Seeing like a miner: The joys and menaces of informal gold extraction in Chocó, Colombia

by Jesse Jonkman

‘Let’s not fool ourselves, the Colombian state always tries to shut the door to the poor man in order to lead him to war.’ Manuel* spits out the words while he is contemplating the tranquil flow of the Bebará river that passes alongside his natal village La Villa. His criticism is directed at the government administration of President Santos and its eagerness to combat ‘illegal’ mining. ‘The state made up that mining is illegal. I understand that cocaine is illegal. It’s something that inflicts harm upon a lot of people. But a metal that comes from the earth? I don’t believe it.’

Here, on the Bebará river basin, one will not see roads, police stations, or equipped medical clinics. Peculiarly enough, a great number of construction excavators, used for alluvial gold mining, have managed to reach these shores.

The Bebará river

The Bebará is one of the many watercourses that cut through the Colombian department of Chocó. In Colombia, Chocó implies gold mining and vice versa. In colonial times enslaved Africans were forcefully brought to the region to pan the gold from its water bodies. Today, placer mining still forms the cornerstone of the economies of many Afro-descendant communities. That said, artisanal methods have been largely replaced by mechanized alternatives which frequently rely upon small diesel-driven water pumps. What is more, in the last 10-20 years, miners from other Colombian departments have introduced excavators and large suction dredges to the region; machinery that has strongly impacted human and non-human ecosystems. The Colombian government has responded with fire and fury. National police increasingly incarcerates illegal miners, thereby seizing their working equipment or blasting it to pieces by means of detonation.

A lot has been written about small-scale mining in Chocó. Well-published, and well-read, are its effects of deforestation, mercury pollution, and soil degradation that menace the Afro-Colombians living in the vicinity of environmentally unsustainable machinery. Less has been written about the possibilities rural populations see in gold extraction. On the shores of the Bebará, the Santos administration is not so much blamed for its failure to combat illegal extraction, but rather for its callous insistence to try eradicating the excavators that provide local income. By foregrounding these critiques, bebareños stop being the passive victims of a predatory extractivist intrusion and instead become political agents who suffer a brutal economic exclusion that includes, but is certainly not limited to environmental harm.

 

From the belly to illegality

‘You can register that there are no holes here. We have smoothed everything. There is not one single pool! Walking with great pace, Jefferson explains how he and his partner have ‘recovered’ a land they had previously mined with excavators. They are both from Chocó, much like the majority of Bebará’s retreros, as excavator miners are commonly called. This collective native ownership connotes somewhat of an anomaly in Chocó, where many retreros come from outside of the department, even from outside of the country.

Jefferson and his partner have planted trees, rice and sugar cane crops in the same area where two years ago their excavator’s engines were roaring. With great pride, Jefferson points at some young acacia shrubs that do not pass one meter in height. ‘Santos says that it takes 5 thousand years for a seed to appear in these terrains. But these trees are from one week ago and just look at them.’

Jefferson’s sugar cane cultivations

Later, arriving at a large water pond, he must refute his earlier promise of ‘not one single pool.’ However, a clarification follows promptly. One of the rank-and-file miners throws a fistful of fish food in the pond. No sooner than the comestible grit touches the water, an innumerable bunch of hungry fish reaches the surface. ‘This pool was very difficult to dry up,’ Jefferson explains. ‘So we introduced some cachama fish, around 8 thousand of them.’

Reforestation is not the only organizational achievement of the mine. Its campsite resembles a small hamlet. Workers sleep in uniformly designed shanties where they enjoy cable television and water tanks. Amidst the shanties one reads signs that indicate where to expose of garbage and dictate that ‘water sources are part of our wealth.’

The mine also attends to medical needs. It relies on its own nurse and once every year Jefferson and his partner send a boat equipped with doctors and medical supplies to the various villages of the Bebará river. Certainly, the company typifies the organization of a legal enterprise. And yet, in absence of a mining title, it is firmly nestled in illegality, much to the dismay of Jefferson. ‘How is it possible that I have been a miner all my life, since I was in the belly of my mother, and that the government now says that I am illegal?’

 

A micro-governance of mining

To be sure, regarding compliance to environmental legislation, Jefferson’s mine has probably no equivalence alongside the river. Even so, its astounding organization is part and parcel of broader strategies by which the villages of Bebará, along with their neighbors from the nearby Bebaramá river, have searched mining formalization.

Just like elsewhere in the Pacific rainforest, Bebará’s Afro-descendant communities are organized in community councils [consejos comunitarios], that in line with multicultural legislation enjoy collective land tenure. The 7 existing councils share a set of regulations by which they convey to the excavator owners how to live up to ecological demands. For instance, the latter should plant trees, create sedimentation reservoirs, and are prohibited from using mercury when they classify the gold.

Yet, arguably the most impressive organizational feat has been the foundation of the Asociación de Barequeros de Minería Artesanal del Medio Atrato. The community councils of Bebará – again, in conjunction with their pairs from Bebaramá – created this miners association in 2009 in order to regulate the bareque. This is a rudimentary form of gold extraction whereby artisanal miners use a pan and a pole to manually work the holes that are dug out by – and for – the excavator owners. Given that these holes are flanked by steep vertical slopes, barequeros are continuously at risk of landslides that may crush and even kill them.

The bareque, carried out in the pits of excavator miners

‘We already had the excavators, but there was a lot of disorder,’ says Luis, one of the leaders of the association. In absence of institutional backing, the bebareños initiated their own micro-governance.

‘Before, because of friendships, the retreros allowed certain barequeros to have privileges over others. At other occasions, people were doing their bareque at night. Very dangerous. Many accidents. Even deaths. There was no supervision.’

The association makes sure that bareque only takes place at specific days and hours. Moreover, for safety reasons, retreros are obliged to leave the mining pits clean, the slopes slanted, and the machines removed from the mining area. Association leaders are on patrol to verify the fulfillment of these obligations and at the same time keep an eye open for possible skirmishes and land collapses. Herewith, both associations leaders and barequeros wear uniforms as to facilitate the identification of those imposing the rules and those infringing them.

 

Less green, less gold, more village

Strikingly, it were guerilla combatants who pushed forward and assessed the creation of the miners association. Until Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, Bebará was a FARC stronghold. In fact, the association’s provision of ID-cards to barequeros provided the rebels with a vigilance mechanism and helped them to prevent the arrival of undesired individuals to the region.

In Colombia, open-pit mining is frequently portrayed as a money bank for non-state armed groups and therefore an anathema to sustainable peace. In Bebará, the presence of the FARC surely did bring about numerous armed confrontations with public forces, prompting periods of displacement and collective fear. Nonetheless, few bebareños curse gold extraction for these times of disarray. Far from equating mining with violence, they depict it as its antonym, as the economy that breathed life into the villages in years of solitude.

‘In 2000, the villages were deserted,’ Luis remembers. ‘There was no source of employment. After the excavators arrive, in 2003 more or less, people start returning to their communities. Today they are full of people. If you look at the houses, they are not deteriorated. They have a nice roof with tiles of zinc and are painted. In the 90s, houses were made out of palm wood with roofs made from leaves.’

Although their lands certainly look less green than they did 20 years ago, bebareños are complacent to signal the economic development that mechanized extraction has generated. Of course, the forest is important, but so are housing and education. Thanks to their gold, many have been able to send their children to the schools and universities of the departmental capital Quibdó. ‘The day they close down the mines, a peasant can no longer send his kid to university,’ says Manuel. ‘Who will pay for it? The children of the poor don’t go to university. They die at the doors of the hospital. We have lived it!

A perhaps more tangible problem of excavator digging comes from the usurpation of accessible gold deposits. For those who rely on elementary excavation techniques, which are many, this implies that the probability of a pan with abundant gold becomes smaller every day. Nevertheless, in a context of scant economic alternatives, miners like Manuel tend to accept the evaporation of the ‘easy’ mineral bodies as a necessary evil. ‘450 years ago they brought us here like animals and the only thing they taught us was working the mines. They forced us and never provided another opportunity. What was once the pan and the water pump is no longer here. Now we survive with that what the excavators bring us.’

 

Awaiting formalization

With the departure of the FARC from the region, processes of state territorialization have accelerated. Being post-conflict and pre-formal, the river basins of Bebará and Bebaramá will enter a pilot project of mining formalization of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. In tandem with formalization, the projects aims to restore degraded extraction areas and introduce sustainable economic alternatives.

Two excavators ‘resting’ in the village of La Villa

As the riverine villages await the project’s kick-off, they find themselves in the unstable temporal state of being ‘after the FARC’ and ‘before formalization.’ Now lacking the guerilla’s backing, community leaders bemoan that they no longer enjoy the respect of fellow villagers and that compliance to the bareque regulation is on an all-time low. ‘We are lawless,’ Jhon Jairo, legal representative of a consejo comunitario, laments. ‘Last Sunday people started their bareque at four in the morning! I told them, my people, let’s wait until the right time, but they hurried down the mining pit and nearly ran me over! We do not have the support of the state, the order is coming straight from the consejo. But here, people only listen to the ones carrying the guns.’

The governance vacuum left behind by the FARC combatants denotes the possibility that other armed groups can enter the region. This is a concern that particularly haunts the retreros. They used to pay an obligatory tax to the guerrilla which guaranteed them protection against armed bands. Now they pay no one, but must also fend for themselves. ‘We are fair game,’ says César. ‘The government promised to protect these communities whenever the FARC surrendered, but now there is nothing.’

Thus, amidst current political ambiguity , miners like César face menaces from multiple directions. Not only do they dread attacks by armed robbers, they also fear the arrival of policemen tasked to sweep the region clean of illegal gold seekers.

*All names are pseudonyms.

Jesse Jonkman is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. 

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