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Antioquia’s Big Mining Problems, Possible Solutions Detailed in New Study

Published in Colombian economy Written by  September 29 2015 font size decrease font size increase font size 1
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The Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) and the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) on September 24 released the Spanish-language edition of a new study detailing big problems in Antioquia’s mining industry – along with possible remedies.

The list of problems is long, as mining in Antioquia (and Colombia generally) far too often has been plagued by environmental destruction, violence, chaos, land invasions, lack of effective government regulation, lack of labor protections, tax/royalty evasions, conflicts between artisanal and small scale miners (ASM) and large-scale miners (LSM), and the intromission of guerrilla and “paramilitary” gangs, the study shows.

(Note: An English-language version of the study is available here).

Small-scale mining (ASM) now represents 72% of all mining in Colombia, while 63% of all mining is classified as “informal,” meaning that these mines lack any legal title, according to the study, authored by University of Antioquia researcher Cristina Echavarria.

More than 340,000 Colombians earn their living from mining – but in most cases, without any legal title, organization, training, environmental protection or labor rights, the study shows.

In contrast, highly regulated, large-scale mining (LSM) accounts for just 1% of Colombia’s total mining operations.

While successive Colombian governments have attempted numerous schemes to “formalize” ASM – mainly in order to reduce environmental damage including mercury poisoning and destruction of riverine habitats, as well as to curb violent guerrilla and “paramilitary” gangs – these efforts have fallen short, the study shows.

However, a recent regulation (enacted in 2013) is starting to show promise as a possible way forward for curbing violence, environmental destructing and illegal, unregulated mining, according to the study.

This new regulation might be especially useful if the government and the FARC narco-terrorist guerrillas reach a promised “peace” agreement next year -- which might prompt some guerrillas to switch to “legalized” mining instead of illegal drug-trafficking, illegal mining and extortion, according to the study.

On a parallel front, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid agencies have been trying to promote ASM “formalization” via the “oro verde”  (“green gold”) initiative as well as the “BioREDD” program, the latter supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the study shows.

The “BioREDD” program “supports government formalization programs through legal and technical assistance, in partnership with LSM,” according to the study.

“The program includes economic diversification strategies for communities, improvement of areas degraded by mining, and mercury reduction practices with ASGM [artisanal and small gold miners] working inside LSM leases and titles.

“With the support of [Colombia’s] National Occupational Training Service (SENA), BioREDD works through pilot projects in Antioquia, with 70 informal gold processing plants to be merged into a community plant, with a processing capacity of 150 million tonnes,” according to the study.

Formalization pilot-projects “are also being implemented in partnership with the Antioquia government and the School of Mines of the National University of Colombia,” according to the study.

The BioREDD program “aims to reduce the consumption of mercury by between eight and 10 tonnes a year and to restore some 350 hectares of degraded areas.

“Already it is restoring 800 hectares in the Bajo Cauca region [of Antioquia] with native plant species based on profit sharing agreements between private sector forestry companies, smallholders and mining title owners.

“The [BioREDD] model also includes food and honey production projects for local community members, and further plantation of native species to protect local aqueducts, titling of land for smallholders, and housing for female-headed households.

“Mercury consumption has already been reduced drastically through processing ore at industrial plants via operation contracts, and by providing technical support to reduce mercury,” according to the study.

Oro Verde ‘Significant Challenges’

While the intent of the “Oro Verde” project (principally in the Choco region) is noble,  “Oro Verde had to compete with criminal bands as a mining model for Afro-Colombian territories, under a serious humanitarian crisis caused by armed groups vying for social and territorial control,” according to the study.

“The very small volumes of gold and platinum produced by the alluvial artisanal mines of Chocó make economies of scale difficult to achieve without mechanization, while costs and security are real barriers for delivery of training and support.

“In addition, criminal groups who launder illegal capital often pay more than the Oro Verde price to the miners, creating a price competition that reduces the supply of Oro Verde products for international ethical markets.

“[O]ver the past few years mechanized alluvial mining has mined out the river terraces where traditional Oro Verde miners extract their produce. Many Oro Verde miners have had to turn to mechanization, or to joint ventures with foreign investors, as the only way to obtain a livelihood,” the study added.

‘Fairmined’ Certification

On a parallel front, the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) -- founded in 2004 to work for the sustainable development of ASM via a worldwide network of miners, experts and other partners – also is trying to help “formalize” small-scale mining.

“ARM created the Fairmined standard in 2006 (originally known as Standard Zero for
ASGM) as an incentive for the formalization and transformation of ASM. The standard is
independently audited and certified by a third party, the Institute for Marketecology (IMO),” according to the study.

“Fairmined ensures transparency and traceability from mine to market. Four incentives encourage miners to work towards certification:
1. “Access to international ethical markets as independently certified Fairmined gold, platinum or silver;
2. “Fairmined premium paid to artisanal and small-scale mining organizations (ASMOs). Decisions regarding investment of the Fairmined premium must be made democratically;
3. “Access to mentoring, training, support and experience sharing with other miners;
4. “Legitimacy and pride in being a miner,” according to the study.

Regulatory Pathway

As for what the Colombian government can do now to help “formalize” ASM, the study urges the government to “tie legalization of mining titles to specific commitments by miners to progressively formalize legal/organizational, technical, labor, environmental and commercial aspects of their operations.

“The application of simplified mining environmental guides is a step in the right direction,” according to the study.

In addition, the government should “properly train inspectors to understand the progressive nature of formalization, and enable the continuous improvement of standards in the ASM sector by following up non-compliance with training and support programs,” according to the study.

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Peter John Rogers October 02 2015 posted by Peter John Rogers

    I read with interest your article about the continuing efforts to bring small scale mining in Antioquia under some sort of control.

    The benefit of this of course would be to eradicate the use of mercury and the tremendous damage done to watercourses and vegetation as that element readily combines with organic matter - including that found in humans.

    As a sometime observer and geologist engaged in Colombia I have also read about the various initiatives you detail that have had little or no effect.

    The Au [gold] in Colombia is mostly fine grained - except in alluvial deposits where a lot of sediment is stirred in a river that is catastrophic for aquatic life as well.

    The mercury is used to extract this fine grained Au and is mostly burnt off during the processing - this airborne element not only gets into the lungs of the workers but can also adhere to plant surfaces.

    As you rightly assert security must return to Colombia and along with that some element of land reform - the drug trade will continue but hopefully Au mining can displace the lure of fast money.

    Replacing this important source of income will not be easy and the idea of communal plants is the most viable solution.

    Most commercial plants now offer Au recovery using sealed cyanide based reactors that will recover the fine grained Au but also increase the % - thereby increasing wealth. Problem is the lobby mentioned would also be against the use of cyanide - it also is used in an uncontrolled manner in many places.

    I suggest that an agency of government should be set up to provide capital for these small mobile mills, provide agreed grade estimates and buy the Au for additional export for refining.

    Saludos

    Dr. Peter John Rogers, Consulting Geologist and Geochemist, Nova Scotia, Canada

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