Seeking El Dorado: The Impact of Colombia’s 21st Century Gold Rush

Gold is the newest killer in Colombia.  Successful efforts by the government to reign in illegal drug trafficking within the world’s largest cocaine-producing country have forced rebels to seek alternate sources of revenue.  Guerrilla forces have turned to the precious metal to finance their rebellions and terrorist activities.  Due to the inflated price of gold, which has skyrocketed by nearly 600% in a decade, from under $300/ounce in 2002 to over $1700/ounce in 2011, and the ease with which the rebels can sell gold to turn a profit, the rebels have located an efficient and plentiful source of income.  Reports suggest that the illegal gold market is now more dangerous than the notorious drug trade that has imperiled the country for decades.

Colombian Topography

Increased mining throughout Colombia presents severe environmental and social problems beyond sustaining the rebels in the mountains.  Colombian gold deposits, many still undiscovered, are riddled throughout the Andes Mountain Range that runs through the western region of the country.  Much of this gold can be found within a unique Andean highland ecosystem called the páramo.  This environment, located between the forest and snow lines, is characterized by its high levels of humidity, rapid temperature fluctuations and diverse vegetation.  The neo-tropical biome possesses over five thousand different plant species, most of which are giant rosettes, shrubs and grasses.  Historically, the Colombian government has protected this environment from mining, including the largest páramo in the world, Sumapaz, located just 30km south of the capitol, Bogotá.  Despite these protections, illegal gold mining activity by rebels and rural Colombians, many who are forced to work for the guerilla forces to earn a living, is spiraling out of control in areas of the páramo.  Sources claim that as many as 3000 unlicensed mines exist throughout the country.  These small-industry mines rely heavily on open-pit mining. This dirty mining technique requires workers to dig up the ground and the soil, destroying the natural ecosystem and polluting the air and water.  These costly mining practices threaten to transform large areas of the fragile páramo ecosystem into dead zones.

Pâramo Locations in Colombia

The Colombians are not merely concerned with preserving the natural beauty of the páramo region.  The Andean regions contain the majority Colombia’s population, including the capital city, Bogotá.  Millions of Colombians who live in highland cities and towns depend on the water generated within the páramo for their livelihoods.   This rare habitat is home to a spongy plant called the espeletia.  This plant, referred to as frailejón by native Colombians, captures and stores water from the surrounding air within its velvety leaves.  During the dry season, the frailejón plants leak the stored water into the soil.  This runoff feeds rivers that provide water to urban centers all over the region.

Pronounced human danger stems from the contaminating processes involved in extracting gold from the rock.  In the mines, massive heaps of rock are treated with a cyanide solution to separate the gold.  This process creates vast amounts of waste products including cyanide-laced water that can easily contaminate water supplies.  Sources indicate that many of the illegal mines throughout Colombia are also employing mercury treatments to extract the gold, which is more lethal than cyanide.  The millions of Colombians who live in páramo river basins are at high risk from polluted water.

Exacerbating the problem has been the Colombian government’s response to the situation.  While the government has pledged to shut down miners operating without permits, only twelve government inspectors monitor mines throughout the country.  The government has also encouraged the growth of the large-scale mining industry.  Many government officials, including President Juan Manuel Santos have made mineral extraction, in particular gold, the centerpiece of their economic revival plan for the country.  They have loosened foreign restrictions on mining and are welcoming international companies and investors.  The lure of potential rewards from gold mining is too strong to turn down.

Perhaps no mining conglomerate has been as active as Greystar Resources, a Canadian-based corporation that has begun operating in Colombia within the last few years.  Traditionally only an exploratory company, Greystar sees tremendous potential in Colombian mining.  Representatives believe that the watery tunnels of the Angostura mine in Northeast Colombia contain as much as thirty million ounces of gold, which would translate to nearly forty billion dollars at today’s exchange rate.  Greystar hails the economic benefits and prosperity their mines could bring to otherwise impoverished regions of Colombia.  The company’s president denies that their mining procedures would create uncontrolled toxic waste.  He claims that the contaminated water created in the mine will be recycled and that high-tech leach pads will prevent leakage.  But the harsh truth is that mining is a risky business and accidents do happen.

Grassroots movements have developed in response to the increased visibility of these mining corporations and the dangerous mines they hope to construct.  In April 2011, the efforts of an impassioned coalition of students, environmentalists and politicians forced Greystar Resources to revoke its permit for an open-pit mine in the Santurban Páramo, in northeast Colombia.  The proposed mine threatened the water supply to the nation’s fifth largest city, Bucaramanga.  Nearly 30,000 Bucaramangan citizens united on February 24th to march against the construction of the mine.

Still, such efforts seem unlikely to counter the momentum that the mining industry is gaining in Colombia.  As of March 2011, exploratory mining permits had been granted to companies covering over 10% of Colombia’s páramo regions.  What were once considered protected natural treasures are on the verge of being destroyed by speculators and gold miners.  And, those figures make no mention of the thousands of illegal mines operated by guerilla troops throughout the country.  No one can deny the importance of Colombia building a strong economy.  But are the environmental and human costs associated with mining really an acceptable price to pay?

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