The air is sweltering as Américo Mosquera trudges through a shallow river in his black rubber boots. The 62-year-old knows these muddy waters well. Like many here in Colombia’s western Chocó province, Mosquera spent years searching the riverbanks for precious metals. But not anymore. Today, he is the legal representative of a local governing council that owns a swath of land in the Colombian rainforest. The problem: large tracts of it are controlled by armed groups who extort the locals and pollute the water in an effort to dominate the $2.4bn (£1.9bn) illegal gold trade.
Colombia’s 52-year-old civil war has devastated the country’s Pacific coast, so close to 80 per cent of the people who voted in the recent referendum supported a peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The referendum failed to approve the deal, thanks in part to a strong “no campaign” whose organisers proved far more savvy than their opponents in manipulating public opinion.
Many expect a subsequent peace deal to happen, but few in Chocó believe it will liberate them from the leftist militants and right-wing paramilitaries who keep the illegal gold mining industry humming. “It will be the same old paramilitary and…[leftist] guerrillas that remain in the region,” Mosquera says about who will dominate the trade if a peace deal passes. “We’re not sure if the FARC members will demobilise or sign up to another armed group.”
Chocó is mostly home to the descendants of African slaves, whom the Spanish colonialists brought to the New World at the beginning of the 16th century. The area is one of Colombia’s most resource-rich provinces, but 79 per cent of people lack access to adequate housing, clean water and basic education, according to the latest census, and more than 60 per cent of locals live under the poverty line.
The people here have always been among the poorest in Colombia, but decades ago the land was fertile and the rivers provided plenty of fish. Locals mined gold the same way they had for centuries – by dipping a big wooden pan into the bottom of a stream and sifting out the precious metal.
But in the late 2000s, when gold prices soared, paramilitaries and rebel groups, which have long been involved in the drug trade, turned to gold mining too. The armed groups have forced locals to use big dredging machines to dig up the riverbanks. Not only have they destroyed 19, 000 hectares of rainforest in Chocó, but they’ve polluted the water with massive amounts mercury, which is used to separate gold from other minerals.
Today, Colombia ranks second only to China in mercury pollution, according to Colombia’s National Planning Department. And locals have reported a variety of health problems, from tremors to memory loss. There’s little residents can do about it. The armed groups often intimidate and forcibly recruit them to search for gold, or subject them to extortion. Sometimes, locals have to pay a war tax to mine, one they can scarcely afford.
“Mining is the only opportunity I have to survive in Chocó,” says Didier Valencia, 28, who has been working in the gold trade for a decade. “Otherwise, there is nothing.” Mining land that isn’t controlled by the armed groups isn’t an option either. In the late 2000s, the government gave away most of the concessions to multinational corporations, such as South Africa-based AngloGold Ashanti, without consent from local residents.
Recently, President Juan Manuel Santos has cracked down on illegal mining. “We cannot allow them to destroy our environment,” he said of the armed groups after a visit to Chocó earlier this year. He assigned a new 500-man unit, which combines members of the army and National Police, to combat the illegal miners. One of the unit’s core strategies: bombing their equipment. Local miners say the crackdown has hurt them but left the armed groups practically untouched. “We are no criminals,” says Elpidio Palacios, a local miner and community leader. “But the state generalizes us and makes no difference between criminal and traditional mining.”
Luis Pardo, director of the think tank Colombia Punto Medio and a former employee of the Colombian state mining authority, agrees. “The fight against illegal mining makes no sense,” he says. “First of all, you bomb an excavator. They will throw the guy that operates the machine in jail – a poor guy who lives in the region and tries to make ends meet.”
“Then [the National Police and the army] will communicate to the press how they are dealing with illegal mining,” Pardo continues. “The real owner of the machines is a person who lives in one of the big cities. He will make enough money to buy a new excavator within three weeks. He will die of laughter. So the day the government really wants to end illegal mining, they have to go after the ones who invest in illegal mining.”
Mosquera fears that day will never come, whether a peace referendum passes or not. Stepping out of the river water, he enters the jungle, using his machete to hack his way through the thick brush. “The authorities,” he says, “turn a blind eye.”
Bram Ebus’s reporting was supported by a grant from GRID-Arendal, a Norwegian foundation, and SKUP, the Norwegian Foundation for a Free and Investigative Press.
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