“Gold has lost 21 percent this year, erasing $56.4 billion from the value of assets in exchange-traded products backed by the metal. The metal for December delivery fell 1.5 percent to $1,315.40 an ounce at 1:50 p.m. on the Comex in New York”. Bloomsberg, 24 July 2013.Tuesday morning 26 August 2013, I‘m stood by the roadside of Los Colores, an up and coming neighbourhood in central Medellin. Apartments are springing up like fruit trees in this rich terrain. The thrum of traffic and jack hammers is incessant. The city of eternal spring is cosmopolitan and evolving fast.
A thought passes – Santa Fe de Antioquia – the colonial gold town to the north, hot in the Antioquian mountains where the river Cauca flows free and avocadoes grow in the meadows. I hop on the next bus for Santa Fe. It winds up through the barrios of Eastern Medellin to the tunnel cutting through the mountain into campesino country. We pass rocks littered on the road by farmers protesting against the crippling results of FTAs imposed by the Santos government with the USA and EU. The biggest potato producing nation in Latin America and in fact the origin of this staple now must compete with lower priced imports on the international markets. The country is locked down, roads are blocked, miners are striking in Segovia, potato growers in Boyaca, truck drivers nationwide are revolting against fuel price hikes with unparalleled real prices in other markets. The young are incited and violent. There will be blood.
In the back seat of the bus we lurch forward as diesel fumes fill the high Andean air. Beside me a couple are sorting through clothing, I strike up a conversation and discover they are heading to a gold mine where they will sell the clothes to women who work there. From Santa Fe I take a collective to Buritica at the head of the mines.
“Continental Gold (TSE: CNL) shares gained almost 7% on Tuesday after the explorer reported initial drilling results from its Buriticá project in Colombia. In early morning trade the counter was trading at $3.46, up 6.8% and lifting its market value to $431 million on the Toronto big board. Like all juniors in the gold sector 2013 has been brutal for Continental Gold – it is down 61% year to date.” Mining.com, 9 July 2013.
But it is the informal sector whom I am here to visit not the multinational. Word in the jungle is that Gold is making more money for armed actors in Colombia than cocaine. The situation is complex as ever in this country. With unclear rules, Multinationals have the full support of the Colombian government and are protected not only by paramilitaries but by the full military to enforce their stakes on the ground. In Colombia this means human rights violations including disappearances and displacement.
“It is the informal miners, a significant force in Colombia, who are the focus of the armed groups. This July, the informal miners launched protests across the country, provoking road blockades, criminal damage and general mayhem. They are protesting at the rejection in May by the Ministry of Mines and Energy of 90 percent of all applications made to legalize mining operations. Many of these informal mining operations, of which there are at least 9,000 in more than 150 of Colombia’s 1,119 municipalities, have been operating for decades.” Tenacitas, 23 july 2013.
600 informal miners lost their jobs last year when Continental bought up 13,000 hectares of land in Buritica and destroyed 36 tunnels after administrative injunctions requested by the multinational were authorized by the Santos administration in effect removing the rights of informal miners who have operated for up to a hundred years in the region (El Tiempo July 2012). Now Continental has eight drill rigs in place in Buritica and have tested and found gold veins to below 1400 metres. The multinational is set to prosper, but the difference between Continental and the informal sector is marked by the basis of greed. While Continental with it s high tech machinery is set to line the pockets of its share holders overseas, the informal mines here in Buritica employ around 5000 Colombian people, who with pick and shovel are putting food on the tables of thousands more. Let me introduce you to Antonio’s mine.
The mood in San Antonio mine is up beat, very upbeat. As global demand for gold sky rocketed in recent years yields have been growing exponentially. For the hardship of the work, the rewards are well worth it. As prices drop on the international market in 2013, the informal sector with low overheads and a ready work force can capitalise.
John Carlos is 35. He has been a miner for 18 years and is now the administrator of one mine, with up to three hundred people on the payroll. Carlos is renting a house in Santa Fe. He has a new washing machine, stereo, kitchen and bathroom. His three year old daughter’s bedroom is like a Princess’ castle. These are the spoils from the humble life of a now successful informal gold miner. Carlos’ mine is yielding a pound of gold each fortnight. That is a hell of a lot of labour for a small amount of metal. For each 90kg bag of rock carried to the surface a miner is paid 7000COP – enough to buy two or three beers in a bar. The bar may be just a ways above the mine shaft and at the end of the day men drink freely. Money flows here. This is good money, hard work but worth it. Putting in the labour a common wager for a day in the mines is 80,000COP (41USD).
Productivity at Carlos’ mine involves perhaps up to twenty men in the shaft. Drilling, dynamiting and with pick, hammer and chisel extracting rock from the head of the tunnel. It is shovelled into bags, then muled to the surface on their backs. At the entrance to the mine perhaps fifty more people break rocks. Women working with nail varnish on is a stark contrast to the sweat and muscle at work with metal hand tools in the dark.
From being broken and bagged up, the raw material is shouldered up the mountainside to be washed and spun. Up slope a village has been created. Shops sell supplies; dynamite, mercury. head lamps and rubber boots. Mule herders operate loads. At the top, by the road side where the biggest washing bays are the raw gold is extracted. It is sold out of San Antonio in this state.
The spirit is up. People are making good money. New shafts can be and are opened anywhere. This prosperity is a win for the miners who tell me that at the multinationals they would only earn 20,000COP per day. As usual I was touched by the humble nature of the people. Hardworking people with limited civil rights will always gain elusiveworld’s favor. At first I had been concerned that I was entering paramilitary controlled mines alone, my face was smiling but my eyes were wide open, ready for that moment when the lights switch off and you find yourself treading a very insecure line. These guys bought me beers, food, gave me a bed to sleep in, drove me through the hot dark Antioquian mountains for hours by mororcyle, showed me the black earth that glitters and my bag was laden with riches when I left them.