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Illegal mining in Colombia’s Amazon threatens Indigenous communities

  • In June 2021, Indigenous communities observed boats carrying out illegal gold mining in the Caquetá River in the Colombian Amazon.
  • Satellite images showed as many as 19 boats that month on the Puré River, one of the Caquetá’s tributaries.
  • Research shows mercury contamination from gold mining has contaminated Indigenous communities in the Caquetá River Basin.
  • Researchers and Indigenous advocates warn the influx of miners into the remote Colombian Amazon may compromise the health and well-being of uncontacted peoples who depend on isolation for their way of life.

This story is the result of a reporting collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto.

In 2000, in the midst of Colombia’s vast Amazon rainforest, two elder members from the Indigenous groups that inhabit  Cahuinarí National Natural Park and Yaigojé Apaporis National Park made a sacred pact with their guardian spirits as part of their religious practice: they would never reveal where the gold deposits were or reopen their waters to illegal mining. The metal that they call “the reflection of the sun on the ground” would be forever hidden.

However, Indigenous residents of Araracuara, in the department of Amazonas, say that one of the elders, a member of the Cahuinarí Indigenous group referred to as Boa, broke the pact just a few years later, selling the information to outsiders looking to exploit the forest’s gold deposits. Local sources say the breaking of the covenant unleashed a spiritual war between the leaders of the groups and that Boa died in agony when the spirits visited disease upon him because of what he did to the earth.

Opening up the territory to the miners led to a bonanza of illegal exploitation along the Caquetá River in 2009. Víctor Moreno, coordinator of Amazon Sustainable Landscapes, a project of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), said there were times when mining boats formed a flotilla that spanned the entire river. “It was like seeing floating towns,” he said.

Another boom occurred seven years later, in 2016, after which the situation cooled down. But in June 2021, Indigenous residents reported seeing four or five illegal boats near the communities of Berlin and La Tagua. Satellite images from an organization that asked not to be named to protect its staff in the field, show as many as 19 such boats that month on the Puré River, one of the Caquetá’s tributaries.

Illegal mining dredge location recorded in the Puré River. Image courtesy of MAXAR.

Mining along rivers in this area violates the rights of Indigenous peoples such as the Bora Miraña, Makuna, Uitoto and Aduche. According to their religion, the guardian spirits of the waters are the only ones who can authorize the extraction of gold. Nobody has asked them “and that is why misfortune has come,” said Uitoto leader Nazareth Cabrera.

“Money from mining leaves the places where [the activity] is carried out. What remains are the environmental and social consequences,” said María Camila Munar, an adviser to the GAIA Amazonas Foundation.

According to Moreno, putting a mining boat into operation can cost up to $39,000, and the payment for those who work on them, generally consisting of around six or eight people working up to 20 hours per day, is nearly $800 per fortnight. He said the boat owners, called gasteros, are based in cities such as Cali, Medellín or Bogotá, far from the places where illegal mining occurs.

Caquetá River. Image by Nazareth Cabrera.

A persistent threat to Indigenous communities

“Intangible.” This is the designation for much of the territory of almost 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of Río Puré National Natural Park, located between the Caquetá and Putumayo rivers, in the far south of the Colombian Amazon. It’s home to the uncontacted Yurí-Passé Indigenous group that was believed to be culturally extinct until 2012, when researcher Roberto Franco discovered that, around 120 years ago, they chose to go into the jungle to isolate themselves from the outside world.

Illegal mining along the Caquetá River and its tributaries, such as the Puré River, has become a new threat to the Yurí-Passé. Daniel Aristizábal, coordinator of the Amazonian Plains and Isolated Peoples project at the Amazon Conservation Team, highlighted several risks. The first, he said, is that encroachment by miners violates their desire not to be contacted. To avoid military controls, illegal miners enter the rainforest looking for routes where there is no state presence, Aristizábal said. Río Puré national park, where the Yurí-Passé live, is one of these routes, and the chances are high that the Yurí-Passé will soon become aware that outsiders have encroached into their territory, Aristizábal said. He added this leads to the second threat: that in order to avoid contact, the Yurí-Passé will be restricted to an increasingly smaller area.

The third danger, according to Aristizábal, is that the illegal miners also depend on forest resources to survive while mining, and that their hunting and fishing activities will deplete stocks needed by the Yurí-Passé to maintain their way of life. The fourth risk, and one of the most dangerous, according to Aristizábal, is that the Yurí-Passé could contract new diseases from the outsiders that their isolated immune systems aren’t equipped to handle.

Gold mining is also associated with waterway contamination. Mercury, a toxic heavy metal, is often used to separate gold from ore and easily escapes into surrounding water sources, where it can accumulate up the food chain, posing a health threat to people who consume contaminated fish.

Aristizábal said mercury poisoning has already affected Indigenous communities in the Caquetá River Basin, causing fetal malformations and neurological issues. He said he’s concerned that the Yurí-Passé may suffer a similar fate if mining operations continue along the Puré River, or one that’s even worse, since they’re uncontacted and therefore don’t have access to the technology necessary for monitoring and intervention.

Amazonian rivers affected by illegal mining in 2020. Image courtesy of GAIA Amazonas Foundation.
Mining sampling sites in the Caquetá River Basin. Image courtesy of the Ministry of the Environment and the Department of National Natural Parks.

The threat of mercury poisoning is not new in the Amazon, nor is it isolated. In Indigenous Amazonian communities that practice subsistence fishing, between 1.5 and 17 per 1,000 children exhibit cognitive impairment due to the consumption of contaminated fish, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)

Mercury poisoning can also cause Minamata disease, symptoms of which include difficulty hearing and balancing, insomnia, memory failure, and sensory problems in the extremities — feeling, for example, that the hands and feet are burning. Extreme cases can result in coma, paralysis and death.

Colombia’s National Institute of Health (INS) puts the safe threshold of mercury in the human body at 15 micrograms per liter of blood. In September 2018, sampling conducted in 12 communities that are part of the Puerto Zábalo–Los Monos reservation in the Caquetá River Basin found that residents had had blood mercury levels up to 100 micrograms per liter — nearly seven times the safe limit. The study was carried out by several agencies, including the Caquetá Health Secretariat, the Department of Natural National Parks and the Ministry of Justice.

Blood mercury levels of residents from 12 Indigenous communities in the Caquetá River Basin. Image courtesy of the Ministry of the Environment and the Department of National Natural Parks.
Traditional structure of the Indigenous Maloka who live along the Apaporis River. Image courtesy of Juan Gabriel Soler/GAIA Amazonas Foundation.

The Caquetá River, known as the Japurá in Brazil, is one of the longest in South America. From its source in southwestern Colombia, it winds 2,820 kilometers (1,752 miles) through the rainforests of Colombia and into Brazil, where it flows into the Amazon River. Traversing its length by boat takes weeks.

Wildcat miners from Brazil, known as garimpeiros, were the ones who taught the Indigenous people of the Colombian Amazon to mine the river for gold in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Víctor Moreno. He said they didn’t realize at first how destructive the practice was, only that it was a way to make money in a place with few other options.

The garimpeiros, according to a source familiar with the territory and speaking on condition of anonymity, were expelled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC alleged the miners were exploiting the Indigenous people by offering them a pittance to work on the boats. In the end, the garimpeiros left, but the mining persisted — this time carried out by the FARC themselves, according to the source.

Mining has been going on for more than four decades now along the rivers of the Caquetá Basin. And sources say the situation is not getting any better. Along with the 19 boats seen on the Colombian side of the Puré River in June 2021, observers reported 36 dredges, 13 speedboats and three miners’ houses on the Brazilian side. Satellite and aerial images show mounds of processed sediment dumped along riverbanks.

Luz Alejandra Gómez, coordinator of the geographic information system department at the FCDS, said the situation is even worse along the Brazilian portion of the Caquetá River.

“Brazil is much more permissive and the river is full of mining titles that are legal,” Gómez said.

A mining boat in the Caquetá River stationed by a mound of processed sediment. Image courtesy of MAXAR.

Colombia has made an effort to protect this area of the Amazon. Most of the area is classified as national natural parks or Indigenous territories, which confer a level of protection, at least on paper. But sources say this protection is insufficient. Robinson Galindo, territorial director for the Amazon branch of Colombia’s Department of National Natural Parks, said treating illegal mining as a single-state issue will not solve the problem. He said the Brazilian authorities must also be involved.

A complex, intractable problem

“We don’t want national parks [people] here,” armed men, apparently dissidents from the Carolina Ramírez front of the FARC, told Chiribiquete National Natural Park rangers in early 2020. The message was intended to be passed on: all park officials had to leave the Amazon. In February 2020, they complied and left the forest..

Along with the park rangers went one of the few examples of state presence in the Colombian Amazon. The rivers were abandoned and left without any checkpoints to stop illegal mining. Since then, observers have recorded an uptick in illegal mining along the region’s rivers.

To combat the activity, Colombia sent in the military. During the first six months of 2020, the army destroyed 20 dredges used to extract ore from the Caquetá River. Military representatives said the equipment belonged primarily to members of the FARC or the criminal group Clan del Golfo.

Sources in the territory say the groups behind illegal mining also cultivate drug crops in the area, such as coca, from which cocaine is produced. GAIA Amazonas found that increases in gold mining in the region generally coincide with reductions in drug trafficking. Conversely, when mining declines, the drug trade tends to rebound. In 2018, the commander of the Colombian Army’s anti-illegal mining unit declared illegal mining more profitable than drug trafficking.

A boat waits in the Apaporis River. Image courtesy of Juan Gabriel Soler/GAIA Amazonas Foundation.

Sergio Vásquez, advocacy adviser for GAIA Amazonas, said the government’s response has focused on “dismantling boats and that’s it.” There’s no comprehensive policy designed to improve the living conditions of communities, leaving them with few alternatives to mining, he said.

The military deploys soldiers to destroy dredges in the river but doesn’t have the capacity to remove the mercury, gasoline and the wreckage of the boats, according to Luz Alejandra Gómez.

Offenders are rarely apprehended, according to Moreno. And if they are, he said, they’re likely to be the lowest links in the chain: an Indigenous person or settler who is paid to risk their life diving in the river without much protection; a cook at a mining camp; the worker who checks that the gold has been removed from the ore.

Víctor Motta, an Indigenous Uitoto resident and secretary of health at the Regional Indigenous Council of the Middle Amazon in Colombia (CRIMA), said the solution is not to attack the dredges — which, he said, the illegal miners replace shortly after anyway — but rather to work with Indigenous communities so that they are the ones who determine what steps they want to take.


 Banner image of boats in the Apaporis River. Image courtesy of Juan Gabriel Soler/GAIA Amazonas Foundation.

This story was reported by Mongabay Latam’s team and first published here on our Latam site on July 19, 2021.

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