Colombian “gold rush” funds conflict, threatens environment

As the price of gold climbs to $1,441 an ounce, new illegal mines are springing up across Colombia, helping fund the armed conflict and damaging the environment, the New York Times reported March 4. Colombia’s largest guerilla group, the FARC, have taken up the illegal mining of gold to finance their armed conflict with the state, President Juan Manuel Santos said in January. Their paramilitary adversaries have been swept up in the “gold rush” as well. Competition over the gold trade between two so-called “neo-paramilitary” gangs, the Urabeños and Rastrojos, has led to a homicide wave in the town of Caucasia in the north of Antioquia department (Bajo Cauca region).

“These groups are metamorphosing to take advantage of the opportunities they see,” said Jeremy McDermott, a director InSight Crime, a research organization that focuses on criminal enterprises in Latin America. “They know there’s a huge new revenue stream within their grasp, and they’re grabbing it.”

Colombian military officials say that new factors—including the success of coca eradication efforts—have helped spur the gold rush, which has had devastating effects on the environment. About 30,000 outlaw miners use mercury to separate the gold from river sediments, causing an estimated 67 tons of the toxic substance to be released onto the land every year, according to United Nations researchers. “Colombia has the shameful first position as the world’s largest per capita mercury polluter from artisanal gold mining,” said Marcello Veiga, a mining engineer who led a UN study of mercury contamination in Antioquia. Large sections of rainforest in the western department of ChocĂł are being destroyed by illegal miners, researchers say. In recent weeks Santos has ordered raids on more than 50 illegal mines. (Colombia Reports, March 4)

See our last posts on Colombia. A crackdown on outlaw gold operations recently led to deadly unrest in neighboring Peru.

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