Already a Scourge, Illegal Gold Mining in Colombia Is Getting Worse
In early July, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, and Colombia’s Ministry for Mines and Energy reported that 66 percent of alluvial gold exploitation in the country is considered unregulated. Illegal mining in Colombia is nothing new, but the latest report indicated that the amount of affected land—84,000 hectares, or more than 200,00 acres—is up 6 percent since the UNODC’s first study on the subject in 2014.
The list of violent competitors trying to access these gold riches offers a snapshot of Colombia’s various social fault lines and conflicts. It includes the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a leftist guerilla group that comprises approximately 2,000 combatants; El Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, a criminal syndicate formed from the ashes of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a 1990s-era paramilitary group known as AUC; and former members of the defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which ended its 52-year-long conflict with the Colombian government in 2016. Many miners are also drawn from Colombia’s poor rural population and indigenous peoples, as well as from the pool of migrant laborers from neighboring states.
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In late December 2017, Colombian authorities put the number of unregulated mining operations at more than 7,000, located in 16 departments and employing approximately 133,000 artisanal miners known as barequeros. Only 19,000 of these miners are registered for a tax ID number, a requirement to legally sell minerals in Colombia. Proceeds from illegal gold mining in Colombia are estimated at approximately $2.4 billion, or three times the amount generated from Colombia’s cocaine industry. Similar to cocaine, illegal mining poses a litany of challenges, undermining the rule of law, eroding security and devastating the environment.
The UNODC’s latest report also reveals the impact of alluvial gold exploitation on protected lands, such as national parks, indigenous reservations and Afro-descendant community lands. Approximately 47 percent of Colombia’s illegal alluvial gold exploitation occurs on such protected lands, with 42 percent directly affecting Afro-descendant communities. The departments of Antioquia and Choco were two of the most concentrated areas of illegal gold mining, with 37 percent and 39 percent of the operations, respectively. Since the FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government in November 2016, various criminal syndicates have fought for lucrative drug-trafficking routes and mining pits in the FARC’s former strongholds, including Choco and the nearby department of Narino.
Illegal gold mining’s effect on many of the country’s most biodiverse areas has been devastating, resulting in deforestation and the elimination of vegetation cover, and the mass poisoning of many rivers and lakes. Colombia recorded a 46 percent increase in the loss of forests in 2017 compared to 2016—some 425,000 hectares, or more than 1 million acres—which was more than double the average loss between 2001 and 2015. Deforestation goes hand in hand with illegal mining operations, which begin with miners clearing forest in remote areas and using excavators to dig open-air mining pits. Mercury, cyanide, nitric acid, sulfuric acid and other solvents are then used to separate gold from ore and sediment. Once the mining operation concludes, these dangerous chemical byproducts are left behind, allowing mercury to contaminate waterways, soil and even the atmosphere. According to a 2016 study by the Externado University of Colombia in Bogota, illegal miners have dumped 180 tons of mercury byproduct into lakes and riverways each year, leading to ecological destruction in some of the world’s most precious and sensitive ecosystems.
Antioquia and Choco, the two departments in Colombia most adversely affected by the harmful effects of mercury contamination, have reported an elevated number of cases of residents suffering from brain and central nervous system damage, as well as reproductive anomalies such as birth defects and miscarriages, and even death.
President-elect Duque will likely adopt an iron-fist approach to illegal mining operations—an approach that could end up exacerbating the violent competition over gold.
To address the challenges of illegal alluvial gold exploitation, the Colombian government in 2016 introduced laws to prohibit mining operations at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 meters—from nearly 10,000 feet to more than 16,000 feet—and to protect the vital yet fragile high-altitude ecosystems known as paramos. In February 2018, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos further pledged to invest $23 million over 15 years to safeguard over 1 million hectares of paramos that produce 70 percent of Colombia’s potable water. Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development followed up in June with a proposal to protect an additional 758,582 hectares of paramos in five of Colombia’s departments.
The Colombian state also mobilized Joint Task Force Hercules, a 9,800-strong division of military and law enforcement personnel. While the task force’s principal objective is to combat illegally armed groups active along strategic drug-trafficking routes in the departments of Cauca and Narino, tackling illegal mining activities is also among its objectives. Late last year, a combined Colombian unit known as Task Force Titan eliminated a massive illegal mining operation in Choco organized by the Gulf Clan, destroying more than $4.2 million of equipment—including 15 excavators, dredging equipment and other contraband—in the process.
The Colombian government continues to ramp up its campaign against illegal gold miners, with 11 operations reported disrupted in 2016 and 38 in 2017. Similar operations have continued throughout 2018, including Operation Spartacus in the department of Cauca in late January, which destroyed several heavy excavators and other equipment valued at nearly $2.4 million. Another raid along the Sambingo River in late May disrupted an illegal gold mining operation linked to the ELN. Sadly, the operations brought to light the unprecedented destruction visited upon the Sambingo River, an important waterway in western Colombia, due to illegal mining. Much of its water had been diverted and channeled elsewhere in efforts to discover gold.
The Colombian government has also implemented important measures meant to curb the proliferation of mercury and its use in gold mining, including disseminating training from experts in mercury-free alluvial gold mining techniques. The governor of the department of Antioquia reported in April that 25 tons of mercury from illegal mining operations had been prevented from contaminating nearby waterways and forests as part of a public education initiative called the Antioquia Free of Mercury program. The program teaches small-scale and artisanal miners mercury-free processing techniques using biotechnology designed by the Bolivarian Pontifical University, resulting in reducing the use of mercury by 2 tons per year across eight municipalities in Antioquia. Just last week, the Colombian government banned the use of mercury in all mining operations, although some licensed mining operations are known to use as much as 95 tons per year in alluvial gold exploitation. The government plans to completely eliminate all industrial uses of mercury in Colombia by 2023.
It remains to be seen how Ivan Duque, the populist conservative president-elect who will be sworn into office on Aug. 7, will deal with illegal alluvial gold exploitation and its links to organized crime. Duque is a protégé of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and echoes Uribe’s hard-line stance against guerrilla groups and drug-trafficking organizations. He has already pledged to rewrite portions of the government’s peace treaty with the FARC, and he is likely to stiffen the government’s negotiating position with the ELN, Colombia’s last active guerrilla army. Given his close links with Uribe and views on coca cultivations and guerrilla groups, he will likely adopt an iron-fist approach to illegal mining operations and gold trafficking as well. That could end up exacerbating the violent competition over gold in Colombia and further widening the social cleavages that push so many to illegal mining in the first place.
Matthew C. DuPée has a master’s degree in South Asia Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate in Monterey, California. His studies focus on licit and illicit aspects of the extractives industry, organized crime and insurgency, and he serves as a senior editor and analyst at the Hoplite Group.