The Colombian Armed Forces conducted a coordinated operation against illegal mining along the Atrato, Quito, and San Pablo rivers, in the department of Chocó. Authorities seized nine mines and confiscated five engines used for illegal mining of mineral deposits, along with 15 excavators and dredges. The October-November 2017 operation struck a financial blow valued at more than $4.2 million to the Gulf Clan Organized Armed Group.
“We work on destroying machinery used for the illicit extraction of mineral deposits,” Colombian Army Brigadier General Mauricio Moreno Rodríguez, commander of Joint Task Force Titán, that led the operation, told Diálogo. “Dredgers [are] a constant presence; they do alluvial gold extraction, which is the type of gold present in the department of Chocó.”
“Ground and riverine troops identify sites where illegal mining takes place. The Colombian Air Force gives us aerial photographs and real-time direct imagery, because these teams move,” Colombian Marine Corps Major Luis Ángel López Ardila, riverine operations coordinator of Joint Task Force Titán, told Diálogo. “These ‘dragons’ [two-story dredges] and construction equipment are moving elements; here today, but 8 or 10 kilometers away tomorrow.”
Ancestral communities carry out artisanal gold mining with techniques of small environmental impact. Criminal groups, however, favor mechanizing the process to increase production, as they profit from extorting miners. They charge for metal production and sales.
“To build [a mine] or have access with one of these ‘dragon’ [miners] pay between $16,000 and $20,000,” Brig. Gen. Moreno said. “During the mining process, a criminal climbs into each ‘dragon’ and charges for each pound of gold. A ‘dragon’ produces 4 or 5 pounds per week, and [miners] have to hand over about half a pound per week, [equivalent to] $10,000 when sold.”
The neotropical region of Chocó, known as biogeographic Chocó, is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Colombia is a megadiverse country—one of 14 in the world harboring one out of every 10 species of known flora and fauna. However, the damage from extractive activities without an environmental management plan already left a mark.
“We’ve been looking for the main sites, where indiscriminate pollution goes on, and managed to detect dredges,” Brig. Gen. Moreno said. “If it is done on an industrial scale, dredging the riverbed, that requires deforestation. We believe that one single ‘dragon’ causes environmental damage or eliminates 4 to 5 hectares per week.”
Atrato River, a subject of rights
Gold mining requires mercury and cyanide, chemical substances whose use in small quantities causes major pollution. Local residents, whether they work in gold mining or not, end up with high doses of mercury in their bodies.
Faced with this situation, several communities came together and convinced the Constitutional Court to hand down Sentence T-622/16, an unprecedented verdict in Colombia, recognizing the Atrato River as a subject of rights. The sentence forces several entities to protect and clean up the river. The ruling urges the Ministry of National Defense to neutralize and eradicate illegal mining in the Atrato River and its tributaries.
“The sentence says that 21 of the 23 species of fish in the Atrato River are contaminated with mercury and unsuitable for human consumption,” Maj. López said. “Likewise, several studies by CODECHOCÓ [Autonomous Regional Corporation for Sustainable Development of Chocó], the environmental agency of the department of Chocó, and several universities determined that the percentage of mercury in people who have regular contact with the river in this area is very high and dangerous for humans.”
In 2017, the Colombian government increased the number of strikes against illegal mining by 11 from 2016. According to figures Maj. López gave Diálogo, the 38 operations against illegal mining in 2017 resulted in 73 arrests, the seizure of 45 illegal mines, 42 backhoes, 52 dredges, one bulldozer, two sorting grids, two motorboats, and 27,460 gallons of fuel.