Gold is booming in Colombia and the government has given companies the rights to mine millions of hectares of land. But traditional miners say the land they've worked for generations is being given away unfairly.
Upstream from the gritty town of Nechi in northeastern Colombia, the river opens up to reveal a landscape under rapid transformation. Plot after plot of land flanking the riverbank is marked with signs warning they are the private property of Mineros S.A., one of Colombia's biggest mining companies.
The company's dredging boats suck up the river bottom to find gold, transforming the river's tributaries into sheets of grey silt. Further upstream, excavators crash their way through the forest, their giant arms swinging above the heads of sun-scorched men and women panning for gold.
A gold rush has hit Colombia. The boom was set off by record-high gold prices, but also by a government eager to make mining a cornerstone of its economy. Between 2002 and 2010, the government handed out 7,500 mining titles. As a result, national and foreign mining companies have snatched up mining rights to more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) across Colombia.
Many of these mining concessions, however, overlap areas where local communities have been carrying out traditional or subsistence forms of mining for generations. These people now find companies at their doorstep claiming mining rights to that same land, setting the stage for a David versus Goliath-like battle between small-scale miners and mining companies backed by the government.
"The mineral conflict that we'll have throughout the length and width of the country will be very, very big," said Alvaro Pardo, who leads Colombia Punto Medio, a think-tank on mining and is the former director of mines at the country's ministry for mines and energy.
More recently, the number of unlicensed medium-scale mining outfits - often consisting of little more than a few excavators digging up riverbanks - has surged in gold-rich areas like this one as a result of the precious metal's sky-high prices. Their proliferation alarms the government because they are often forced to pay an extortion tax to armed groups, including the FARC rebel group and drug-traffickers, that control parts of the region.
To stem the flow of gold profits into the hands of criminal groups, the government has declared shutting down these illegal mining operations a priority. Police raids to arrest miners have become frequent. But traditional miners - who are also considered illegal by the government because they don't usually hold formal mining titles - say they are wrongly being thrown into the same lot as rogue operations with criminal links.
"They've labeled us as illegal, when really we are traditional miners," said Mauricio Sanchez of AHERAMIGUA, a local association of traditional miners of the Guamaco region.
Small-scale miners accuse the government of waging an assault on them in order to clear the way for industrial mining companies. Informal miners face the risk of eviction, as mining companies claim their rights and trigger eviction orders. The obligation to force any miners without mining title off a company's concession often falls on local governments. It's a responsibility the local officials are often loath to carry out in towns where the majority of the population relies on mining.
Alfinger Tapia, an official in charge of mining and environmental issues for the municipality of Nechi, says local officials have been put in the middle of the conflict: "If we close the mine, the community comes down on us. And if we don't close it, the law comes down on us."
A freeze on mining titles
Also of concern are the longer-term impacts to the region, which is burdened with high levels of poverty and few job opportunities.
"We are attending to a social crisis here today," said Jairo Alvarez of the mayor's office in El Bagre. "Because if miners aren't allowed to do their work, no municipality will be able to provide for the needs of the people and attend to the displacement the mining will cause."
Last May, an investigation carried out by the Colombian government into Ingeominas, the state agency in charge of distributing mining titles, revealed widespread corruption and a host of irregularities, including the granting of mining titles in national parks or on top of already existing concessions.
The government then announced that the years of the "mining title piñata" - its own term for the seemingly unmitigated fashion in which thousands of titles were given out - were over. It froze nearly 20,000 applications for mining titles that, if granted, would cover almost 20 percent of the country.
Gold promises Colombia wealth, but even the government says the mining titles weren't handed out properly
Small- and medium-scale miner associations accuse the government of giving away the right to mine large swaths of territory to mining companies - many of them foreign - at the expense of their livelihood.
The associations claim traditional miners have been trying to win mining titles for years without success. They accuse the government of making it nearly impossible for them to legalize, with demands for environmental management plans and geographic surveys, for example, from miners often earning only subsistence wages.
Ingeominas declined to be interviewed on the topic.
For many informal miners it's simply too late to legalize now. "It worries us that we are denied legalization because we're on the title of a multinational company," said William Castillo of AHERAMIGUA who mines on land where a Canadian company now has exploration rights. "And us, being on the land for so many years, they don't permit us a title. That is difficult."
Author: Nadja Drost, Nechi, Colombia
Editor: Holly Fox