It was like any other day in the past 40 years that Martín Palacios has spent panning for gold in northeastern Colombia.
That is, until 15 police officers showed up.
Palacios managed to run away, but police arrested about 80 other miners who were working without a mining license.
The raid, which happened earlier this year, was yet another by police who have been cracking down on illegal mines that are mushrooming amidst a gold rush. The miners have been caught in the middle, squeezed by both armed groups who want their earnings, and major companies snapping up mining rights.
“If there’s space for multinational mining companies, there should be space for us too,” said Palacios, pointing out that traditional miners like him have been part of the social and economic fabric of hundreds of communities across the country.
Palacios in many ways is the new, but overlooked, face of Colombia’s gold rush, triggered by ever-rising gold prices, and a government eager to make mining a pillar of its economy.
Since 2002, the government has handed out about 8,000 mining titles, up from just under a thousand a decade ago. That’s brought in a torrent of national and foreign mining companies, which now hold mining rights to nearly 12 million acres.
But many of the companies’ concessions overlap with areas where small-scale miners like Palacios have mined for generations but never obtained licenses. Now, they stand to lose one of the few sources of income they have in the region. The dispute has paved the way to a David-and-Goliath battle for the wealth that could lead to more unrest in an already volatile region.
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