23 Enero 2023

The Curse of King Midas

Crédito: Santiago Ramírez

As gold exportation and production grow in the country, its trafficking increases as well as the illicit trade of mercury. One of the most affected regions is the Amazon.

Midas, an ancient Greece monarch was granted a wish for having taken care well of a friend of the god Dionysus. The greedy king, despite warnings, asked to have the power to turn everything into gold just by touching it. He imagined a life full of joys and fortunes. But tragedy soon came, as he could not eat because all food turned into gold. There are several versions of the end of the myth, in one of them, the most optimistic, Midas was freed from the spell by bathing in a river; in another, the pessimist one, he died of hunger. 

This myth has been used to teach people about the consequences of greed, but recently it is used to show the tragedies suffered by gold-producing countries, especially those of the so-called third world, and Colombia is no exception. The country is experiencing a gold bonanza, but at the same time it faces a serious problem of illegal exploitation that it has not been able to contain and that threatens to destroy ecosystems and the lives of entire communities. Amazon, its rivers, and the indigenous peoples who live there are on target, and although the mining sector does not want people to stigmatize this extractive activity, the truth is that the country produces more gold illegally with its respective environmental damages.

The gold bonanza in Colombia began in the past decade due to the high international prices of the precious metal and the increase in production in the country. Between 2005 and 2021, the ounce went from about USD 500 to USD 1800 and in 2022, it has had peaks above USD 2000. Meanwhile, according to data from the Colombian Mining Information System, the country has had two gold production booms: one between 2011 and 2016 when it went from producing 1.7 million troy ounces to 2 million troy ounces, and another which began last year with 2.5 million troy ounces extracted from Colombian soil and rivers.

The good news contrast with the bad ones given by the reports of the Comptroller General of the Nation and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The first entity states that "about 85 percent of the gold that Colombia is exporting is the product of illegal mining," while the second says that 65 percent of gold exploitation is illegal. That is, much of the mining activity is being done without the necessary environmental permits or in areas where gold mining is prohibited.

 Photo: Nicolás Acevedo Ortiz / FCDS (Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development)

This problem affects the main producing departments such as Antioquia and Chocó, but due to the gold boom, the deficient presence of the State, and the existence of illegal armed groups, mining has expanded through the Amazon River basin, especially in the Atabapo, Inírida, Apaporis, Yarí, Caquetá, Putumayo, Puré and Cotuhé rivers. Armed groups dominate gold production in the area and ally themselves with Brazilian and Peruvian mafias as part of the chain of an illegal transnational business. Borders and their urban centers become gateways through which both contraband supplies and gold come and go.

This is a billionaire and profitable business because, as the deputy comptroller for the environment, Gabriel Adolfo Jurado, said, "compared to the illicit cocaine business, where the kilo of coca can be on the Colombian market for approximately 5 million pesos, a kilo of illegal gold has a value of around 250 million pesos."

Illegal gold mining also seems to be behind the disparity between production and export numbers. According to the report 'After the Money of Illicit Gold', of the Department against Transnational Organized Crime of the OAS, "the total export of gold from Colombia considerably exceeds the data recorded on national production. In 2019, Colombia declared gold exports of approximately ten tons above that year's domestic gold production. In previous years that discrepancy was even more noticeable." According to the investigation, this is possible due to money laundering.

The evidence suggests the question of how illegal gold enters a legal circuit. There is still no certainty about different ways used to do it, but the investigations of the Colombian Prosecutor's Office have detected several ways. One of them is that legally constituted companies use databases of mining towns to pass off their inhabitants as artisanal miners and register them as legal suppliers. Additionally, false billing is also used.

Gold smuggling is also used, even if there are possibilities of laundering gold. Colombian authorities constantly seize gold from people who cannot explain or justify its origin, and this activity seems to be the most used in the Amazon.

According to a former official of the Ombudsman's Office expert on the subject, "it has been detected that the legalization of gold occurs mainly in Chocó and Antioquia, places where there are many legal concessions; however, in the departments of the Amazon, the predominant modality is smuggling because there the concessions are few and in most of the territory mining exploitation is prohibited. In that sense and since these departments border Peru and Brazil, organized armed groups directly negotiate gold with cartels or transnational mafias." 

Another lucrative business added to the illegal gold mining is the trafficking of mercury, whose marketing chain begins with legal exports to South American countries, but which ends up supplying a clandestine market in countries such as Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador. Even though it is forbidden to use mercury in mining here, the Amazon has become an epicenter of the illegal trafficking of this metal that is distributed to other parts of the country, in addition to being used in the rivers to extract gold.

Photo: Nicolás Acevedo Ortiz / FCDS

According to a report done by the Gaia Amazonas Foundation and the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon in May 2022, Colombia was the second importer of mercury from Amazonian countries following Peru, until 2018. A part of this metal ended up in the country's illegal alluvial and tunnel mines. However, the Minamata Convention started to be in force in that year, and the country's authorities took all measures to reduce the import of mercury. Nowadays, out of the nearly 100 tons per year that the country imported before 2017, only 3 are allowed, to manufacture dental amalgams. Unfortunately, despite this institutional advance, considered one of the strictest in the world, the mafias dedicated to the illegal extraction of gold continue to acquire the liquid metal.

The big question is: Where do these mafias get the mercury? There is not much certainty about this traffic in the country. From the information we have it is known that, apparently, mercury arrives indirectly through the Amazonian borders, but it has not yet been identified if it comes directly from producing countries such as Mexico, Russia, and China. For now, they have established two supply routes: one through Guyana and the other through Bolivia. Nevertheless, more investigation is still needed to have more assurance in this regard.

All this illegal trade in gold and supplies to produce it is affecting the Amazon and poisoning its rivers. Here, the main form of exploitation is that of rafts that navigate sucking sediments from the bottom of rivers to process them with mercury, which ends up in the water. Even though there are studies on the local economy that revolves around this precious metal, like the one from the Sinchi Institute called 'Mining: Social Impacts in the Amazon' in which the costs of building a raft are revealed, how much a miner earns, or the amount of gold that a raft collects in a month, there are still no global figures on the level of participation of illegal gold mining in the Amazon.

Despite that, we do have evidence of the damage that mercury pollution is causing to the Amazon ecosystem and indigenous communities. Since 2014, NGOs, universities, and state entities have conducted studies on the concentration of mercury in Amazonian rivers, especially in the Caquetá and Putumayo basins and the results are alarming.

Photo: Nicolás Acevedo Ortiz / FCDS

The most famous and cited of these researches is 'Impacts Generated by Illegal Mining in the Territory of the Pañi Association - Cahuinari National Natural Park', carried out by the Amazon Health Secretariat, Corpoamazonia, University of Cartagena, Jorge Tadeo Lozano University, the Amazon Territorial Directorate, the Cahuinari National Natural Park, the Cultural Heritage Fund and the Ministry of Interior in 2015.

The researchers found that the Miraña and Bora, two indigenous cultures that live on the banks of the Caquetá River (Amazon) and that do not exceed 400 people, had in their bodies an average mercury concentration of between 15.4 and 19.7 μg / g (ppm), considering that the regular number stated by the World Health Organization is 1.0 μg / g (ppm).

Recently, the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) compiled studies done on mercury pollution in the Amazon, whose conclusions are also concerning. Among these, the NGO found that 29 of the 71 fish samples analyzed in the 12 studies done on the subject exceed the permissible limit of 0.5 ppm of mercury content in fish for human consumption.

The evidence of both the exploitation of gold and the mercury poisoning of the Amazonian rivers (a situation that also happens in the main mining areas of the country) suggests that the Colombian State has found it difficult to fight this scourge. Among the reasons why this phenomenon still persists is that the same strategies in the fight against narcotics are being used. In this regard, Rodrigo Botero, director of the FCDS states that "The military component to pursue illegal mining is important; however, we are conforming with destroying rafts and dredgers and capturing the miners, and little has been done to find the large financiers of the matter. Something similar to what happens with coca, where the weakest link is attacked." 

It is true that State action has increased in the fight against this crime and that international cooperation has also been strengthened. Currently, Colombia is part of the Network of Police Specialized in Environmental Crimes of Latin America and the European Union, and the Colombian Prosecutor's Office made agreements with its peers in Peru. Nevertheless, as Carlos Macero, advisor for Indigenous Affairs at the Organization of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, says, "despite being on the right track, we still need to increase cooperation between countries inside and outside the Amazon to strengthen the fight against illegal mining."

Combating illegal mining requires faster and more forceful actions than the ones that have been done so far. It depends not only on stopping the ecocide of the Amazon and other parts of the country but also on the survival of the most affected parties, which are the indigenous communities.

This article is part of the journalistic special 'Amazonia, the Lost Land', made by CAMBIO Colombia with the support of the United for Forests project, the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) and the Embassy of Norway, with the support of the embassies of the European Union, United Kingdom, Andes Amazon Fund and ReWild.