Not Everything that Shines is Gold

A thousand years…

I open my eyes again, I’m older… A thousand years I’ve seen go by… I keep the same felicidad in my heart since the beginning… the dim rays of sunlight still peek through the mountains of Cutris, just the way I intended… My name hasn’t been invoked in a thousand years, but I remain here, immovable, perpetual, omnipresent… humans, rains, birds, seasons, actors… come and go, but I am here… watching, observing, feeling, preserving my art… preserving life…  They are the hungriest souls who hunger the most for money…

The people who knew my name, the people who I intended this land for, gone… murdered… replaced… modified… ‘modernized’… This new god, the effigy of conquest, colonialism… capitalism… all mundane… My name has been forgotten, erased from time, but I remember, I am still alive. I sometimes whisper in the ears of my art’s enemies, startling them awake with sweat beading down their necks, wishing they were dead, wishing I could tear them apart… I remember… I remember creating these mountains, the birds flying above them, the water flowing through them and the gold living inside… I remember… I remember the pillaging, the destruction and the sorrow reigning over this land… My people are gone, but their children are here, my children…



Costa Rica es mi patria querida,
vergel bello de aromas y flores
cuyo suelo de verdes colores
densos ramos de flores vertió.
A la sombra nací de tu palma,
tu sabana corrí siendo niño,
y por eso mi tierno cariño
cultivaste por siempre mejor.
Yo no envidio los goces de Europa,
la grandeza que en ella se encierra;
es mil veces más bella mi tierra
con su palma, su brisa y su sol.
La defiendo, la quiero la adoro,
y por ella mi vida daría,
siempre libre ostentando alegría
de sus hijos será la ilusión.
“Patriótica costarricense, 1852”
Costa Rica is my beloved country,
A beautiful orchard of aromas and flowers
Whose rich soil of verdant colors
sprouted bouquets of flowers.
I was born in the shadow of your palm,
I ran through your Savannah as a child,
And so my tender affection
You’ve earned forever.
I do not envy the pleasures of Europe,
The grandeur that is locked therein;
My land is a thousand times more beautiful
With her palm trees, her breeze and her sun.
I defend her, I love her, I adore her,
And for her my life I would give,
Always free exuding joy and
the pride and hopes of her children.
“Costa Rican Patriotic, 1852”



Note from the authors:

Collaborative writing isn’t easy. In the fall of 2017, Juliana and I (Ericka) took a class on ‘Ways of Knowing: Approaches to Knowledge and Truth in Development Studies and Social Justice’ that encouraged us to write together. Even though our fields are very different, we discovered we had a love for nature and our homelands in common. We took the opportunity to write on what threatens the vitality of our countries’ environments, and to write in a way that also reflects our people’s struggles to maintain sovereignty over their lands.

It was during the ‘Truth, Trials and Memory: An Accounting of Transitional Justice in El Salvador and Guatemala’ Conference hosted at the University of Minnesota in November 2017 where we began to discuss Latin American history, civil wars, activism, and colonialism. These topics developed into a series of conversations around environmental protection, but we still couldn’t grasp any one issue to anchor our endeavor as coauthors.

I remember one day that November, I came across an article from a prominent newspaper (‘La Nación’) in Costa Rica reporting that Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president Óscar Arias Sánchez was under investigation for allowing Infinito Gold to mine the Crucitas region. I knew immediately this was what I wanted to write about! Even though I had been in medical school at the time, and very much absent from social affairs, this Crucitas case was so prominent that I could remember by heart most of the polemic behind it. When I told Juliana about this, it resonated with her, as her native Colombia has been a hot target for mining investors. Resource exploitation has increased since the government signed a peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who had been protecting certain regions in the country rich in gold and inaccessible to foreign investors. Even though Colombia’s story around mining hasn’t had the same successful outcome as Costa Rica’s, we wanted to contrast both situations to showcase a particular occasion where activism has been effective.

While Costa Rica has a long history of making environmental conservation policy commitments, both nationally and internationally, Colombia’s vision of development is rooted in natural resource exploitation, and the preservation of water and biodiversity is not a priority. The fact that colonial Costa Rica had a small indigenous population and a rising coffee industry allowed democratic structures to become consolidated while limiting the development of colonial institutions.  These characteristics allowed Costa Rica to resist sway by foreign interests during the second half of the 20th century and instead to concentrate on developing the tourism industry, which has remained the country’s economic backbone since. In contrast, Colombia’s colonial history was permeated by violence, gold robbery and extermination of natives by Spanish people, all of which made the consolidation of an inclusive democracy difficult.

We felt a need to share these stories because we felt that our own joint account of the events, our co-authored tellings, in fact constituted parts of the untold stories we had inherited. In reflecting on the civic movements of our people, we wanted to share inspiring examples of how social activism can be an effective tool to tear down imperialistic giants, examples that also contain lessons about mistakes and dangers faced along the way.

We initially decided against translating Spanish texts into English since we felt these would interfere with the flow of our writing. Subsequently, however, we felt that some translation may be necessary to reach a diverse audience, whom we wanted to feel stirred by our story.  Thus, above, we offer in translation a patriotic song that was sung during the demonstrations in Costa Rica.

Situated solidarities: activism in civil society and transdisciplinary collaboration against a global mining corporation in Crucitas de Cutris, Costa Rica

I call your attention to the inspiring and controversial case of the Republic of Costa Rica versus Infinito Gold Ltd. This case, which has been elevated to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) for arbitration, still resonates in the news outlets of my country.1 The dispute started when the company’s authorization to mine the region of Crucitas de Cutris was voided by a Costa Rican court on environmental grounds. Only a few days ago, former president and Nobel peace prize winner Óscar Arias Sánchez was called in by Congress to testify and answer questions surrounding the authorization of the Canadian-owned company in 2008 to mine gold despite environmental concerns.2 Now, as I write this paper, the former President is awaiting a criminal judge’s decision on whether he should be imputed criminally and civilly for the Crucitas case.

I remember… I remember creating these mountains, the birds flying above them, the water flowing through them and the gold living inside… I remember…

Thirteen hundred years ago, the aboriginal inhabitants of what one day would become Costa Rica learned the technology to melt and shape the gold nuggets they found in their rivers into small figurines, amulets, earrings, erotic statuettes, and even a life size gold warrior figure adorned with ornaments, which can be found today behind the doors of the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum.3 Hundreds of years later, the proliferation and abundance of such figurines would lead Spanish colonizers to think they had discovered the riches they sought and they named the region “Costa Rica,” or the rich coast.

By the mid-19th century, gold accounted for almost half of the exports of the country. Although coffee and bananas quickly replaced gold, mining firms and artisanal miners continued to tear up the country for over two centuries. It was not until the 1990s, that the Costa Rican government took a decisive turn to preserve its rich biodiversity by greatly expanding the system of national parks. This initiative helped push the economy towards ecotourism, one of the largest sources of foreign exchange and employment in the country since 1995.4

Given the key role that environment preservation plays in Costa Rica’s economy and global presence, industrial mining has been seen by most residents as a threat. To understand public opposition to corporate mining in Costa Rica, it is important to understand the central role that the environment plays in the country’s economy, society and culture. Costa Rica, as we are continually reminded through publicity, is a biodiversity “superpower”5 with the most species of flora and fauna per square kilometer of any nation on earth. Even in school, one of the first facts that children are taught is that our small country holds nearly 5% of the total species estimated worldwide.

The people from Costa Rica stopped an initiative that could have become one of the largest gold mines in Central America in the northern village of Crucitas. A strong citizens’ movement6 successfully pressured the government to close down Canadian mining company Infinito Gold’s Crucitas operation and pass a legislative ban. Infinito Gold then sued the Costa Rican government in ICSID in 2014.7

In October 2008, President Arias authorized Infinito to mine the Crucitas area in the “national interest”8, as this region suffered from high poverty rates and unemployment. Arias insisted that this project was a crucial opportunity for the town’s economic growth. Almost immediately, Infinito began a major clear-cutting of the mining site.

I open my eyes and see the subtle light that passes within the valleys… My name has been forgotten, erased from time, but I remember, I am still alive. I sometimes whisper in the ears of the enemies of my art, waking them with sweat beads running down their necks…

Citizen groups from Crucitas organized protests against the gold mining project in their land. However, during 2008–10, activists, lawyers, and a group of academics joined the anti-mining campaigns, marked by several marches and hunger strikes.9, 10 Their main concerns were the use of cyanide and the disposal of this chemical in the nearby rivers. These activists were later linked to larger national efforts centered in the capital city of San José. Congress passed its ban on new open-pit mining in early November 2010, which the Supreme Court upheld in 2013. There has been no new open-pit mining in Costa Rica since.

The city of San Carlos, which lies around 60 km south of Crucitas, served as a focal point of resistance in the Crucitas fight. Another key component of civil-society action was the reaction of the middle and upper class residents of the Central Valley. This reaction turned into an outrage expressed by people in the 4 main provinces contained within the Central Valley, with the capital city of San José and its surrounding suburbs being the main stage where the story of Crucitas acted out. It was the broad range of “urban environmentalists” from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the extensive urban middle class who cared deeply about the environment who brought more attention from the news media and the authorities. Particularly, an extremely effective ally of citizen groups in Costa Rica was a group of academics mainly from the UCR called “Llamado Urgente por el País”11 who were able to use their various academic expertise to spread education about the negative impacts of mining and mining firms. This group of roughly 20 professors from very diverse disciplines came together to work against the mining firms in 2008 when then-president Oscar Arias decreed that the Crucitas mine was in the “national interest.”

Additionally, the church played a key role in forming public opinion, especially after the Catholic Bishops Conference12 came out opposing the Crucitas mine initiative. Interestingly, civil activists were able to deploy the media more effectively than the mining company. They caught the attention of the entire nation on the day when a news helicopter flew over the Crucitas town announcing the destruction of forest and land by the company that had already started.13 Polls right after this incident showed 85–90% of the public opposed to the Crucitas project. The TV images not only provoked more indignation in the Central Valley but also a spontaneous march of San José activists to Crucitas, a march back to San José by the communities in the north, a hunger strike in San José, and an outburst of new activism that culminated in the legislative ban on new mining.

Furthermore, many sectors that benefit from eco-tourism and agriculture are more numerous and powerful than the relatively small mining sector. Thankfully, there are few elites with strong ties to the mining industry in Costa Rica. Due to this particularity, these segments of society were silenced. The fact that academics came together across disciplines to become more effective advocates, and those who were experienced lawyers were able to adequately inform the people and bring this case to the courts, was a key component in the success of this movement.

These beautiful flowers just resemble the sun…

During the two-year period of 2008–10, even with strong civil society, weak pro-mining national business elites, and a democratic government, the administration of Oscar Arias was influenced by Infinito Gold to develop the mining project. Despite the government’s decision, the strong Costa Rican civil society and the (still) independent Supreme Court were able to eventually overturn Arias’ pro-mining policies and stop Infinito from mining Crucitas. All I can say is that not all activism leads to failure. Our judiciary system decisively halted gold mining even though our poor, small, third-world country was standing up against the mining corporations and governments of the much more powerful Canada.

The popular movement against the gold mining project in the Santurbán Páramo and the risks of social activism in Colombia

Gold mining project in the Santurbán Páramo (Santander Department)

A similar situation, represented by first-world nations exploiting resources in developing countries is also ocurring in Colombia. However, unlike Costa Rica, Colombia’s policies do not consider environmental protection as a priority and the economic branches of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) exclude activities such as eco-tourism that seek sustainable development. Instead, the main economic activities in Colombia involve natural resource exploitation and ecosystem degradation. These economic ventures include infrastructure construction, mining, and the conversion of land for livestock use and agriculture, representing 8.2%, 7.2% and 6.7% of the GDP, respectively.14 To put it bluntly, Colombia has an extractive economy and lacks a sustainable development perspective.

Similar to Costa Rica, Colombia has also experienced civil activism against gold mining projects developed by multinational companies. However, due to Colombia’s history, activism is not very successful and can be a dangerous practice. First, I’ll introduce you to an activist movement against a mining project in the Santurbán Páramo. Subsequently, I’ll discuss current changes in Colombia’s socio-political context to understand what is happening to environmental protection and the risk of performing social activism in the country.

My people are gone, but their children are here, my children…

One of the most enduring cases of civil activism in Colombia is a movement against the gold mining project in the Angostura district that encompasses the Santurbán Páramo in the Santander Department, located in the central northern part of the country. In 2009, the Canadian firm Greystar (now Eco Oro Minerals Corp.) announced an open-pit mining project of 218 hectares in the Angostura district to extract 45 million ounces of gold and silver for 15 years. This project was devastating for the region as it affected the water sources for the aqueduct of Bucaramanga city, one of the most populated capitals in the country. After news of the mining project was released, several Colombian civil society actors, such as the University of Santo Tomás, the Santanderean Society of Engineers, the Society of Public Improvement of Bucaramanga, and the Committee for the Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo, organized several protests against the mining of the region.15

Just like in Costa Rica, a huge display of people, including a large number of academics declaring themselves against open-pit mining, triggered a governmental response. In 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development decided to demarcate the Santurbán Páramo to maintain water sources protected inside this area and block any mining project within those boundaries. In addition, in 2016, the Constitutional Court prohibited the development of extractive activities in the páramos of the country and revoked the mining titles of Eco Oro Minerals Corp.16 The páramos are high mountain ecosystems, whose vegetation and soils retain high levels of water. In this way, the court’s decision to protect this ecosystem was extremely important because many of the páramos in Colombia are main water sources of the country’s capital cities (e.g. Bogotá and Bucaramanga). However, following the court’s decision, Eco Oro Minerals Corp. proceeded to sue the Colombian State that same year, arguing economic damages of more than 250 million dollars due to the country’s failure to comply with the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and Canada.17 This lawsuit is still being fought in international courts and is just another example of how powerful countries continue to colonize under the capitalist model.

Social and environmental activism in the post-conflict Colombia

Currently, activism against mining in Santurbán continues its fight of nine years to maintain clean water sources for the population. However, this activism is facing new challenges due to a socially and politically charged transitional period occurring within the country. On November 2016, peace agreements between Colombia’s government and the guerrilla movement known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were signed to end a 52-year civil war. The end of a war that has permeated the country’s dynamics for such a long time offers many opportunities, but also great challenges, especially related to natural resource management and social changes in rural areas previously governed by the FARC.18

The sun was so excited to see that something looked exactly as bright as him and focused its attention on it…

Shortly after the signing of the peace accord, reports of the overexploitation of natural resources and social minorities in these post-conflict zones surfaced in the news. In November 2017, the United Arab Emirates announced the investment of $1 billion dollars in the Minesa multinational to extract gold in the Santurbán Páramo. Minesa argues that the project will be placed outside the edge of the páramo ecosystem; however, the delimitation of the Santurbán páramo ordered in 2014 by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development has not yet concluded, and water sources may still be at risk with Minesa’s new project. The mining project was announced after Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos traveled to the Middle East in search of investment opportunities for the country’s post-conflict era of “peace.”19 After news of the project was announced to the public, a popular action led by the Bucaramanga councilor Pedro Nilson Amaya started a lawsuit to the Santander Administrative tribunal against Minesa and the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA). The lawsuit explains the threats that mining exploitation will have in the water of the metropolitan area of Bucaramanga. The tribunal admitted the lawsuit and they will schedule a date for the audience with all the involved parties.20

During the civil war, investment in Colombia was risky and not appealing for international companies, but one year after signing the peace agreements in 2016, the deforestation in the Colombian Amazon significantly increased and the country lost almost 220.000 ha of forest during 2017.21 Although this may seem paradoxical, Colombia’s internal conflict partially protected the environment in remote areas such as the Amazon Region, by limiting the exploitation of natural resources for more than 50 years.

Besides the post-conflict environmental challenges, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding social changes in areas where the guerillas exerted a governmental role. Since the signing of the Peace Agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016, 295 social leaders have been murdered. A report from Indepaz, Marcha Patriótica and Cumbre Agraria detailed that 81.5% of the victims belong to rural organizations, communal action groups or ethnic associations. The report explained that the principal cause of the murders is due to conflicts related to land possession, natural resources management, mining activities and maintenance of illicit crops. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights informed that guerrillas such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal groups are seeking the control of illegal economies in areas previously controlled by the FARC.22

The dryness penetrated my skin… it arrived to my bones… A thousand years I’ve seen go by…

Although social activism in the Santurbán Páramo has defended the people’s right to have clean water for nine years, Colombia is no longer safe for environmental or social leaders. Learning from Costa Rica, we can see how important it is to create a national identity that recognizes the importance of preserving natural resources. Previous governments in Costa Rica have boosted eco-tourism and conservation initiatives that incentivize the public to preserve water resources and ecosystems. In other words, Costa Rica has promoted natural resource preservation as an economic activity, which generates income and employment opportunities, and increases people’s commitment to preserve their land. In contrast, Colombia is experiencing a humanitarian crisis and leaders that want to preserve natural resources are at risk. Unfortunately, violence and activities such as gold mining that deteriorate the environment and communities will continue to develop until people have education and other employment opportunities. In the meantime, gold won’t shine, and will in fact lead to an avalanche of disastrous and uncertain consequences for Colombia.


I open my eyes and see the subtle light that passes within the valleys that divide the Andean mountains. Slowly, the light starts to illuminate the plants that resemble frailes, religious European ambassadors that arrived to what they called the new world. Due to the resemblance, these plants are called frailejones, which grow in a rosette display, shaped by a wooly texture that protects them both from very low temperatures and the high sun radiation that you can receive at 3000 m.a.s.l.. The light gets stronger and locates its glimpse in the frailejones flowers. These beautiful flowers resemble the sun… with their rounded border and bright yellow that makes you blind with joy when you approach them. Sometimes I feel lucky to live here in the páramo, where my house has a yellow and humid carpet of flowers, where the water proliferates and feeds life.

The tropical light became warmer and started to penetrate my skin… it arrived to my bones. I started to experience a shiver that traveled from my tailbone to my head, all along my back. I recognized that the sun left behind its beloved yellow flowers and located its gaze in emerging gold from the ground. The sun was so excited to see that something looked exactly as bright as him and focused his attention on it. The gold, so appealing and shining, completely seduced the sun, who never kissed the flowers again.

The flowers were so sad that their petals started to fall, as well as their ovaries, stamens and pistils. Without carpet the water dried up and my skin started to chap. The dryness penetrated my skin… it arrived to my bones. My eyes dried out, my mouth couldn’t move. The light was completely gone and the moon approached to see my dried body on the bare soil. With my last breath, I told her the story about the flowers replaced by gold, who slowly swallowed the water and dried it all.

Suggested citation:
Ovares, E. A. L. and J. Vélez. 2019. “Not Everything that Shines is Gold.” AGITATE! 1:
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  19.  Redacción Medioambiente. 2017. Emiratos Árabes invertirá $1.000 millones de dólares para extraer oro en Santurbán. Periódico El Espectador.
  20.  Redacción Periódico el Tiempo. 2018. Admiten demanda en contra de explotación minera en zonas de Santurbán. Periódico el Tiempo.
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  22.  Redacción Periódico el Tiempo. 2018. Este año han sido asesinados 124 líderes sociales en Colombia. Especiales Periódico el Tiempo.

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