Rafael Project: How mining companies bleed the land dry in Colombia
A local journalist revealed environmental damage in Colombia. Then, his stories were silenced. Thirty journalists, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, took over his investigations and are exposing the damning methods of the companies he was investigating. With new evidence, they reveal serious irregularities that confirm the work of the murdered journalist.
Felípe Morales (El Espectador), Pascale Mariani (France 24), Ivonne Rodríguez (El Clip), Angélica Perez (RFI) and Aabla Jounaïdi (RFI) contributed interviews and research.
In a video from mid-September 2020, journalist Rafael Moreno, aided by a thick rope, begins to descend into a hole about a meter wide and several meters deep in the ground. With a grin on his face and the sounds of reggaeton in the background, Moreno speaks to the person holding the camera as he finds his footing and slowly descends into the earth.
“It feels like I’m reliving the days when I was a miner,” he says.
Moreno, an investigative journalist from the densely forested region of Córdoba in the north of Colombia was no stranger to this gold mine, called El Alacrán. After all, the adjacent village of the same name is where Moreno grew up. It was, in his words, a “little lost corner of the world” that he taught his own children to be proud of having roots in.
Everyone in El Alacrán still remembers “little” Rafael Moreno. Though the journalist had left the village at the age of 18, he came back regularly. “He’d stay at our place, in his former house. He was part of the community,” María Martínez, who now lives in the house Moreno grew up in, remembered. “I would tell him: ‘Be careful, stay calm and quiet, you could get killed.”
“That’s what happened,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Just over two years after posting the video, on October 16, 2022, Moreno was shot dead in the neighboring town of Montelíbano. Today, the video stands as a testament to Moreno’s personal background and one of his greatest battles as a journalist and community leader: documenting and denouncing the illegal extraction of minerals in this region of Colombia.
This mandate became clear in conversations between Moreno and Forbidden Stories in the days before his death. Threatened for his work since at least 2019, Moreno was in contact with the consortium with the goal of securing his documents through the SafeBox Network, a platform that allows threatened journalists to protect sensitive information by sharing it with Forbidden Stories.
“We are working on environmental questions,” he said in an initial call with Forbidden Stories on October 7, 2022, nine days before he was killed. “[We are investigating] public administrations and [companies] that operate without any environmental or mining licenses.”
Starting days after Moreno’s death, 30 journalists, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, came together to pursue his unfinished work – the first time a consortium of journalists have pursued the work of a colleague who had expressly asked for his work to be published posthumously if something were to happen to him. Today, these investigations are being published by 32 media outlets around the world. The Rafael Project relies on documents, emails and freedom of information requests Moreno left behind, in addition to ground reporting and research contributed by the consortium partners.
Over six months, Forbidden Stories and its partners examined three of the mines Moreno had begun to investigate, finding significant irregularities in their operations and in most cases confirming the hunches Moreno himself had made public in the months and years before his death, including failures to consult with indigenous communities, mines operating without a license and environmental damage caused to local communities and ecosystems.
“A blessing and a curse”
Sitting at a wooden table, her blue-encased smartphone resting next to her, Brenda Bohorquez Diaz began to sing a song she had composed. “Here, where the wealth is minerals / drawn in a traditional way / our families have gold in our hands,” she crooned.
Diaz, who is one of the spokespeople for the community, lives in El Alacrán – the same small mining town Rafael Moreno grew up in.
In El Alacrán, “the land is our wealth,” Diaz explained. The community of 1,200 people lives modestly. Here, miners extract the precious metal manually, using shovels and basic machinery to sift through the rich soil.
For decades, the artisanal mine has managed to keep afloat despite the arrival of large-scale mining operations to the area. With its vast carbon, nickel, copper, gold, silver, cobalt, and iron reserves, this part of southern Córdoba, called Puerto Libertador, has 50 active mining permits – about half of the permits in the region. But in El Alacrán, Diaz worries this might be changing.
Today, the town is threatened by a proposed megaproject that risks disturbing the delicate balance. Led by the company Cordoba Minerals, headquartered in Canada with shareholders in the US and China, the colossal San Matías project aims to turn Colombia into the world’s biggest copper exporter. The proposed 20,000-hectare project would exploit 22,000 tons of copper per day, as well as smaller amounts of gold and silver. According to the company’s president, the project has the support of local and national authorities, as well as local communities.
In the months before his death, Moreno had begun to look into this megaproject, which the company calls “a small-scale initiative in a global context.” In June 2022, his media outlet Voces de Córdoba sent out a call for testimonies in a Facebook post. “These communities deserve respect,” the post read. He was never able to fully investigate.
Following up on his work, Forbidden Stories visited the site of the proposed mining project and spoke to community members. In interviews and informal conversations, these community members told us that Colombian authorities had not consulted local communities before granting a license to Cordoba Minerals, nor did the community support the project. “This project will bleed our land dry,” Diaz said. “Our existence is incompatible with the project. One day, they will kick us out.”
(In a statement shared with Forbidden Stories and its partners, Cordoba Minerals denied the presence of indigenous communities in the village of El Alacrán. Something residents contest. “Several indigenous families from the San Pedro community live there,” Israel Aguilar, former tribal chief of the Zenú indigenous reservation of Alto San Jorge, said.)
Diaz pointed to a house on the main road of the village, where workers wearing shirts with the Córdoba Minerals logo were dismantling the sheet metal and the entire structure of a modest house to make room for an exploratory drilling site. “They were surprised to find out how many people we were,” she said. According to residents, the company has said the house will be reconstructed after the exploratory drilling is completed. (In a statement, a spokesperson for Cordoba Minerals denied that the house could have been affected by the construction of the exploratory drilling site, but confirmed that the company had indemnified certain individuals related to specific construction sites.)
Miners in El Alacrán say that despite multiple attempts to obtain a mining permit dating back 40 years, the National Mining Agency has refused their demands. Now, the region is moving forward with the megaproject, granting a license to Cordoba Minerals – which already holds half of the permits in the region, according to an analysis by the Center for Latin American Investigative Journalists (CLIP), a partner on this project.
The San Matías project, residents worry, will lead to negative health and environmental consequences – concerns that the company itself admitted to in a 2019 report that evoked the “potential deterioration of the community’s health and an increase in social pathologies” in a section on project risks.
“This wealth is a blessing and a curse,” Diaz said.
Rafael’s final obsession
Moreno’s work on mining wasn’t just relegated to his hometown of El Alacrán.
The journalist and his colleague Organis Cuadrado regularly denounced pollution and environmental damage linked to some of the larger-scale mining projects in the region, often driving to remote locations and posting Facebook videos showing plumes of smoke and debris rising from distant evacuation vents.
Several months before he was killed, Moreno took on a new David vs Goliath battle. In a June 2022 Facebook post, he announced an investigation into “irregularities” in a large carbon mine in the municipalities of Puerto Libertador and Montelíbano, run by a company called Carbomas S.A.S.
The June post marked an inflection point in a protracted battle with Carbomas, stemming from a freedom of information request Moreno had sent several months before requesting a copy of the company’s environmental permit, certificate of extracted materials and a guarantee that the mining project would have a positive socio-economic impact on the surrounding communities.
Moreno suspected that Carbomas had been operating without a license, and hadn’t consulted local communities, which is legally obligated in Colombia under most circumstances.
One month after he had sent the request, the company responded to Moreno, saying the request was “inappropriate.” Moreno and Caudrado took this to mean that the company was “covering up information about clear irregularities.” “This denunciation is based on my investigative and ground reporting,” Moreno said in a 25-minute video responding to criticism of his reporting. “I’m not making anything up, it’s all documented.”
Behind the scenes, though, Moreno appears to have been facing rising pressure linked to this investigation, Forbidden Stories can reveal. Accessing Moreno’s email account after his death, Forbidden Stories obtained an exclusive document showing that in early July 2022 Moreno had retracted his freedom of information request to the mine.
This retraction came just three days after Moreno found a death threat left on his motorcycle, accompanied with a bullet. “You think you’re untouchable because you speak out publicly, but nobody here is,” the typed note, which was unsigned, read. “We know everything about you and will not forgive you for what you’re doing.”
Although it’s not possible to say for sure that the retraction of the freedom of information request was linked to the death threat, what’s clear is that after early July, Moreno abandoned his investigation into Carbomas. Forbidden Stories’ review of Moreno’s personal documents, as well as public Facebook posts, found no additional mentions of the mine.
As part of the Rafael Project, our consortium pursued Moreno’s work on Carbomas. A document we obtained through a freedom of information request to the Autonomous Regional Corporation of the Sinu and San Jorge Valleys (or CVS by its Spanish acronym), a regional environmental watchdog agency, confirms Moreno’s reporting. This several hundred page document reveals that at the time of Moreno’s initial accusations against the mine, Carbomas appears to have not had an environmental license for its new carbon mine “La Estrella.”
Additionally, previously unreleased satellite images from Planet Labs, obtained by the OCCRP – a member of the consortium – suggest that in May 2022, the time of Rafael Moreno’s accusations, the mine was already in the exploitation stage, although the company did not yet have an environmental license. “This image clearly shows that the mine was in the exploitation phase, given the advanced level of deforestation and the presence of cavities,” Guadalupe García Prado, director of the Guatemala-based Extractive Industries Observatory, told Forbidden Stories. (Carbomas did not respond to questions about the start date of its mining operations.)
According to the CVS document, the company applied for an environmental license two months after Moreno’s initial freedom of information request, on June 21, 2022. Its license was approved several months later, in November – about a month after Moreno’s killing.
Carbomas is not an isolated case. In fact, the company sells its carbon to one of the largest nickel mines on the continent, Cerro Matoso – which for years has been decried by community members, journalists and activist groups for its negative health and environmental impacts on neighboring communities.
Naturally, Moreno investigated this mine too.
Polluter number one
In a region not known for its pomp and circumstance, the entrance of the town of Montelíbano stands out for its loud display: a colorful sign reading “Capital of nickel” in front of a towering Caterpillar 773D bulldozer.
If Montelíbano is known for one thing, it’s the Cerro Matoso mine. The largest nickel mine in Latin America and fourth largest in the world by surface area, Cerro Matoso is known well beyond the contours of Córdoba. Along the route into town, trucks squeeze by each other on narrow roads, transporting ferronickel to the port city of Cartagena. From here, nickel is shipped off to China, the United States and Europe, where it’s used to produce stainless steel products.
In Montelíbano, Cerro Matoso boldly advertises its contribution to the community with a silver plaque celebrating its 40 years of operations. The large bulldozer, per the plaque, was donated by the company that owns the mine, South32, as a “symbol of the mining-industrial activity in the region.” “We are participating in the energy transformation because our products are highly sought after for the production of solar panels,” Pedro Oviedo, the mine’s chief of operations, told Forbidden Stories.
But beyond the glare of these ostentatious displays, nickel shines less brightly. To some, it’s viewed as a pride point, but for many others, the Cerro Matoso mine is an environmental and health disaster.
Cerro Matoso takes up nearly 85 hectares of land in the middle of an indigenous reserve belonging to the Zenu de l’Alto San Jorge people. Several indigenous communities surround the mine, including one village – Puerto Colombia – which is situated just 750 meters from the mine.
“Here you won’t find a single person in good health,” Estela Isabel Hoyos Arcia, an inhabitant of Puerto Colombia who complained of itching eyes and other health issues, told Forbidden Stories.
Residents believe that the mine’s smokestacks, particularly active at night, they say, are to blame. In November 2021, Moreno published images showing a cloud of pinkish smoke appearing to come out of Cerro Matoso’s smokestack and propagate across a wide distance. “Ah, how beautiful our region is with the decorations of the Cerro Matoso plant,” he wrote ironically beneath one photo.
Cerro Matoso called foul, saying Moreno’s and other images uploaded around the same time were backdated. In response, Moreno and Cuadrado, his reporting partner, published a video showing the mine from a distance. “Today is November 23, 2021,” Moreno states in the video. “The pink cloud you see is the origin of the communities’ health issues.” (In a statement to Forbidden Stories, the mine’s chief of operation said: “Only water vapor comes out of our chimneys. Regarding the pink cloud, it’s certainly a flaw in the system, it’s an exception.”)
Videos from other sources suggest that there were other incidents of the pink smoke that same year and again in April 2022. According to the Colombian Ministry of the Environment, “non-controlled emissions” were seen coming from the mine as early as 2017, a fact that was later corroborated by the Health and social protection ministries, which mentioned the presence of an “orange cloud.”
Several years later, in 2020, CVS accused Cerro Matoso of particle emissions exceeding environmental standards.
(In a statement to Forbidden Stories and its partners, Cerro Matoso denied all accusations regarding air pollution, writing: “No measurement [of air pollution in 2022] has reached the limit of the annual average of the guidelines defined by the World Health Organization.” The company also invoked its transparency, saying that all measurements from its sampling stations are available online.)
Inside the mine, health conditions are even worse, according to Victor Pineda, a former mine employee. “A lot of gases are released during these operations,” he said. “They contain substances that are often carcinogenic, including cancerous crystalline silica.”
The millions of tons of waste generated since the beginning of the mine’s activities are stored open-air, where they are easily dispersed by the weather, Pineda added. The waste is “composed of highly toxic particles,” he said. “All it takes is a little wind or rain for the particles to travel and contaminate” the surrounding area.
Four kilometers from the mine, the indigenous village of Guacarí-La Odisea is also affected by the mine’s emissions, with even young children suffering from “unusual” pains. Yolanda Rosa Hayos, 63 years old, cried as she described having “pain everywhere” and “black blemishes that appeared all over my body.”
When she visited the doctor – paid for by a non-profit linked to the mine – she was told not to worry. This irony was not lost on Camilo Castellanos, a doctor of toxicology at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. Cerro Matoso, he said, “is at once the judge and the jury when it comes to health questions.”
For community members, there’s no doubt that the nickel mine is causing devastating health problems. “These respiratory problems are leading us to our tomb,” one resident said.
A national case
In 2013, Israel Aguilar, governor and tribal chief of the indigenous Zenú de l’Alto San Jorge, and Luis Hernán Jacobo, president of the Council of Afro-Colombian Communities of San José de Uré, filed a case in Colombia’s Constitutional Court against Cerro Matoso and two national mining agencies: the Ministry of Mines and the National Mining Agency for Environmental and Health Damage. The Court agreed to take on the case, investing significant means to establish whether or not the mine was responsible for damage to nearby communities.
Through this probe, the Institute of Legal Medicine and Sciences – one of the country’s luminary research agencies – conducted an unprecedented study aimed at identifying the presence of nickel in the blood and urine of roughly 1,150 people living in the vicinity of the mine. The results, confirmed by the Ministry of Health, were clear: “High levels of nickel in the blood, well above the benchmark authorized in international studies.”
Estela Isabel Hoyos Arcia, an inhabitant of the village of Puerto Colombia, held the results of her tests firmly in her hands. They were startling: six micrograms (μg) of nickel in her bloodstream and 19 in her urine, or roughly 10 to 11 times higher than the benchmark set by Quebec’s National Institute of Public Health, one of the strictest norms worldwide.
In March 2018, the Constitutional Court issued its judgment against Cerro Matoso, requiring the company to financially compensate and provide healthcare services to the affected communities, as well as renew its environmental license, which dated back to 1981. If the company failed to comply, the Court reserved the right to order the “suspension of extractive activities.”
South32, the owner of the mine, and its powerful network of lawyers, which included Eduardo Cifuentes Muñoz, the former president of Colombia’s Constitutional Court, appealed the case. They argued that “the court had misinterpreted the medical report published by the Institute of Legal Medicine and Sciences,” specifying that the “relation of direct causality was not established regarding the impact seen in the population and the exploitation of Cerro Matoso.”
Company lawyers argued that it was impossible to attribute the high levels of nickel in the samples to the mine, saying that other “external factors” may have influenced the results.
The Legal Medicine Institute’s methodology, nonetheless, was validated by all the public institutions and parties relevant to the case, including Cerro Matoso itself.
“Of course there’s an external factor, it’s the mine itself,” Castellanos, the toxicologist at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and a member of the Legal Medicine Institute’s methodology team, said. “The levels of nickel observed in the samples were between 10 and 100 times above the legally established Quebec norms. Going beyond the report, the levels of nickel are high enough that I am intimately convinced that the mine is intoxicating the population in a chronic fashion.”
“This is the strongest possible evidence that the mine is responsible,” Javier de la Hoz, a lawyer who represented communities at the time, told Forbidden Stories.
(In a statement to Forbidden Stories and its partners, Cerro Matoso cited, among other things, a 2016 report by a toxicologist of “international renown,” which contested the methodological reports of the Institute of Legal Medicine.)
Nonetheless, several months later, in September 2018 the Court went back on its ruling, voting in a second instance court to annul most of the proceedings against Cerro Matoso. To de la Hoz, there was no doubt that this was the result of corruption. “Three high-level sources who were present at the internal sessions have confirmed this to me,” he told Forbidden Stories.
The Constitutional Court case was not the only controversy for Cerro Matoso. In 2015, a few months after the Constitutional Court decided to look into the complaints against Cerro Matoso, another major event occurred. BHP Billiton, the historic owner of the nickel operation since 1980, sold the mine to South32, an Australian subsidiary spun off from BHP Billiton, which had previously tried unsuccessfully to sell Cerro Matoso. This spin-off company inherited the mining giant’s non-strategic assets.
“BHP created South 32 to get rid of all its dirty projects,” de la Hoz said.
After the trial, an agreement was reached with the communities. Since then, almost 12 million euros have been spent on social projects in the surrounding communities, something Cerro Matoso highlighted in response to our questions.
In Puerto Colombia, the village closest to the mine, nearly all the houses are brand new, while others are still under construction. But residents say that it’s not enough. “Our health doesn’t have a price, and this new house won’t bring it back,” Hoyos Arcia said.
Other communities have been affected. In San José de Uré, an Afro-Colombian village located 10 km from the Cerro Matoso mine, another health drama has been unfolding in silence: over the past two years, some 20 women have undergone a procedure called a hysterectomy in which their uterus is removed, according to a field investigation conducted by Radio France International, a member of the Forbidden Stories consortium. All of the women suffer from the same symptoms: severe bleeding and unbearable pain. “Why are so many of us suffering from this?” they asked.
According to a report from the Institute of Forensic Medicine uterine fibroids are one of 17 diseases suffered by the populations surrounding the mine. Although the Constitutional Court ordered Cerro Matoso to provide comprehensive health care to the victims of these ailments, none of these women have received any help. (In a statement to Forbidden Stories and its partners, Cerro Matoso contended that “only one person has requested care for this protocol.”)
Aguilar, the governor and tribal chief, was resigned. “The health issue is not a done deal,” he said. “And the consequences on our mother earth are worse than before.”
In Córdoba, denouncing mining activities at your own risk
Much like Moreno, local leaders and affected community members have continued to make noise about the health and environmental consequences of mining activities in the region – often at significant personal risk.
Ever since the signing of Peace Accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, by its Spanish acronym), a rebel group, 56 local leaders, many of them actively resisting mining projects, have been killed in the south of Córdoba, according to the Observatory of Human Rights and Conflict, a project carried out by the Institute for Peace Studies (Indepaz). In Colombia, mining activities were the most common source of social and environmental conflicts in the country.
Aguilar, who in addition to representing indigenous communities in the region is also a former miner, has had to take numerous precautions in his everyday life. “I can’t move about in public spaces,” he told Forbidden Stories. “At home, I can’t even spend more than 20 minutes on the balcony because it’s too risky.”
In his frequent public speaking events, Aguilar is accompanied by armed security guards and has received numerous threats. He is one of more than 200 human rights defenders to benefit from this type of protection, provided by the National Protection Unit, or UNP, in Córdoba.
“Here, there’s a triangle of power: armed groups, [the clan del Golfo, a powerful criminal faction], politicians and mining interests are all part of the same ecosystem of crime and corruption,” one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to security risks, said.
“Absolutely all of the mining companies here pay the clan,” another anonymous source told us. “Where there are mines, there are paramilitary groups.”
Victor Pineda, the former Cerro Matoso employee who left the company in 2003 after 21 years due to health issues, including dysautonomia of the nervous system and a series of digestive and cardiac problems, has been fighting for 20 years to get his illness recognized as work-related and receive compensation. He has accused the company of not taking the necessary precautions to protect him from extreme heat.
Several days after the assassination of Moreno, Pineda shared several Facebook posts of Moreno’s about Cerro Matoso in the journalist’s memory. A week later, he received a threatening letter in his window: “Stop trying to act like an environmental leader. You saw what happened to journalist Rafael Moreno in Montelíbano. You have been warned.”
“I don’t know why I was personally threatened,” he said. “Many of us denounced the mine, and I’m neither a leader nor a spokesperson.”
Organis Cuadrado, Moreno’s colleague who also roundly criticized the mining industry, for his part, has decided to keep a low profile since his colleague’s death. Since October, he has emceed a local music and news program on a radio station called La Piragua. “I have a family and I want to see my kids grow up,” he said. “I know I’m next on the list if I continue to denounce [mining activities] like Rafa and I used to.”
Since Moreno’s death, Cuadrado has been accompanied by two bodyguards and only travels in armored vehicles. The killing of his friend and colleague marked a turning point in the region. Even if some continue to raise their voices, many more have gone quiet. “It’s silence,” Cuadrado said.