The findings of a recent report highlight the disastrous environmental impacts of unregulated gold mining in Colombia and its geographical correlation with coca cultivation, two criminal economies the country must now confront as it seeks to close a violent chapter in its history.
The report (pdf), produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Colombian government, is the first segment of a two-phase project investigating alluvial gold exploitation (AGE) in Colombia.
Alluvial gold mining is typically conducted via “open air” methods, such as dredging rivers or excavating land with heavy machinery to expose deposits. In 2011, 82 percent of gold mining in Colombia was estimated to be alluvial, while 18 percent consisted of tunneling methods.
According to the report, 78,939 hectares of land were affected by AGE nationwide in 2014, impacting 17 of Colombia’s 32 departments. The Pacific region was the most affected by AGE activities, with 24 percent of affected departments along the Pacific coast.
Aerial photographs of alluvial gold exploitation in the department of Antioquia from the UNODC report.
The report noted 60 percent of detected AGE had no formal records documenting legal authorization for gold extraction — no licensing, titles or permits. The remaining 40 percent had portions of the necessary authorization, with only 2 percent having completed all the formalities required to legally mine.
Overall, 79 percent of land affected by AGE was concentrated in the departments of Chocó (46 percent) and Antioquia (33 percent). In Chocó, 27 of 30 municipalities were affected. The municipality of Nechí in Antioquia, however, was the most impacted, with AGE detected on 6,232 hectares — 8 percent of the national total.
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The report also blamed alluvial gold exploitation as a main driver of deforestation in Colombia.
In 2014, a total of 24,450 hectares of vegetation characterized as being of “high environmental value” were lost — almost 10,000 hectares more than the 15,404 hectares destroyed by illicit coca cultivation in 2013. This was mainly concentrated in Chocó (77 percent), considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the world.
The report also documented a relationship between AGE and coca cultivation.
Overall, 38 percent of Colombian territory affected by AGE coincided with the presence of illicit coca crops. In the departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, and Nariño, over 80 percent of detected AGE activities were in areas where coca crops were also found.
To follow up on the first report’s geographic focus, the second phase of the investigation by the UNODC and Colombian government into AGE will examine socio-economic dimensions and chemical substances involved in extraction activities.
InSight Crime Analysis
The growth of Colombia’s informal mining industry in recent years has been cause for concern. In November, Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said the threat posed by criminal mining was “equal to or greater than drug trafficking,” comments that came months after President Juan Manuel Santos declared “war” on illegal mining. The impetus behind such assertions is that informal mining has become a major source of revenue for criminal groups in Colombia, being worth an estimated $2 billion in profits annually.
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Moreover, the geographical correlation between illicit gold mining and coca cultivation documented in the UNODC report further suggests a crossover between the criminal groups involved in those activities. Indeed, groups such as the Urabeños criminal organization and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) — which do engage in coca production and drug trafficking — have also been known to run their own mining operations and charge fees on miners operating in their territory. In addition to being a means of diversifying their income sources, gold mining offers such criminal groups opportunities to launder money.
Regarding the FARC in particular — which is nearing completion of a historic peace agreement with the Colombian government — the question of what happens to its mining operations once a peace deal is signed has been overshadowed by concerns regarding its involvement in the drug trade. On one hand, FARC elements that reject the peace process may criminalize and seek to continue profiting from illegal mining — a shared concern over the FARC’s drug trafficking activities. However, it is also likely the FARC’s demobilization will create a vacuum in areas it once dominated, opening space for groups like the Urabeños to move in and take over illegal mining operations the FARC once controlled.