Photo: Loren Moss of Finance Colombia and Natalia Yepes Jaramillo of ANDI visit Collective Mining’s extraction site in Supía, Caldas.
Caldas is small but economically significant department in Colombia. It is best known as the capital of the Coffee Axis (Eje Cafetero), where Manizales sits as the largest city within the heart of the nation’s traditional bean-producing region.
But in the modern day, there is a rich, diverse blend of economic drivers fueled by the high-caliber labor force graduating from the respected universities in the department.
The mining sector, for example, is an important — yet controversial — industry both in Colombia and Caldas. Local communities have waged protests and legal challenges to several projects in recent years, causing disruptions and even some operational shutdowns. This has put additional pressure on industry companies operating in Colombia and forced them to navigate a climate that now also includes a national president who has been unwelcoming to exploration, especially in the oil and gas sector, but also with skepticism toward mining firms.
To better understand everything Caldas has to offer and shed more light on the state of the mining sector in the department, Loren Moss, the founder and publisher of Finance Colombia, recently met with Natalia Yepes Jaramillo, manager of Caldas region at ANDI (Asociación Nacional de Empresarios de Colombia). Together, they visited the exploration site of Canadian-Colombian mining company Collective Mining Ltd. (TSXV: CNL) (OTCQX: CNLMF) in Supía, Caldas near the border with Antioquia to better understand how Collective is working hand in hand with the local community, and how ANDI is working to support the industry and the region.
Finance Colombia: ANDI is an industry trade association. Can you explain what ANDI is? What is its purpose and value?
Natalia Yepes Jaramillo: We are a trade association that will be over 78 years old this year. Before we were the National Association of Industrials of Colombia, today we are the National Association of Colombian Entrepreneurs. It’s been a little over two years since we changed the name, because we became associated and affiliated with almost all economic sectors.
Finance Colombia: Why is it so important to have an organization that represents the interests of entrepreneurs and those who manage large companies?
Natalia Yepes Jaramillo: Our importance lies in the ability we have to represent and be the spokespeople of the private sector — and of companies across the productive sector — in the face of different issues. In front of the national government, for example, with different ministries, or in front of Congress — but also in the regions.
We also do this work as representatives and spokespeople with the local governments and departments. For example, with the parliamentarians, we have permanent conversations where we represent different topics for our affiliates. This year, we are working strongly on everything related to health reforms, labor reforms. We know that these reforms, if they are presented as they are now, will have a big impact, not just for entrepreneurs but for the economy as a whole. So we try to be that bridge between a private company and the different government branches on both a national and departmental level.
Finance Colombia: It’s interesting because, this year, the national government proposes changing the health system and the employment regime. I imagine a lot of these things appear as big threats to the private sector.
Natalia Yepes Jaramillo: That’s right. And what we also have from ANDI is an economic studies center, a social studies center, and work studies center where we do a rigorous analysis. With that same rigor, and in a very technical manner, we go to the national government, and to the Congress in this case, and explain the implications and the effects of these reforms.
Why? Because we know that if the proposed labor reform is approved, it’s going to impact employment, employment generation, and the growth we’ve had as a country in the last years.
In the city I represent, Manizales, we are the city with the second lowest unemployment rate in the country, in part because entrepreneurs make a great effort to maintain productivity, competitiveness, and such factors. We know these policies, the way that they are proposed, would affect the economic growth as a whole. That’s why we know — in a very technical, rigorous, and organized form — that we can be that conversation channel.
Finance Colombia: You specifically represent Caldas, a very important economic driving force for the country. What makes Caldas, Manizales, and the Coffee Axis unique? What are the specific advantages, and why should investors, especially international investors, pay more attention here when they do their due diligence and look for where to put their investments?
Natalia Yepes Jaramillo: Human talent is what differentiates us as a region, and it is what has made us grow in the way that we have in terms of employment. In Manizales, we are a city with an important industrial tradition, for over 80 years, and we have been improving on this and growing in sophisticating through our human talent.
This has been achieved with the academic offerings we have. We are a city with approximately 450,000 inhabitants and six universities — with five of them credited as high quality — so we have developed our advantages in relation to infrastructure.
We are also the most formal city in the country. When you check reports — for example in the “Doing Business” survey — we are first in quality of life. This gives us some important comparative advantages next to other cities.
We also have some interesting distinctions regarding providers, which we see with Collective Mining developing and learning to understand this region in Supía. There are some really good developments and opportunities for development.
Finance Colombia: Today we visited the site where Collective Mining has their titles, where they are doing exploration. We have a new government that has been very hostile toward the petrol sector, and it isn’t too friendly to mining either. How important is the extractive sector? Is it positive or negative to have it in the region right now?
Natalia Yepes Jaramillo: It is very positive for the region. This is a region with a mining tradition, and we have promoted legal mining. Companies like Collective Mining have come to understand how the region works and entered in a friendly, conciliating way. They aren’t just arriving and doing exploration without knowing what happens in the region. They are learning a lot from the community. For us at ANDI, that is very valuable.
We also see very important practices in sustainability, environmental development, and social development. That’s what we look for in our companies — that they in one way or another boost what we have in the region. Because we consider this as a traditional mining region, we are going to support it being done in a legal and formal way.
Finance Colombia: Just recently, we have seen in Bajo Cauca that there was a strike supposedly from the miners. Some say it’s more complex, but there is a lot of not just informality, but illegality, in mining over there. But here, we see the role that formal companies play in providing formal employment and paying taxes to the government. You told me you saw what Collective Mining is doing as very positive, but we have also seen formal, commercial mining in this same region that didn’t have the same good relations with the town. What’s the difference between, say, Collective Mining and the companies that didn’t have the same success?
Natalia Yepes Jaramillo: I think the main thing is to understand the community before going in. It’s understanding the community, hearing them out. It’s having conversations with the people, with the social leaders, with the administrative leaders from the region, and understanding first how the community works. I think that’s the key to be able to enter and to have a successful result.
As the name says, it’s “collective” mining. Since one starts the route with the Collective staff members, you start seeing how they have improved the estates, how they have boosted the community, and they take their coffee, for example, from an estate that is part of the mining title they have. Honey is also produced in the area. And we see the development that women of the community have, being taught about providing clothing, helping them improve.
You can see the integration. You see how it can boost the community. And that generates formal employment. And there’s education, and there can be an organized health system that reaches many levels of the community. Even though we were going into some very far away areas on wild roads earlier, you can see how the community is working in a friendly way.
I think that is the difference, they didn’t come in to invade something that is ancestral and part of the area’s DNA. They entered to understand the community first and to integrate it into the mining work.