BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The country’s nearly 6,000 mines made US$2.4 billion in profits in 2010, according to the Institute of Geology and Mining (Ingeominas), the governmental entity overseeing mining policies.
This picture, however, is marred by two irregularities: First, the illegal exploitation of mineral deposits, and secondly, the menace posed by terrorist groups – specifically the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – to the country’s mining industry.
“We all must be very firm in fighting illegal mining,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said at a recent media conference. “[The] illegal mining is, to a large degree, being controlled by groups operating outside the law.”
Mines and Energy Minister Mauricio Cárdenas Santa María supported Santos, urging “all illegal miners to legalize their mines.”
The FARC is the terrorist group wreaking the most havoc on the mining sector, where they are extorting miners in numerous departments, including Bolívar, Caquetá, Casanare, Cauca, Guanía, Putumayo and Tolima, according to a study from the now defunct Department of Administrative Security (DAS).
The National Liberation Army (ELN), on the other hand, exploits miners in the departments of Bolívar, Nariño, and Santander, while criminal bands are stronger in the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, La Guajira and Valle del Cauca, according to the government.
The DAS urged the government to strengthen its fight against terrorist groups that have infiltrated the mining sector, as their presence has hurt the industry financially, and their violent nature causes insecurity and social instability in areas they occupy.
The FARC and ELN could be making as much as US$837,915 monthly by exploiting mines nationwide, according to the Colombian daily El Tiempo.
“The groups working on the margins of the law are extorting anyone who is in the business of mining,” Cárdenas said. “[These groups] get paid for ‘protection’ and every month they get a share of [the earnings from] those mines across the country. They are financing their work through the toil of others. The illegality of these mines is turning out to be counterproductive only for the miners because in their efforts to evade the law, they are becoming victims of the terrorists, and that is worse.”
Gustavo Wilches Chaux, an environmentalist who specializes in risk assessment, said the recent death of FARC’s top leader, Alfonso Cano, could force the terrorist group to maintain a lower profile, at least temporarily.
“The reason is a purely strategic one, given members of the FARC will need to restructure themselves after such a devastating loss,” he said. “The main thing for the authorities will be to take maximum advantage of the huge blow that Cano’s death means, and to advance where the miners are being exploited by these terrorists groups.”
On Oct. 20, Cárdenas met with representatives of the National Federation of Colombian Miners (Conalminercol) in an effort to register illegal mines with the state.
“The invitation to informal miners, as always, is for them to become legal,” Conalminercol President Luis Ramiro Restrepo Guerrero said. “Anyone who wants to work [in mining] must make a pledge to follow environmental and labor safeguards, and to apply [industry] standards in matters concerning mining safety. By not being legalized, they create an environmental problem for the country. They also cause a problem for themselves because they don’t have anyone to protect them, making it easier for them to be exploited by terrorist groups.”
Illegal miners considered criminals
Another pressing issue facing the government and the mining industry is the handling of independent illegal miners, meaning those not affiliated with terrorist groups. These miners break the law to provide for their families, but under Colombian law, they fall under the same category as those working on behalf of the FARC or ELN.
“Not all illegal mining is mixed up with crime,” Wilches said. “I know of many small miners who work without a license, [and] one cannot catalogue them as criminal offenders. The government should create better policies to protect these miners.”
Wilches said it’s difficult for illegal miners to register with the state because in order to do so, they must comply with safety and environmental regulations and take time off from their jobs to perform work that offsets the environmental impact caused by mining.
It’s just too much to ask from miners who work long hours to support their families, Wilches added.
“I understand the government needs to bring all mining activity under the rule of law and that it wants to have the laws followed to the letter,” Wilches said. “However, the government should ask the miners for a fixed percentage of their revenue based on how much they earn in a month. The money should be used to make sure that economic, ecological, environmental, and safety protections are observed. If there’s transparency on the part of the government in its handling of these resources in a fair way, many of the miners will surely understand that they must follow the laws and legalize their work.”
Restrepo and Cárdenas have taken steps to fight illegal mining by instituting monthly mine inspections by government officials.
“With these inspections we could get a clear picture of who is legal and who isn’t,” Restrepo said. “This will allow us to differentiate them and establish tactics that focus on protecting the legal [miners] and make the illegal ones understand that paying off the FARC is an error and it’s threatening their safety.”