Accidents expose risks of illegal mining

Posted on Jul 10 2014 - 7:22am by Rico
Antioquia, Boyacá, Cauca and Chocó are the Colombian departments most affected by illegal mining. Above, informal gold miners work in Suárez, a town in Cauca. (César Mariño García/Caudal Images for

Antioquia, Boyacá, Cauca and Chocó are the Colombian departments most affected by illegal mining. Above, informal gold miners work in Suárez, a town in Cauca. (César Mariño García/Caudal Images for

COLOMBIA NEWS – Twenty-six mining accidents in Colombia have killed at least 23 people and injured more than 100 so far this year, officials say.

Half of these tragedies occurred at illegal gold mines, exposing an urgent need to formalize the mining sector, according to authorities. Luis Guillermo Vélez, superintendent of corporations at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, on May 14 warned of the risk of tragedies similar to an accident at the Santander de Quilichao mine on April 30, in which 12 miners were buried alive.

As many as 63% of the mines in Colombia are illegal, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. Examples include the “El Silencio” and “Villa Diana” coal mines in Antioquia department’s Amagá municipality, where about 600 illegal miners are at imminent risk daily, Vélez said.

“The mine is currently partially collapsed and flooded, with an enormous accumulation of water that’s estimated to total about 120,000 cubic meters,” Vélez said.

By his estimate, more than 40 illegal mines are operating in Amagá. In 2010, the municipality suffered one of the deadliest accidents in recent Colombian history, when an explosion in a mine killed 73 miners.

However, miners are primarily responsible for their own lives because they insist on operating these mines despite their instability and the presence of gases and pockets of accumulated water that might suddenly flood the tunnels, Vélez said.

“We’re preparing to take legal action to inspect and prevent the continuation of illegal mining in much of the country, especially in the departments of Boyacá, Antioquia, Cauca and Chocó,” Assistant Public Defender Esiquio Manuel Sánchez told local media outlets.

Criminal mining by illegal armed groups

As a means of financing their activities the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary groups and emerging criminal groups (BACRIM) also are involved in illegal gold and coal mining operations.

On Feb. 25, security forces and the Public Prosecutor’s Office seized several illegal machines during a raid on the Santander de Quilichao mine. However, Ricardo Cifuentes, the municipal government’s secretary, resigned hours later after receiving death threats, according to the Office of the Ombudsman.

“Information that’s part of the investigation by state security agencies indicates that members of the FARC’s 6th Front are present in this area of Colombia. They are taking part in this activity by charging fees for the entry and operation of backhoes, as well as the output of these mines,” the Ombudsman said in a prepared statement.

Andrés, a miner of a gold deposit in Cauca whose real name isn’t being revealed for security reasons, told that he had no choice but to work in a mine controlled by guerrillas.

“Everyone knows that and we know that the mine could come down on us at any moment because it doesn’t feature any safety measures, but we’re up against the wall,” he said. “We can’t wait for them to formalize all of the mines and we have no other source of work.”

The terrorists in charge of the mines tell the miners that the government is seeking to turn the mines over to multinational corporations, Andrés added.

“Here, they tell us to help protect our work and our land, and that once the multinational corporations arrive, we won’t have anything to do because we aren’t trained like the outsiders are,” he said.

Sixty-one percent of miners in Colombia have only a primary education; 23% have a high school education and 6% have some form of higher education, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Between August 2010 and the first five months of 2014, the National Unit against Illegal Mining of the National Police’s Carabineros Directorate intervened in about 3,000 illegal mines, according to Col. Wilson Chaparro of the National Police.

Four hundred-fifty operations resulted in the suspension or closure of 1,181 of these mines. Since 2010, 5,500 suspects involved in criminal mining have been arrested.

The authorities also have seized 111 kilograms of gold and 980 kilograms of mercury – a highly toxic element used in the gold-separating process.

Through 2014 to date, units of the Carabineros, the Directorate of Traffic and the Fiscal and Customs Police have identified 1,568 backhoes used for criminal mining activities, of which 416 were seized and 331 were immobilized, Chaparro added.

Formalization of small and medium-scale miners

During the Tenth International Mining Congress, which was held in Cartagena from May 14-16, the Ministry of Mines and Energy reported on the initial results of the government’s formalization program.

Of the 14,357 Mining Production Units (UPMs) surveyed in 23 Colombian departments, 98% are small and medium-scale mining operations, with 72% of those operating on a small scale, according to Vice-Minister of Mines César Diaz.

Officials estimate that 314,000 workers are engaged in small and medium-scale mining in Colombia.

“Mining formalization is a fact. There already has been an initial experiment with 300 miners …,” Díaz said. “Of every 100 projects, one is converted into a mine and even though the corporate investors have left, Colombia continues to attract investors.”

Given Colombia’s environmental wealth and important ecosystems, environmental licensing is a required and fundamental process that mandates a scientific rigor be fully implemented, Díaz added.

“We need to act rapidly so that the process becomes established more quickly, which is why we’re strengthening ties with the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development along with the Regional Autonomous Corporations (CARs) operating at the departmental level,” Díaz said.

Mining in an eventual post-conflict Colombia

Mining has been one of the sectors most driven by President Juan Manuel Santos’s administration.

Last year, 81.6% of direct foreign investment in Colombia – US$13.73 billion – was concentrated in the mining and hydrocarbons sector, according to Minister of Mines and Energy Amylkar Acosta.

More than 46 companies have expressed an interest in investing in blocks offered for exploration, according to the National Hydrocarbons Agency.

Officials are confident there will be better development of the mining industry nationwide, once a peace agreement is signed between the government and the FARC.

Colombian Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development Luz Helena Sarmiento said the formal development of mining would play an important role in post-conflict Colombia, allowing not just for the prevention of serious accidents but also the further protection of protected areas.

“Improved safety and security will result in greater mobility and access to a variety of remote areas in the country, which will represent challenges to ensuring the effective control of our protected areas,” she said.