MAC: Mines and Communities

Small-Scale Miners of Serranía de San Lucas Threatened, Colombia

Published by MAC on 2005-07-10

Small-Scale Miners of Serranía de San Lucas Threatened, Colombia

Revista Semana, Bogotá, Colombia

Sunday July 10, 2005

When 67 year old Humberto de Jesús Ruiz recieved the government order to legalize the mines where he and his forefathers had mined for gold artisanally for over a century, he streched his hands over the earth. "This has to be a plan by the government to take away our mine," he thought.

Small scale mining 0Humberto works between Mina Vieja and San Pedro Frío in the south of the department of Bolívar in Colombia. Around 100 families live there, in simple wood and plastic houses, built into the mountains, divided by paths made by the daily passage of mules. His life revolves around the minery and its commerce. He has seen most of the 150 mining operations in the region, among them San Luquitas, the oldest. In the times of the Spanish conquest, say the inhabitants, "from this village to Guamoco, there were 6,000 slaves working in the gold mines."

According to nurse assistant José del Carmen Pinto, whom the miners call "doctor," in the region there is a high level of sexually transmitted diseases, diarrheas from the untreated drinking water, and respiratory infections which he attributes to the pollution and the chemicals which the miners use in the extraction of the gold.

In La Punta, site of supplies for the region, every day two tons of cyanide and 300 pounds of mercury are discharged for use in gold purification. Waste products from the various mining operations flow into waterways, which lead to the most important rivers of the region, the Magdalena and the Cauca.

In these mountinous forests, for the past 20 years, Humberto and his fellow miners have endured the hardships of war. They say that they have had to pay taxes to the guerrillas of the ELN, the FARC, and the paramilitary groups who are locked in a battle to the death for control of the territory.

But the biggest threat to the artisanal miners is not the violence, but rather the new mining codes, in force since 2001. The codes offered opportunities to legalize mines until the end of last year, and limit the expansion of surface mining, the method still practiced by the miners and their meager tools.

According to the Secretary of Mining of Bolívar, Javier Pinada, there are 11,000 miners legalized through associations, or about 80% of the total miners. Spokesperson for the artesanal miners Teofilo Acuña confirms this figure. "The remaining 4,000 haven't been able to become legal because they haven't joined an association, don't have the funds to leave the mining zone or simply don't know what they have to do."

An uncertain future swirls among the fog at the peak of the Serranía de San Lucas at an altitude of 2,400 meters (7,000 feet). One can already hear the footsteps of another frightening spectre: the arrival of one of the world's biggest gold mining multinationals. This is Anglo Gold Ashanti, which through subsidiary Kedadha, has requested permits to explore 1,200,000 hectacres of the region.

While the fog continues playing tricks with the coveted Teta de San Lucas, covering and uncovering her like a symbol of dreams of gold and riches, from his simple wooden home, Humberto watches, entranced, as he asks her to bless him with good fortune.

Meeting and Assembly of Mining Communities in Santa Rosa

Between May 18 and 20, 2005, over 200 representatives of mining communities of the south of Bolívar assembled in order to establish mechanisms of protection in the face of the new government concessions to cede the Serrranía de San Lucas to multinational mining companies.

The assembly centered around the task of defending the livelihoods and territories of the agricultural-mining communities of south Bolívar, which find themselves at a high risk of being damaged by the privatization of the gold mining through concessions being given to the multinational mining companies.

AngloGold Ashanti has solicited exploration rights in several gold-bearing zones in the Serranía de San Lucas, in the south of the Colombian department of Bolívar, according to director of the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining (Ingeominas) Julián Villarruel in communication with BNamericas.

According to the official, the mining company has made solicitations to "carry out works of exploration and identification of the potential resources for the viability of carrying out large-scale mining projects."

"We are seriously considering entering into Colombia;" explained the executive director of AngloGold.

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