Illegal mining is on the rise in Colombia, and is often operated by criminal groups, according to a study conducted by Colombia’s intelligence agency DAS.
DAS estimated that 50% of the country’s mines are illegal.
According the newspaper El Espectador, the group with the most control over the unlawful mining industry is the leftist guerrilla organization FARC, the study said. The ELN and neo-paramilitary groups are also known to operate mines.
The mines are used to generate cashflow for additional illegal activities, including drug trafficking and terrorism, DAS said.
The problem is most severe in the Bolivar, Guainia, Risaralda, Tolima and Valle departments. The illegal industry’s most heavily excavated minerals are first gold, then silver, coal, coltan and emerald.
DAS urged the government to take action “because it is causing serious consequences for the country in terms of security, economy, environment and social stability.”
In failing to address the proliferation of illegal mines, the Colombian government is forgoing a “strategic asset,” DAS argued. “The country faces a dynamic regional economic impact resulting from mining, which has the potential to become a matter of strategic importance to national development”
Because the mining is carried out outside of the legal parameters for natural resource excavation, operators need not comply with environmental regulations.
The government should therefore “establish a policy to consider the environment… in promotion of a sustainable excavation process that generates resources for communities in mining areas.”
However, shutting down mines creates complications. High unemployment in many regions has led community members to earn a living by working in the illegal mines.
For example, in the eastern department of Guainia, many indigenous communities work for guerrilla groups in exchange for small payments in gold. According to the study, the guerrillas collect a tax of 10% of the communities’ daily production.
DAS cited a recent closure of a FARC-operated mine in the San Romualdo Canyon, in the western Colombian department of Tolima, which left nearly three thousand people homeless.