What led to the rise — and then fall — of participatory democracy in Colombia?

Research by Democracy Postdoctoral Fellow Jamie Shenk highlights how referendums in Colombia served as a powerful tool to block the expansion of mining and oil enterprises before the practice was curbed by the country’s Supreme Court.

A ballot box reads
A consulta popular vote in 2021 in Mexico City

A decade ago, economic planners in Colombia earmarked nearly one-third of the country’s territory for mining interests. Planners promised oil, gas, and mining operations would benefit local communities — but residents weren’t convinced. As extractive industries expanded across Colombia, so did protests.

By 2013, residents in the small farming town of Piedras, in the department of Tolima, had spent years fighting what was predicted to be one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines. Concerned about the environmental impacts, they launched a nonviolent campaign, organizing protests and road blockades to halt the project.

When those efforts failed, they were inspired to try something new. Organizers looked to the country’s constitution, which detailed a method for holding a local referendum known as a “consulta popular” — a popular consultation. They held a vote and asked the municipality’s residents: should the mining project be developed? When the results came back with a resounding “no,” other towns and anti-extraction organizers nationwide quickly became interested in the participatory practice.

Jamie Shenk, a democracy postdoctoral fellow at the Ash Center from 2022-2024, watched as the consulta popular spread across the country in the following years. Shenk, who had already completed a master’s degree in Latin American studies, was fascinated by how communities resisted natural resource extraction attempts through a participatory mechanism. When it came time to pursue her doctorate, she already had her research topic.

What is “consulta popular”?

“At its simplest level, basically consulta popular is a yes-no vote that can be held on any topic,” says Shenk, who completed her doctorate in sociology at the University of Oxford in 2022. “It’s a referendum.” While the vote can be called by elected officials, such as the mayor or governor, the people can also convene it. For the vote to be legally binding, at least 30% of the population must participate.

As a mechanism, consulta popular was enshrined in Colombia’s 1991 constitution. Initially, it was sparsely used and typically addressed apolitical questions, such as changing the local market day from Tuesday to Thursday. However, after its success in Piedras, its popularity surged across the country. Today, consulta popular exists across Latin America, including in Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, and, most recently, Mexico. However, according to Shenk, Colombians have used this participatory mechanism more than any other country in the region.

A not-so-direct path to direct democracy

The Democracy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Ash Center is an opportunity for recent doctoral students to expand their research before they formally enter the academic job market. While at the Ash Center, Shenk conducted fieldwork to complement a unique database she had previously compiled on consulta popular mobilizations across Colombia.

“Jamie was a pillar of our democracy fellow’s community during her fellowship,” said Ash Center Director Archon Fung. “She never failed to offer incisive and insightful yet constructive criticism of our work. One of her many gifts to our community has been her deep knowledge of Latin American politics.”

Shenk’s research showed that as consulta popular grew as a tool to oppose extractive industries, organizers quickly faced resistance. “There’s pushback at every stage basically because citizens are fighting against massive interests,” explains Shenk. “There was a really strong pressure campaign by both companies … and the national government against local leaders and local officials who wanted to implement the mechanism.”

The power imbalance between local communities and oil, gas, and mining interests was stark, and Shenk’s research demonstrated that these interests, both from private companies and the government, could be formidable counterweights to consulta popular blocking them at almost every turn. For example, companies often hired legal counsel to challenge the consulta popular process, submitting so many appeals that the voting process would last for months or even years. Meanwhile, federal and local officials withheld funding and infrastructure for elections.

At the same time, local communities were able to tap into expert allies, such as larger NGOs and other advocacy groups, to help counter these pressure tactics. In many cases, activists with consulta popular experience would travel to other regions to share lessons learned and other strategies for navigating potential roadblocks. According to Shenk, a balanced power dynamic often determined whether a referendum mobilization would result in a vote.

Ultimately, federal interests curbed the use of consulta popular at the local level. In 2017, when a consulta popular blocked an oil project in the town of Cumaral, the oil company filed a legal challenge that made its way to the constitutional court. The court, whose composition had shifted to favor the country’s powerful mining interests, ruled that referendums couldn’t be used to block projects in the country’s national interest. As a scholar of participatory democracy, Shenk was dismayed by the effective dismantling of consulta popular, but she also recognized that the court’s decision demonstrated just how popular the mechanism had become.

“Jamie’s research sheds light on an important democratic problem and shows the way forward: why has the ‘participatory turn’ in many Latin American political institutions sometimes democratized politics but often failed to do so?” says Ash Center Director Archon Fung. “She shows how the benefits of participatory arrangements depend both on communities’ histories and specific configurations of institutions and the powerful actors affecting vulnerable communities.”

Does armed conflict exposure impact participation?

Though the court’s decision was a blow for consulta populares, they continue to be used in Colombia today. Shenk found this deep culture and tradition of participatory democracy intriguing, given that the country had only recently achieved peace after years of war.

After nearly half a century of fighting, the years-long conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government ended in 2016. The conflict left an indelible scar on much of the country. As a conflict studies scholar, Shenk was interested in continuing her doctoral research now with a focus on the connection between participatory democracy and Colombia’s post-conflict recovery. Specifically, she wanted to examine how civilians’ experiences during the conflict impacted their levels of participatory engagement after the war. With the time provided by the Ash fellowship, Shenk set out to build on her previous work and find the answer.

By the time the peace agreement was reached, people throughout Colombia had been regularly exposed to nearly unimaginable levels of violence. Studying consulta popular mobilizations, Shenk found that exposure to conflict positively affected engagement in consulta activities. In short, it seemed to lead to greater participation in direct democracy.

“There are different ways that violence can affect the social fabric of a community,” says Shenk. “In some instances, it can strengthen bonds, as community members lean on each other for support or to resist the violence in any way they can. It can also strengthen community leadership when leaders learn how to negotiate and work around armed groups to support their community.”

In the unique case of Colombia, the FARC allowed some local communities in areas under their control to exert a degree of autonomy over their affairs. Shenk found that this enabled civilian activist networks to survive and later served as the basis for organizing post-conflict consulta populares.

Still, Shenk says that the exact mechanisms of why exposure to violence can result in increased participation aren’t completely understood. “In other instances, violence can foster paranoia and deteriorate trust between community members. The exact nature of the violence and armed group presence — and how that varies across the country — I think has a lot to do with why communities may or may not feel that they can turn to state-based mechanisms, like direct democracy.”

An interdisciplinary approach

This latest research effort is one example of how Shenk’s interdisciplinary research, combining conflict and democratic studies, benefited from the diverse voices at the Ash Center. “It has been so helpful to think about how people outside of my silos approach my work and what they have to add,” she affirms.

Shenk attributes her time at the Ash Center to expanding her interests and making her more open to different disciplines — a perspective that’s allowed her to embark on new adventures. After completing her fellowship this spring, Shenk moved into a new role as an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

Reflecting on what she’s learned from participatory movements in Latin America, Shenk emphasized the importance of studying the strong bond between people, community, and nature. “If I can impart one thing to my future students, it would be to understand the different relationships between humans and the environment and how humans shape the environment,” she says, “but also how humans are just one part of an environment that also shapes them.”

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