Traveling the Magdalena River: Day 2, Illegal Mining

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Published on December 8th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

[Editor's Note: the following post is written by Karla Milani, marketing specialist for The Nature Conservancy in South America. This is the second in a series chronicling her journey along Colombia's Magdalena, River. Read more here.]

Today the filming crew and I are getting ready for an early start; we are headed to the Caguises, an illegal gold mine in the Bolivar Province, along the Magdalena River in Colombia.

It’s still dark out when we hop on motorbikes and begin our drive to the mine. Beautiful native tropical forests and marshlands line our scenic ride, making me think we’re headed to paradise. After an hour and a half on navigating the bumpy road, capuchin monkeys rise from their hideouts in the trees — it’s breakfast time for them.

Further down the road, the landscape opens up and the impressive San Lucas mountain range pops into view. Unfortunately, San Lucas is a hotspot for illegal gold mining in Colombia.

At 9 a.m., the sun is burning down and the thick air makes it difficult to breathe. At last, we arrive at the Caguises gold mine. The land is nothing but deep craters — it feels as though we’re staring at the surface of the moon. The land is completely barren.

An ilegal gold mine in the Monterrey region, Sur de Bolívar Department

We see tiny houses covered with plastic walls surrounding the mining site; these are the miners’ temporary houses. If the mine shuts down, it’ll be easy to move on.

The mine’s boss, a hearty man with serene eyes and a slow gait, approaches us and asks what are we doing here. Tension fills the air. After a few minutes of silence, he allows us to enter the mine.

The view is devastating: the land has been dug for more than 30 years and a very thin line of forest remains. There is nothing left behind. The diggers work non-stop and the miners spend 10 hours or more washing away huge mountains of soil hoping to find at least some gold left. And there is some left.

Gustavo Montoya, a 42-year-old man, born in Apartadó, in the Province of Antioquia, has spent half of his life traveling throughout Colombia, working as a miner. Today, he’s made some progress and is renting out pieces of land in Caguises for mining. Business is growing.

Nonetheless, Gustavo complains about how unrealistic the government policies are concerning illegal gold mines. “It’s hard for me to take $200,000 out of my pocket to legalize my mining business,” Gustavo tells us. Miners think the government wants to shut them down and allow bigger companies to come.

This region, formerly plagued with illegal coca crops, has become a mining epicenter. This is “the food source available,” Gustavo concludes.

Illegal gold mining is currently one of the major problems facing Colombia and one of the biggest threats for the lower Magdalena River basin. The mine destroys the local landscape and poisons the land and local water supply with sulphur and mercury runoff used in the mining process. Colombia wants to be a top mining country, but is this country really prepared to assume such challenge?

The use of hazardous chemicals is jeopardizing water sources and fish populations in the Magdalena, a region that provides food for at least half of Colombia’s population.

This mine in the Caguises is the only steady job around. The day the mine dries up or the government shuts them down, the Caguises will be a ghost town.

And so the story goes on.

It’s 5 p.m. Gustavo, gently, says good-bye. He must go back to work because here, time is worth gold!

[Image: An illegal gold mine in the Monterrey region, Sur de Bolívar Department. Image source: Paul Smith]

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