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Project July 14, 2011

Colombian Communities Are Losing Out in Gold Rush


A woman smashes rock to find specks of gold in an artisan mine in La Toma, Cauca. Image by Nadja Drost. Colombia, 2011.

Over the last year, the price of gold has soared to record highs, and Colombia is at the forefront of a global gold rush. A torrent of foreign mining companies has swept in, picking up exploration rights to huge swaths of the country.

But the mining boom here is turning into the newest frontline of Colombia's long-running conflict. Many of the titles obtained by companies overlap areas where small-scale traditional miners have operated for generations, sometimes centuries, and whose livelihoods are now threatened by the incursion of large mining companies. Illegal mining outfits are multiplying across the country, bringing bulldozers and dredging boats anywhere there's gold to be found. Many are tied to illegal armed groups who are also profiting from the gold rush.

The municipality of Suárez, in the southern department of Cauca, is ground zero for the battle over gold and the land where it is buried. Here, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that have practiced traditional mining for centuries vehemently oppose new mining interests on their territory. But they are paying a tremendous price for their resistance.

Since 2009, there have been over 40 assassinations of traditional miners and community leaders in this small pocket of Cauca. Dozens of community mining leaders have received death threats warning them to stop trying to prevent multinational companies from coming in. Add to that, they now face rogue bulldozers advancing across their land. These bulldozers are guarded by armed men who have threatened to kill anyone who challenges them.

This is the story of communities fighting for their livelihood, their environment and their lives against powerful mining companies, the government backing them, and illegal armed groups.