The thick mud of Colombia’s Chocó Department still yields gold even though it has been mined since African slaves were first forced to dig up the rainforest floor 500 years ago. Today their ancestors mine sites that were worked over long ago but still produce gold thanks to better exploration and processing techniques introduced by CIRDI.
CIRDI began its Chocó project by listening to small-scale miners and their stakeholders to find out what they wanted. Real consultation led to the miners telling CIRDI’s geologists and engineers what technical assistance they needed to solve their production problems.
In the Chocó CIRDI walks a fine line of neutrality in a volatile area that can only be reached by boat up tributaries of the Atrato River. The river is a transportation lifeline that flows through dense rainforest to its delta on the Caribbean coast. CIRDI carries out its field work here at the pleasure of FARC, the former rebel army that used to control the jungle before it gave up its arms in a 2016 peace deal.
CIRDI’s mission to transform small-scale mining here began at the invitation of the Colombian Ministry of Environment as an uneasy peace settled over the region.
“This is CIRDI’s first project in a post-conflict area,” explains Mike Ellerbeck, CIRDI’s Associate Director for Programs. “We’re giving technical assistance, but a key part of our work involves building relationships between opposing communities.”
Legal mining protects old growth rainforest
The community and the miners want to legalize gold mining operations in the Chocó, leading to greater supply chain transparency that could attract higher gold prices for the miners.
CIRDI, along with UNIDO and Colombia’s Ministry of Environment, is providing support to legalize gold mining operations. Despite the lack of permits, mining in the area is well organized and provides a good foundation for considerable improvement.
In Colombia, the government makes no distinction between large- and small-scale miners when it comes to issuing permits. For small operators, the process can be daunting and expensive. Most forego it, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Although the Chocó is Columbia’s second largest gold producing region, the standard of living is the lowest in the country. Legalizing gold mining operations should improve the quality of life for small-scale miners. Operating illegally makes it impossible to get backing from a bank for investment in better, safer equipment.
“Lowering poverty is just one of the many positive outcomes of formalization,” says Mike. “We can increase the amount of gold recovered in the refining process. Old growth rainforest won’t be destroyed because previously mined areas will be re-mined rather than work taking place in the virgin jungle.”
CIRDI is introducing production techniques and technology that could improve yields, while better geology and exploration can reduce environmental damage.
Small-scale mining in the Chocó is not limited to pans and shovels. Heavy machinery is also used to dig down to 25 metres or more in search of gold. The extracted soil is run through graders with jets of water.
“Just 30 years ago gold miners in the Yukon used many similar techniques and tools to the Chocó’s miners,” Mike says. “The small-scale miners of the Chocó are very eager to learn more about how their Canadian counterparts moved to more efficient and less environmentally harmful methods.”
With the project’s completion in sight at the end of 2018, CIRDI is working with Colombia’s National Learning Service to share the lessons we’ve picked up in the Chocó. “Mining is poorly regarded and we’re trying to change that narrative,” says Mike. “CIRDI has developed a lesson plan for elementary school students that presents small-scale mining as a legitimate way to earn a living that provides opportunities.”