The Association of Agro-Ecological and Mining Fraternities of Guamoco (Aheramigua) is a group of artisanal miners, family farmers and Christian communities in Lower Cauca, which is part of Antioquia, and in Guamoco, Southern Bolivar.
Its mission is to resolve the existing social inequality as a foundation to building peace in Colombia’s rural areas. Aheramigua promotes the right to live with dignity, defends and provides integral protection to human rights and defends the environment. It promotes alternative forms of subsistence involving traditional mining.
After three years of preparation and working to strengthen a number of Community Action Boards in the region, Aheramigua was created in 2007 as an organisation with a human rights focus. It followed the example of the Small-scale Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley’s (ACVC) in its model of organising and providing training, in an area where no social organisations with this kind of reach had existed.
Aheramigua works with organisational processes to advise, strengthen, and create Community Action Boards in places where the social fabric has been destroyed by violence. They work only at the request of other organisations in El Bagre and Nechi municipalities (Antioquia); and Santa Rosa del Sur, Arenales, Morales, Montecristo and Tiquisio in Southern Bolivar. The association responds to the humanitarian crisis affecting the communities in this area, and helps them to report the human rights violations they suffer and raise awareness in the rest of the country about the security situation in the region. Aheramigua also trains the communities so that they can do this kind of work for themselves.
Aheramigua is the only human rights social process in Lower Cauca and Guamoco, a region with overt armed conflict, the presence of all armed actors and sizeable income from illegal mining, which generates a severe social conflict. Since 2007 it works at the request of 280 Community Action Boards in the area, which have sustained themselves and grown stronger thanks to Aheramigua’s presence.
The organisation creates “Fraternities for Life”, community groups that focus on human rights and meet at assemblies such as “Congregations for Life”. It trains communities in leadership, gender, administration of justice, democracy and citizenship so that they can take an active part in politics and building territories at peace and with social justice.
The members of Aheramigua are miners and farmers from the region, including its president Mauricio Sanchez. They offer workshops in response to the petitions and concrete needs of the Community Action Boards and communities, for example giving guidance for artisanal mining projects, and preventing or responding to baseless prosecutions. All these initiatives have strengthened communities and enabled them to demand respect for their rights and for the organisational processes that improve their quality of life.
The association does not have enough capacity to respond to all the petitions it receives because demand outstrips its internal resources. This, along with its imminent risk level which is due to it having neither the security guarantees nor the funds to travel to rural areas or to the urban area of El Bagre, makes doing their work on a day to day basis difficult.
Based on its work building up the Community Action Boards, it also trains public officials, for example it trained forty public employees from the Catholic University of the North about human rights issues. This has all led to it receiving recognition from institutions and organisations, both in the region and on a national level.
March for Peace and Humanitarian Refuge
An example of the training it does was in El Bagre on 7 August 2015, in the communities of Puerto Lopez where they organised a March for Peace which 5,000 people took part in. At the gathering they asked all the armed actors in the region to respect them for being the civilian population, and for being outside of the conflict. The agreement calls for respect for life, the right to free movement and the right for the civilian population to organise freely. The initiative came from the communities in the areas where Aheramigua works; 74 leaders took part. The ‘Autodefensas Gaitainistas de Colombia’ (AGC) neo-paramilitary group did not sign all of the agreement’s ten points and one month and a half later it breached what it had agreed to. During the first months of 2016 the communities from Puerto Claver and Puerto Lopez in El Bagre were the victims of mass forced displacements due to an increase in violence between the FARC, the ELN and the AGC in the region. Aheramigua took on the role of reporting these events, which also meant that their risk will increase.
Stories from the field: From the humanitarian refuge of Puerto Lopez (August 2016)
Its work with organising and leadership includes its support in June and July 2016 for the Puerto Lopez Humanitarian Refuge, where people gathered around the purpose of training communities and demanding that the Colombian State monitor the situation in the region; to avoid the humanitarian crisis deepening and guarantee that the communities be able to remain on their land. The Humanitarian Refuge brought together around 200 people for sporting and cultural activities, marches of life and peace vigils. As well as bringing evidence about this forgotten region to the nation, there was activity in social media with hashtag #ElBagreTambienEsColombia. Nevertheless, the establishment of the Humanitarian Refuge was the target of misinformation and smears, for example “Aheramigua ordered the march and peoples’ attendance was obligatory or they would be fined”, which aimed to delegitimise their humanitarian work in the area.
The Humanitarian Refuge succeeded in bringing the nation’s attention to the humanitarian crisis in El Bagre, which enabled Aheramigua de call an institutional meeting on 12 July 2016 with representatives of the Ministry of Interior, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Presidential Councillor for Human Rights, the UNHCHR, the National Army and several local social organisations and leaders. They came to a series of commitments to improve security in the region, none of which have been fulfilled to date. On 25 July 2016, the Dutch Embassy visited El Bagre to find out about the human rights situation in the municipality and support Aheramigua’s efforts in the process.
Reporting human rights violations
Aheramigua reports crimes, human rights violations and corruption to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Human Rights Ombudsman in the regions where it words. It researches and distributes reports and public statements about the human rights situation, works to end historical discrimination against farming and mining communities and for family farmers (campesinos) to become political subjects of the Constitution, in coordination with Agrarian Summit.
They give legal advice and representation to victims of human rights violations, and work with other organisations and human rights lawyers on cases in the regions where they operate.
One example of the association’s work is how in 2015 and 2016 they spoke out strongly about the grave humanitarian and human rights situation in El Bagre, Antioquia. They publicly documented and gathered evidence on cases of enforced disappearance, murder, torture, threats and forced displacement in the Lower Cauca region in recent years, and especially in 2016. Faced with the strong presence of neo-paramilitary groups and socio-political violence in the municipality, Aheriamigua took the initiative of organising gatherings for peace, a humanitarian refuge for the civilian population, verification commissions and demanded to hold a dialogue with regional and national authorities.
Working with traditional miners
Aheramigua works with traditional miners to improve conditions and seek out ways of formalising traditional mining. The criminalisation of small-scale, artisanal and family mining has been one of the most important bases of arguments to legitimise handing over concessions for large-scale mining to multinational companies. The fact that this mining activity is happening in places devastated by the armed conflict means that the war’s modalities must also be taken into account. Miners are often forced pay extortion to illegal armed groups on their profits from mining. This has an impact of stigmatising the communities of traditional miners even further, as they are accused of being criminals or collaborating with illegal groups.
As part of its accompaniment to mining communities, Aheramigua works to uphold the collective’s rights in the face of large-scale economic interests, and in favour of implementing the National Government’s initiatives for formalising small-scale miners.
Stories from the field: Democracy and citizenship in Guamoco (Decembrer 2016)
Aheramigua is at risk because it promotes human rights and defends artisanal mining in an area that is supremely rich in gold, and which is under the control of the FARC, the ELN and the ‘Urabeños/Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC)’. There are also several national and multinational mining companies operating in these regions. The illegal groups carry out illegal gold mining, extortion of small-scale miners, sexual exploitation, drug and arms trafficking, and continue to violate the norms of international humanitarian law which protect civilians. Aheramigua is working to get the actors to respect the civilian population’s fundamental rights and publicly speaks out about the human rights violations happening in the areas where it works, and these activites generate high levels of risk for its members.
The strategic location of Lower Cauca and Southern Bolivar means that armed groups have transformed the area into strategic corridors to the region of Southern Cordoba in the Nudo de Paramillo, the Gulf of Uraba and the Pacific Ocean, and exercise powerful social control over the communities where Aheramigua works. Beyond the Army, the presence of the State is minimal and employment opportunities are meagre. The absence of civilian state institutions and Security Forces in rural areas has enabled the illegal groups to become the authorities, and they are a reference in the region for resolving disputes. For example, until 2013 none of El Bagre’s communes had Security Forces and civilian authorities remain absent to this day. The geographical situation, the dynamics of the violence and the difficulty of reaching urban areas because of the poor state of the roads has created a distance between the communities and the municipal administration which is centred in the urban areas.
Aheramigua’s risk comes from the presence of illegal armed groups interested in controlling territory and gold, who are being hindered by the collective processes being organised by Aheramigua’s miners and farmers who are training people to resist and to remain on their lands.
Its members have been smeared, arrested and investigated, both for alleged links to the FARC, and also for doing artisanal and small scale mining. The lack of State presence and the existence of illegal armed groups leaves them very exposed, and with no security guarantees in the face of intimidation, threats and attacks in the regions where they work.
Threats and Attacks
Aheramigua’s members have been murdered, smeared in hostile statements by the Security Forces, followed, kept under surveillance by people who are photographing them, arbitrarily detained, received telephone threats, and named in threatening leaflets.
Threats and attacks (2009-2016)
In December 2014, the Provincial Inspector General’s Office of Magangue issued an order for the Mayor of Montecristo to protect all of Ahermigua’s members but this has not happened.
For the last few years, five of Aheramigua’s members have had bullet proof jackets and mobile telephones provided to them by the National Protection Unit (UNP), but they indicate that these measures are not appropriate for the region where they work. Two days after William Castillo was murdered, Aheramigua asked for a new risk analysis, which still has not been performed. They asked for means of transportation for six members, a car for their office in Medellin and cars with bodyguards for the teams in El Bagre and Santa Rosa. The process of obtaining protection measures has been long and relatively fruitless for Aheramigua’s team. Officially, on 17 October 2016, the UNP granted high capacity motorcycles, bullet proof vests and telephones to all members of Aheramigua’s Board of Directors, but to date they still have not received a motorcycle or their telephones.
Aheramigua received special recognition by the Franco-German Human Rights Prize of 2016. The organisation was also a finalist in the National Human Rights Defence Award of 2016 in the category of “Collective Experience or Process of the Year, NGO level”.
Camilo Villamir, Aheramigua: “Our work is not invisible” (September 2016)
PBI accompanies Aheramigua since 2013.
 Marcha por la paz en Puerto López, El Bagre, Antioquia, 8 August 2015
 El Espectador: El Bagre, epicentro de ataques a defensores de derechos humanos, 12 July 2016; El Espectador: Grupos posparamilitares están asesinando campesinos entre El Bagre y Zaragoza, 7 June 2016; Reliefweb: Campesinos declaran refugio humanitario a Puerto López ante asesinatos selectivos, 9 July 2016; Insight Crime: Conflict Scarred Town Skeptical of Colombia Peace Process, 14 July 2016
 Acción Ecológica: Frente al debate: Minería artesanal y minería a gran escala, 4 April 2012
 Presidencia de la República: Gobierno le declara la guerra a la minería criminal, 30 July 2015