Story

Colombia's Mining Boom

September 15, 2011|

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Between 2002 and 2010, areas with mining licenses in Colombia skyrocketed from 2.8 million hectares to 21 million, according to government figures. New mines have been set up in areas that were used for food production. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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The gold and coal rush is affecting the páramos, a unique highland ecosystem of the Andes, described by some as a "water factory." Its sponge-like soil and particular vegetation capture water in the rainy season, acting as a natural buffer against floods. During the dry season, the páramos release water into hundreds of small creeks that feed crops and reservoirs. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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The safety of miners is becoming an issue of growing concern. In 2010, 173 miners were killed in 80 mining accidents—three times more than the year before. Here, a group of miners takes a rest on a pile of coal in Cundinamarca. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Floresmiro Olaya, the only survivor of a deadly explosion in a small-scale illegal coal mine in Sutatausa on March 30, 2011, visits the graves of his brother and five more who suffocated inside the mine. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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At the time of the Sutatausa accident, just 16 government inspectors (and some other 50 outsourced personnel) were in charge of safety enforcement for more than 6,000 mines throughout Colombia. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Miners are devoted to the Virgin Mary, whom they hope will keep them safe. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Most accidents in underground coal mines are caused by methane build-up. La Fortaleza in Sutatausa is one of the rare small-scale mines where a multi-gas detector is used. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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The government’s announcement that it would shut down illegal “folk mines” has prompted social unrest. “I have worked in these mines from when I got my teeth and until I lost them,” says Guillermo Olaya, 82, (center with white hat). Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Coal is not a crucial part of Colombia's energy diet. Seventy percent of Colombia´s energy comes from hydropower plants. Other energy alternatives are being tested in the Jepirachi Eolic Park, in the windy desert of Guajira. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Floresmiro Olaya supports his wife, seven children and three dogs. As a coal miner in Sutatausa, he earns about $60 a day, six times more than the official minimum wage in Colombia, which is about $10.50 a day. This is what he would make if he worked for a flower grower, the only other job available in the area. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Moon-like landscapes like this one in Tadó are common in the Chocó region, one of Colombia’s otherwise richest provinces in water and rainforest. A confidential government document states that in Chocó alone there are some 500,000 acres in the hands of illegal gold miners, who are known to use chainsaws, mercury and cyanide. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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With gold prices soaring, newcomers from all over the country get into the business every day. Miners are digging harder and deeper than ever before to grab even the scraps left by excavators, as in this mine in Tadó, Chocó. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Gold has been extracted from Chocó since Spanish colonial times. A low-tech practice—heating the gold bits to separate them from impurities and toxic chemicals (mercury and cyanide)—threatens the health of miners. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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A young miner from the Green Gold Corporation in Tadó, Colombia, shows the bits of gold she gathered after an entire day of physical work in her family's small-scale mine. She is part of a pioneering environment-friendly mining project that in 2010 received the SEED award from United Nations. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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The work in a “Green Gold” mine involves the whole family. Americo Mosquera’s children help their parents with small tasks like carrying the food to the mine. "You start by playing and then you gradually learn the work at the mine,” says Mosquera. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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With its 69,000 hectares, Cerrejon, in the north of Colombia, is the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. The output of the mine in 2009 was 30.3 million tons, almost half of Colombia's coal exports of 73.1 million tons, mainly to the U.S and China. Colombia is Latin America’s main coal producer and fourth globally. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

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Huge trucks transport the coal extracted from Cerrejon mine to the 93-mile rail line that connects the mine to its coal-loading terminal at Puerto Bolívar on the Caribbean coast. Each 128-car train carries 12,000 tons of coal per trip in a 24/7 operation. Image by Lorenzo Morales. Colombia, 2011.

Colombia is experiencing a sudden boom in mining. The massive exploitation of coal, gold, oil and other minerals and fossil fuels is spurring economic growth but challenging the government’s ability to protect the country’s fragile environment and the communities that depend on it. From the world biggest open-pit coal mine on the north coast to the gold mines in the rainforests and the coal mines atop the Andes, this photo essay documents various aspects of Colombia’s transformation.