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Crackdowns on illegal mining in Colombian Amazon not enough

A member of the Naval Forces of Southern Colombia on patrol near the Putumayo River. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

A member of the Naval Forces of Southern Colombia on patrol near the Putumayo River. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

  • Illegal mining for gold in Colombia’s Amazon region has destroyed swaths of forest and contaminated the soil and water with mercury.
  • A military-led crackdown, however, has left locals in the underdeveloped region bereft of a key source of livelihood, driving many into coca cultivation.
  • In the absence of economic alternatives, ex-guerrillas, organized crime groups and corrupt officials continue to sustain the illegal practice.

PUERTO LEGUIZAMO, Colombia – Already infamous for coca production and conflict, Colombia’s southwest department of Putumayo borders Ecuador and Peru and is ripe for a variety of eco-crimes.  In 2016 there were 45 arrests in the region connected to wildlife smuggling, gold mining and the illegal timber trade.

These crimes pose serious threats to local biodiversity in the Colombian Amazon and its native populations, especially given the fact that Putumayo is home to enormous expanses of jungle that are difficult to monitor.

Colombia’s armed forces have made progress in the fight against illegal mining through a series of crackdowns. Part of that success is due to the fact that the Naval forces of southern Colombia have more time to combat environmental crimes now that the country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, was recently demobilized.

But eco-crimes are not easily eliminated in the Amazon and illegal armed groups continue to traverse the jungles. Increased operations against illegal mining, in particular, have only diminished – but not eliminated – the problem. Illegal gold mining has gravely impacted Amazonian ecosystems given that immense territories under rebel command were difficult for Colombia’s armed forces to control. Times have changed, though, according to the Navy. Jungle areas have become easier for armed forces to monitor owing to the recent peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas.

Enforcement and consequences

The Navy’s destruction of illegal mining equipment in its operations has impacted the local economy in the town of Puerto Leguizamo, according to residents. Locals who live on the banks of the Putumayo River, which forms the border with Peru, say their livelihoods revolved around the mining of gold from nearby riverbeds.

Many people involved can be characterized as subsistence miners whose livelihoods are threatened if development projects fail to bring alternatives to illicit jobs.

A large tube is used to dredge the riverbeds for gold. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

According to Rodrigo, a former miner in his forties who asked that his full name not be used, the impact has already been felt.

“Most of the miners have already left and there were many of them,” he said during a recent interview from his house built of wooden planks next to the Putumayo River where he lives with his extended family. Rodrigo says many residents have been forced into illegal activities such as unlicensed gold mining and the cultivation of coca, due to a lack of investment in education, infrastructure and jobs in the region.

“The other ones went to sow coca, and some pick the leaves,” Rodrigo said. He used to cultivate a few hectares full of the forbidden plant before he turning to illegal gold mining when the price of the metal soared in the early 2000s.

“There was nothing else to do here,” he said as he stared at the downpour of rain outside his house.

Puerto Leguizamo is an isolated town surrounded by rivers and has a long wet season. The main access route is the Putumayo River. The closest city, Puerto Asís, 200 kilometers (124 miles) downriver toward the Ecuadorean border, is a nine-hour boat ride away.

Flights out of the region with the Air Force-owned company Satena are too expensive for most of locals.

Deforestation and contamination

Structural state abandonment and the wealth of minerals to exploit has had inevitable consequences in Colombia. Illegal mining is a driver of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, which covers 42.3 percent of the country’s territory. Colombia has lost more than 5.9 million hectares of forest in the past 25 years, much of it stripped to make way for illegal mines.

The country’s rivers, too, face devastation by the flotilla of dredging boats, called dragas or balsas , that churn up riverbeds for gold.

Mercury is used in the process to extract the gold from the dredged sludge, and it ends up contaminating the soil and water. In 2014, researchers found that thirty percent of fish in the area had levels of mercury above the national standard, according to the Amazon Institute of Scientific Investigation (SINCHI), propelling the heavy metal up along the food chain. This especially impacts the indigenous communities living on the riverbanks, for whom locally caught fish is a dietary staple.

With Colombia’s main guerrilla group (the FARC) demobilized, the Armed Forces have more time to go after environmental criminals. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

César Augusto, a local researcher from SINCHI who investigates aquatic ecosystems, says the average Colombian eats five kilograms (11 pounds) of fish a year, but the urban population of Puerto Leguizamo eats 45 kg (99 pounds) while the rural population eats fish on a daily basis, amounting to 126 kg (278 pounds) per person per year.

SINCHI has called for deeper studies into this issue by health and environmental institutes as well as fishery organizations and the general public. For some it’s already too late, though.

“I will not eat catfish anymore,” Augusto said.

Peace in the Amazon?

The many rivers that curl through the Colombian Amazon have high concentrations of gold in their riverbeds, drawing miners come from all over the region. The FARC guerrillas were also involved in the business, demanding hefty commissions from the miners. Escape routes along the rivers were abundant and profits were high.

But environmental damage was never a top consideration for miners who dredged riverbeds and dumped mercury in the fragile ecosystems that surrounded them.

The Naval Forces of Southern Colombia cruise one of the tributaries of the Putumayo River. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

Enforcement remains a problem. Although the FARC guerrillas have officially demobilized and the Navy feels more at ease cruising the many rivers of the Amazon to detect illegal activities, remnants of the armed group remain.

The FARC arrived in the region during the 1970s and replaced Brazilian rubber tappers and miners as the authority in the area, according to Liduine Zumpolle, a Dutch human rights specialist with over three decades of experience in Colombia.

“Today we find ourselves in the ‘post-conflict’ [period] which has significant benefits, also in Putumayo,” Zumpolle said. “This not only means a lot [fewer] dead bodies because of the confrontations between soldiers and guerrilla fighters used to have, it also implies new challenges for national environmental conservation.”

Environmental protection is high on the list of the Naval Forces, according to Col. Ricardo Alberto Suárez Rátiva. Suárez is part of the Navy teams that patrol the river and surrounding area. Combating illegal mining is alternated with social work in nearby communities, including looking out for the local wildlife. Another naval officer, Alex Ramirez, boasted that 5,000 baby turtles were caught from an animal trafficker and set free by the Navy.

Making use of satellite images, anonymous tips and reconnaissance flights, Colombia’s armed forces detect illegal activities – which in the case of illegal gold mining in Putumayo means the presence of dredging boats in the rivers. According to a source who works in intelligence for the Navy, a single draga boat can bring in more than $100,000 in revenue a month.

“They are illegally exploiting the resources of the state,” Suárez said.

One of the seized dragas next to a Naval base for the Colombian marines. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

A draga is normally equipped with six workers, including an administrator and cook. The most important job is that of the diver, who works a six- to eight-hour shift weighed down with lead ballast and breathing through a garden hose connected to a pump. The work is done at depths sometimes exceeding 30 meters (98 feet), in hazardous and pitch-dark surroundings.

Another risk that the divers run: they can’t see the Navy coming.

“One day we arrived at a draga by surprise,” said Maj. Edgar Hernándo Jaimes Súarez of the Colombian Navy. “Everybody who was working left when we were arriving by helicopter. They fled on a boat and when we entered the draga from above the diver was still underwater. Nobody warned him, they did not tell him anything and when he came out we said, ‘Come here, you come with us.’”

According to the general prosecutor’s records, the racket generated 87.5 kilos (nearly 200 pounds) of gold every month, and dumped 140 kilos (about 309 pounds) of mercury in the rivers.

Those arrested face charges including illicit exploitation of mining deposits, damaging natural resources, environmental contamination by illicit exploitation, and invasion of special ecological areas, among others.

Transparency in the gold supply chain is already problematic on a legal level, which makes the illegal routes very difficult to identify.

Profits from illegally mined gold

Despite the big profits attributed to illegal mining, the miners say that the business isn’t as lucrative as it seems for them.

“There is a black market where gold is commercialized, they dictate and manipulate the prices,” Col. Suárez said. He said the naval intelligence services were looking into “where they commercialize, sell and interchange.”

The accusation that miners spill large amounts of mercury into the rivers also seems a bit exaggerated to illegal miner Rodrigo.

“We won’t have enough gold to buy all this mercury,” he said. He claims the miners use a bottle-cap full of the chemical each time, and reuse it if possible. The FARC even forced the miners they extorted to bury any mercury-contaminated sediment 50 meters (55 yards) from the river after extracting the gold – a half-measure in the absence of any regulation.

Maj. Edgar Hernándo Jaimes Súarez explains how gold is extracted from the river sediments on a draga. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

While the FARC extorted illegal miners and charged them for the use of each draga, other criminal groups were in charge of the transportation. In Colombia, gold is often used to launder drug money and sold on national and international markets. Corruption is involved to arrange legal permits for the commercialization of large quantities.

As for Puerto Leguizamo, the mining heydays seems to be over.

“Yesterday they came to sell me 30 grams [one ounce],” said a gold trader in Puerto Leguizamo who asked not to be named. “But it is very little they sell.” He said he used to have a dredging boat, but sold it in 2014 when operations against illegal mining were ramping up.

Even though the armed forces are increasingly on the lookout for environmental crimes, Colombia’s enormous jungles are difficult to control and peppered with armed guerrillas, paramilitaries and organized criminals. As deforestation rates keep increasing, it becomes clear there is still a long way to go for environmental protection in the Colombian Amazon.

Banner image: A member of the Naval Forces of Southern Colombia on patrol near the Putumayo River. Photo by Bram Ebus for Mongabay.

Bram Ebus is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. You can find him on Twitter at @BramEbus.

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