According to the report, illegal mining has contaminated water sources in the northern department of Cordoba including the San Jorge River with high levels of mercury.
Mining has devastated the environment throughout the country, but particularly in the northern departments of Antioquia, Sucre and Cordoba. Colombia releases 130 tons of mercury annually, making it the world’s highest per capita mercury polluter from artisanal gold mining, according to a study led by UN mining advisor Marcello Veiga.
According to Sandra Bessudo, Minister for Biodiversity, it would cost around $10.8 billion and take anywhere from 25 to 40 years to repair the environmental damage caused by the deforestation and contamination of mining sites.
Miners use liquid mercury to separate gold from river sediments, a process during which a very toxic compound, mercury-cyanide, is formed and then dumped into local creeks. According to the Environmental Police, every gram of extracted gold requires two grams of mercury, about 80% of which is discarded with other excess waste.
Mercury is a heavy metal that is harmful when inhaled, ingested or touched. Mercury poisoning is transmittable from mother to fetus and can damage the brain and central nervous system.
“In this region you are already seeing deformed newborns, which is directly linked with the presence of mercury in wetlands that are important to our biodiversity,” said Colombian president Juan Manual Santos.
The illegal mines do not adhere to the worker safety regulations or environmental protection protocol that the government requires of legal mining sites, resulting in hazardous working conditions.
Apart from environmental concerns, illegal gold mining has far-reaching political implications as the practice has become a lucrative source of income for several illegal armed groups.
President Santos has referred to illegal mining as “a cancer that must be removed,” and as a “criminal practice that has not only generated pressures and extortion for legal miners, but that has also caused disastrous damage to our environment.”
The Santos Administrated has made 295 arrests for illicit exploitation of mineral deposits this year alone, as part of a larger program targeting illegal mining.