Leaders of mining unions from across Colombia will meet with government representatives on Friday, as a strike that began on Wednesday continues to disrupt the economy and attract attention to the issue of illegal mining. A string of protests against abuse from criminal gangs and the government has been gaining momentum since last weekend, culminating in the current strike, which has attracted roughly 60,000 miners.
The miners’ grievances stem from the fact that the government has exclusive ownership of natural resources and the subsoil of the entire country. When it does grant concessions and environmental licenses, the process is excessively bureaucratic, and thus vulnerable to crony corruption. Big multinational mining companies can handle complying with the regulations, and Colombia has worked hard to encourage FDI in mining and other sectors. One prominent example is Continental Gold’s Buriticá gold and silver project, one of the richest gold deposits in the world (with a total stock estimated at over 10,000,000 ounces), which was granted a 30-year mining license in 2013 and is awaiting its environmental license in mid-2015.
However, protesting miners decry the government’s willingness to hand over the country’s natural resources to big MNCs while criminalizing small- and medium-scale local miners, who have few alternatives to make a living. These miners dig wherever they can, especially in remote areas beyond the government’s reach, damaging the environment with no safety considerations. Mines operating without full certification account for more than 85% of the metal produced in Colombia, according to the National Mining Association.
Gold mining in Colombia has become “the new cocaine” as criminal groups (with current or former ties to rebel groups) take over local gold mines. Currently at over $1,200 per ounce (and even higher in the past few years), gold mining is more profitable and safer than drug trafficking, and it faces far fewer constraints after the gold is extracted. Many people have been forced to flee their homes (especially in poor rural areas) due to intimidation, violence, and polluted water supplies from toxic tailings that are improperly disposed. In 2013, some 200,000 Colombians were driven from their homes as a result. Between being caught in gang violence and working in unsafe, unregulated mines, about 500 people have been killed in the last four years. Unfortunately, curbing illegal mining is not on the agenda of ongoing peace talks between the government and the country’s two largest rebel groups, both heavily involved in the practice.
Now, the striking miners are making three broad demands. First is to change the national mining regulations to speed the approval of licenses, legalize informal mines, and remove other laws that hinder these mines’ operations. Second is to end the persecution and property destruction by the police against local miners, and third is for the government to provide greater security against the depredations of armed gangs.
Allowing accessible permits for small-scale mines would be welcome, letting the police focus on protecting miners from criminals. And the imposition of any reasonable environmental and worker-safety rules would result in better conditions than the current destructive free-for-all. Reason enough for Colombia to make concessions — not to mention a way for the country to maintain its business-friendly, pro-mining international stature.