian Court Rules Community Referendums Cannot Block Mining, Oil Projects

  • Gold mine in the department of Santander.

    Gold mine in the department of Santander. | Photo: EFE

Published 13 October 2018

The Colombian Constitutional Court has ruled to restrict the power of popular consultations to halt extractive projects.  

Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a Mansarovar Energy, a transnational oil and natural gas company, and against Indigenous communities in the municipality of Cumeral Thursday. 

Colombia's Indigenous Organization Under Threat by Paramilitary

The judgment, however, has far-reaching consequences since it will limit Indigenous communities from using popular consultations or referendums to block extractive industry projects & programs in their territories.

Mansarovar Energy, a Colombian-based company backed by India's ONGC and Chinese oil firm Sinopec, presented a request for legal protection before the Constitutional Court, calling on it to overrule a decision by a local court of the department of Meta that had given the green light for a popular consultation that effectively halted the extraction of oil in the municipality of Cumeral.  

With a five to one vote, the court ruled that Indigenous communities cannot use popular consultations as a mechanism to stop extractive projects arguing the state is the owner of all the resources in the countries subsurface.

This ruling contradicts previous rulings by Colombia’s highest court in which the body validated the mechanism.

The Court also called on Congress to develop a mechanism for citizen participation and “instruments for nation-territory coordination and concurrence,” thus disregarding the existence of popular consultations and citizens' right to exercise a form of direct democracy. Many have accused Congress and government officials of responding to the interests of transnational companies.

Throughout Colombia, communities have organized nine popular consultations, in which the communities have voted against extractive projects by private companies.  

Environmental activists and territorial leaders have said the ruling is an attack on democracy. The Foundation for the Protection and Human Development (Fudopres) condemned the ruling via Twitter saying “democracy is over in Colombia after the Constitutional Court gagged popular consultations.”

Campesino communities have also protested the ruling and accused the justices of being “captured” by corporations. Conflicts over territory are at the core of long-running violence against communities and social leaders, who resist oil and mining project in Colombia's rural areas.

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