CAJAMARCA, COLOMBIA —
Gold mining companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars but not extracted a gram. Palm farmers are told their land belongs to someone else. Some communities are voting to ban mining in areas already awarded for exploration.
Whether or not President Juan Manuel Santos can salvage a peace deal with Marxist rebels that voters rejected October 2, legal roadblocks and high taxes are a major deterrent for companies looking to invest in Colombia.
Santos says ending Latin America's longest-running conflict would open up vast areas to development, reduce corporate security costs and bring additional growth of up to 1.5 percent a year.
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos receives handicrafted presents from Misak natives in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 10, 2016. Santos says an end to conflict with FARC would open up vast areas to development and lead to new growth of up to 1.5 percent a year.
Since voters narrowly rejected the deal, Santos has scrambled to extend a cease-fire with the rebels and meet with opposition figures in a bid to find common ground and resurrect hopes of a negotiated end to the 52-year war.
But even companies eager to explore former conflict zones say other worries are more pressing.
Many are wary of recent court decisions banning exploration on land already awarded in concessions and giving local authorities greater power to reject mining projects. For others, high corporate taxes are a damper.
"It's useless to have a post-conflict window of opportunity if our neighbors have half the tax rate we do and if 30-year contracts are signed and then the conditions change," said Santiago Angel, head of Colombia's mining association.
Half in taxes
Analysts calculate many businesses in Colombia pay taxes at a rate of over 50 percent, compared with 27 percent in Peru and 25 percent in Chile.
Canadian gold miner EcoOro, which has spent $240 million on exploration in Colombia, lost 50 percent of a concession in Santander province after a constitutional court ruling halted mining exploration to protect wetlands.
"Changes in laws and legislation make project development impossible," Chief Executive Mark Moseley told Reuters. The company is hoping it can reach a compromise with the government under Colombia's free-trade agreement with Canada.
Despite security improvements in recent years, industry insiders say companies may reconsider expansion plans or simply not move to Colombia altogether because of the legal uncertainties. Of some 150 miners that arrived in Colombia during a gold price boom in 2009, only 30 remain.
Experts estimate half of Colombia's territory has been starved of investment because of the war, and Santos hopes peace would triple foreign direct investment to $36 billion a year over the next decade, with companies exploring deposits of gold, coltan, copper, rare earths, emeralds, tungsten, potassium and coal.
Still, mining firms complain that tighter regulation and political pressures are hurting the industry.
South Africa's AngloGold Ashanti is facing a public vote that could stymie its plans to extract gold at its flagship La Colosa project in Tolima province.
A resident speaks to fellow residents at a community meeting about AngloGold Ashanti's La Colosa project in Ibague, Colombia, Aug. 25, 2016.
Mining at the site — a $2 billion potential investment that could yield 28 million ounces of gold — would be banned if Cajamarca municipality follows the lead of nearby Piedras, whose residents voted to ban extraction amid water quality fears.
Under current law, companies must get approval from local ethnic groups before beginning projects, but do not typically consult the broader community. Some areas are using referendums to change that.
Both Cajamarca and the city of Ibague have pending votes. If passed, AngloGold, which has invested close to $900 million in Colombia since 2006, would be forced to abandon the project.
"Tell me what the rules of the game are, I'll analyze them and take a decision about whether to invest in the country or not. But don't tell me in the middle something isn't constitutional," said AngloGold executive Juan Camilo Narino.
Ibague Mayor Guillermo Jaramillo talks to a reporter in Ibague, Colombia, Aug. 25, 2016.
Reasons for opposition
For Ibague Mayor Guillermo Jaramillo, there are clear health and environmental reasons to banish mining.
"They are going for gold. We are defending our land," he said from his office overlooking the city's colonial square.
AngloGold says it follows all regulations and mining at La Colosa would not affect ground water.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of each side, the panorama of uncertainty is a deterrent to investment.
The government says it understands challenges facing companies and will try to adapt.
"We have to keep working on a series of institutional fixes that will give much more clarity on mining and energy development," Deputy Mining Minister Carlos Cante said.
He said solutions include better definition of what areas can be explored and improvements in company relations with communities. Potential new investors from Australia, Canada and Asia have expressed interest in Colombia, he added.
Offices of the AngloGold Ashanti's La Colosa exploration site are seen in Cajamarca, Colombia, Aug. 26, 2016.
Hurdles in rural areas
The government hopes agriculture would benefit particularly from peace, since part of the accord reached with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is focused on investment in rural infrastructure.
But here, too, producers say they face hurdles beyond the conflict. Programs to return land to displaced war victims are roiling property holdings and could prevent expansions into fertile areas once controlled by rebels.
The displaced often struggle to reclaim property, which may have been seized by rebels or right-wing paramilitary groups and sold on to buyers who know little of its provenance.
Just 29 percent of landholders in Colombia have formal titles, the government says.
Reparation programs are in their infancy, but several palm farmers in Guaviare province were recently told to vacate land in favor of another claimant, said Jens Mesa, president of the palm federation.
"If there's not absolute clarity, it's very difficult to move local and foreign investment," Mesa said. "A deal with the FARC is very important, but it doesn't excuse the country from making these other changes."
Without reliable records of who owns what, companies could be vulnerable to property claims after spending millions on development.
"The risk is buying lands without knowing whom they belong to, not knowing what happened there, and five years later a truth commission or a victim shows up," Control Risks analyst Sergio Guzman told a recent business forum. "That's any company's nightmare."