A Closer Look at Colombia’s Illegal, Artisanal, and Small-Scale Mining
Throughout the Colombian Amazon, a region rich in biodiversity and natural resources, local communities and the environment have come under siege by criminal actors engaged in illegal mining. At the center of this new wave of violence and environmental degradation is the rush to secure mining revenues. Skyrocketing gold prices have made control over the production and sale of the metal an increasingly lucrative business, with one ounce of gold fetching nearly twice the price of an ounce of cocaine, a product also trafficked by criminal organizations. In Colombia, illegal mining manifests as a tangled web comprised of local production, export, and smuggling from neighboring Venezuela. Revenues from these various operations fuel guerrilla groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which increasingly rely on gold to fill their coffers.
The human costs of illegal mining are varied in nature but alike in the suffering they cause. Miners, often coerced from local Indigenous communities, labor for many hours for little to no pay, prevented from leaving under penalty of death. Sex trafficking has exploded in order to supply brothels in illicit mining camps. Meanwhile, the use of mercury to recover gold produces toxic runoff, poisoning nearby water supplies on which both people and wildlife depend.
In addition to the prevalence of illegal and criminal mining, artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is a subsistence type of mining that usually supplements incomes but does not necessarily contribute to criminal enterprises. In other words, ASM may occur without a permit or license from the state, but the activity is not conducted under the auspices of a criminal organization. Many people participate in small-scale gold mining as a means of supplementing their income while engaging in a variety of other economic activities. Miners engaged in ASM are not employed by mining companies, sometimes engaging in this activity seasonally to substitute their income during slow growing seasons. This type of informal mining could serve as a tool for economic advancement in the region if regulated and combined with the right government policies. In its current state, however, the informality of the mining sector creates additional vulnerabilities for miners engaged in ASM, who find it difficult to sell their products at market value and often face exploitation at the hands of criminals and armed groups.
The mineral resources found in the Colombian Amazon have great potential to be accelerants of economic growth and deliver benefits for the people of these regions. However, identifying the correct policy responses requires first disentangling the networks of coercion, violence, and smuggling that currently dominate much of the mining landscape.
Illegal Mining in Colombia
The increase in global demand for natural resources and the related rise in gold prices have fueled illegal mining in Colombia, resulting in significant security concerns, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation. In fact, gold has become so profitable that it has surpassed cocaine as the main source of revenue for criminal organizations and armed groups in Colombia. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, illegal mining operations in the country span over 64,000 hectares, with activities taking place in 970 identified locations. In 2020, an estimated 69 percent of Colombia’s gold was mined illegally, up 3 percent from the previous year. For mining to be considered legal in Colombia, miners must formalize their operations with environmental and technical requirements set by the government; however, the bureaucratic red tape and high cost associated with formalization leads many to continue mining operations without the proper permits and environmental and technical standards.
Neighboring Venezuela’s variegated crises have also had important spillover effects for Colombia. Of the roughly 230 illegal mines recorded in Colombia in 2020, approximately 74 are located along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Much of the gold mined in Venezuela both wittingly and unwittingly finds its way into Colombian gold exports, making it difficult to track as it moves through various markets. A complex “layering” process allows gold mined illegally in Venezuela to be passed off as Colombian. This occurs when gold is melted down and any signs of its origins obfuscated. Criminal intermediaries may provide fraudulent purchase receipts or even fake certificates of origin, claiming the gold was produced from legal mines in Colombia. Once this product is layered, therefore, illegal gold ships around the world as legal gold exports. Gold is also easier to launder than arms or drugs, as it can be sold on the formal commodity market after being fraudulently legalized, allowing criminally mined gold to make its way into the supply chain of numerous major companies.
After the United States sanctioned the Maduro regime’s state-owned gold mining company, Minerven, in 2019, layering and smuggling operations became paramount to Maduro’s authoritarian resilience. The combination of considerable profits and less risky laundering has led the Maduro regime in Venezuela to turn to illegal mining as an alternate method of financing itself, further linking the mining activities of the two countries.
Abuses of basic human rights, including those of Indigenous populations, are common alongside illicit mining practices. Of the 64,000 hectares where illegal mining operations take place in Colombia, more than 27,000 hectares are located in Indigenous territories. These activities directly contribute to the displacement of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, human and sex trafficking and labor exploitation, and the contamination of the local water supply, among other abuses. Clashes between miners and Indigenous populations are common, as locals bristle at the control criminal organizations exercise over mining operations. Miners—both those engaged in ASM and criminal mining—often labor in hazardous conditions, working long hours in contaminated, stagnant water that serves as a breeding ground for mosquitos. Venezuela, the first World Health Organization–certified country to eradicate malaria, is now witnessing a surge in malaria cases. Workers in illegal mines are often coerced into working through threats of violence or economic necessity and are routinely subject to violent treatment and repression.
Illegal mining also contributes to devastating environmental results. The use of heavy machinery significantly contributes to Colombia’s rising rates of deforestation; more than 5 percent of Colombia’s entire surface area has been deforested, and more than 68 percent of the country’s loss of vegetation occurred in areas of illegal exploitation. ASM is one of the largest global sources of mercury pollution, and mercury—technically banned in Colombia since 2018—is still commonly used in mining operations, effecting a contaminated local water supply that can be dangerous to humans and wildlife alike.
The Colombian government has implemented various initiatives aimed at increasing formalization of the gold sector to mitigate the risks of illegal mining, with mixed results. For example, the Single Registry of Mineral Traders (RUCOM) is a platform through which miners can formalize their operations, offering a channel to legalize the mining sector and prevent illegally mined gold from being funneled through legitimate mining operations. However, miners engaged in ASM find the criteria set by RUCOM to be difficult to achieve, further forcing the informal sector into operations with criminal actors. In 2016, the Colombian National Army also created the Illegal Mining Brigade that has the goal of raising awareness of the environmental damage caused by illegal mining, carrying out the government’s efforts to target criminal mining operations. This effort followed previous efforts to establish the Unit Against Natural Resources and Environmental Crimes, which, despite conducting thousands of investigations, garnered few successful prosecutions and convictions. Additionally, the National Mining Agency (ANM) is working to make public a compilation of all authorized mineral producers to increase transparency in the mining sector.
The Stakes Are Larger than Mining
The impacts of illegal mining are not confined to the human or the environmental. Illegal mining in Colombia intersects with some of the most intractable security challenges in Latin America. Both the ELN and dissident FARC groups finance their regional activities with profits derived partly from illegal mining. There is mounting evidence that the Maduro regime is partnering with the ELN and dissident FARC groups, not only providing a permissive environment for their operations, but actively seeking to wrest control over the gold trade from the Colombian criminal groups that have traditionally controlled it. This partnership is mutually beneficial—it permits the Maduro regime to profit from illegal gold mining, layered into legal operations, while opening new revenue streams to proxy groups that work to destabilize Colombia, its traditional regional rival. It is not hyperbole to say that the entire peace process in Colombia could be at risk if the ELN and dissident FARC groups are permitted to continually cross the border, recuperate, rearm, and collect money that enables them to lengthen their insurgency and wear down an already weary population.
Beyond criminal groups, the existence of illegal mining impacts the Maduro regime’s security and survival. The regime reportedly gave ruling party governors the ability to manage strategic mines within their state and divvy up the largesse to rapacious party officials as a means of maintaining control and establishing deeply entrenched political patronage networks. The spoils from these illegal operations—facilitated in part by illicit cross-border flows with Colombia—maintain regime coherence and consolidation in the face of the United States and international pressure on Maduro. The international export of illegal gold has also enmeshed the Maduro regime in a grouping of autocratic and authoritarian countries that facilitate its survival, including Russia, Turkey, Mali, and the United Arab Emirates. These relationships have entailed sophisticated work-arounds to U.S. sanctions architecture involving the loading of empty aircraft cargo holds, “spoofing” the locations of cargo ships, “going dark” on their transponders, and leveraging flags of convenience.
Local and International Responses
The overlap of informal and criminal mining means that a hardline policy seeking to prevent ASM entirely is likely to be neither effective nor conducive to regional stability or individual livelihoods. Yet mining regulations have only recently started to catch up to these realities, easing hitherto restrictions on ASM. Such efforts will help the Colombian government focus its efforts on the most devastating elements of illegal mining. This needs to be accelerated in tandem with a robust security strategy to push organized crime out of the mining sector. Colombia’s recent announcement creating a special force within the national police to tackle environmental crimes in the country, including illegal mining, is a good start.
Greater formalization of ASM is one of the tools for improving regulation in the mining sector. While Colombia has made progress in simplifying registration requirements, in order for a mining operation to obtain formal authorization from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, it must go through an exhaustive, lengthy process beyond the capabilities of most small-scale mining operations. An expedited channel specifically for miners engaged in ASM to register easily and for little cost would be an important step toward bringing these miners into greater formality. Paired with a bolstered enforcement mechanism through RUCOM, this would allow small-scale miners to sell their products at more market-competitive rates, serving as a source of economic growth for both these small-scale miners and the Colombian economy.
Greater formalization also allows more effective government and private-sector interventions to dissuade miners from environmentally harmful practices. For instance, the Mining Federation of Chocó has proposed the creation of a system of local permits that would allow people to pursue small-scale gold mining with monitoring to ensure these processes are mercury free.
Addressing the human security dimension and deeply entrenched ties between illegal mining and criminal networks will be critical (and complementary) for a new regulatory framework to succeed. There are two main components to this security strategy. The first should be to go after existing illegal mines within Colombia, leveraging improved technologies like satellite monitoring and real-time digital reporting to quickly identify and shut down mining sites. This can be especially potent for large-scale, land-based mining operations where heavy machinery is utilized and which cannot be easily replaced if seized or destroyed. During these operations, security forces should be careful to distinguish informal miners from criminal operations and to recognize the tendency of criminal operations to disperse in response to a crackdown in one area.
The second key aspect of a security strategy must improve monitoring along Colombia’s borders. In particular, the extensive and porous border with Venezuela is a major conduit for mineral smuggling, as well as the movement of ELN and FARC dissident troops. Here there is ample opportunity for the United States to partner with the government of Colombia in sharing technical assistance and technology to improve border policing efforts. Along Colombia’s borders with Peru and Brazil, there may be more potential for regional cooperation as these countries have also worked to address illegal mining in recent years.
Finally, while internal efforts can decrease the prevalence of illegal gold mining, a robust multilateral response is needed to tamp down on laundering and smuggling of criminal gold. The United States can help elevate the issue in international fora and bring pressure against countries and corporations that have been complicit in purchasing smuggled gold. International bodies should also review standards and propagate best practices for corporations looking to ensure their gold sources are ethically and legally acquired in the interest of cleaning up supply chains.
Gold mining is essential to the livelihoods of thousands throughout Colombia and, if regulated effectively, can become an industry with great potential. However, doing so requires a sustained, multilateral effort to bring miners engaged in ASM into the formal sector and defeat and dismantle the criminal networks that fill their coffers with gold extracted from coerced, unsafe, and environmentally devastating mining practices.
Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Arianna Kohan is a program coordinator with the CSIS Americas Program. Henry Ziemer is a program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Americas Program.
This commentary is made possible through the generous support of Conservation X Labs.
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