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Story Publication logo September 22, 2011

Colombia: Down in the Dark


A miner in Colombia. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, 2010.

The government in Colombia has to choose between guarding its unique ecosystems or boosting its...

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Under a small icon of Jesus, surrounded by his seven children, Floresmiro Olaya gulps down a breakfast of potato broth and hot chocolate. He's going back to work today, barely six weeks after a coal mine explosion high up in the Andes mountains of Colombia killed his brother and four friends and left him the lone survivor. When she heard about the accident, Floresmiro's then-pregnant wife, Estelle, went into shock and gave birth prematurely. The infant, who has not yet been named, is lying on a blanket on his parents' bed. He lets out a wail. Floresmiro's oldest child, Michael, picks him up. The father watches.

"The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was to ask God to protect me," he tells us.

Floresmiro is a jovial 34-year-old, nearly six feet tall, with round, freckled cheeks. Today he's dressed in grey overalls, jeans jacket, and yellow rubber boots with newspapers wrapped around his feet instead of socks. All the miners wear newspapers around their feet, which they change during lunch break, to keep their feet dry. As we walk out into the cold, misty spring morning, he talks about the accident at the La Escondida mine near the small town of Sutatausa in Cundinamarca district. With every day that passes he remembers new details about the February tragedy.

Floresmiro was halfway down the mine when the blast occurred and the impact threw him clear of the mineshaft. Mine inspectors later said that the explosion was caused by accumulated gases. The molehill-like mine, one of several illegal mines that pockmark the Peñas del Boquerón mountainside, lacked proper ventilation, collapse shelters, and other safety precautions. Floresmiro says it had never been inspected before the accident.

After the explosion blocked the entrance to the mine, locals heard a bell ringing inside, the same one that miners use to signal that the coal cart is loaded and ready to be pulled up the mine shaft. There were survivors down there. Floresmiro imagines it was his brother pulling the string. He imagines him surrounded by dead comrades, slowly suffocating in the darkness.

The rescue team turned up two hours later. The "rescuers" didn't have adequate equipment to dig through the rubble. "People here say they came to fetch the dead, not to save the wounded," Floresmiro says. "In the hours it took them to get here, lives could have been saved."

Floresmiro is one of the rare survivors of such lethal accidents. He was hospitalized for several weeks with burns across his chest, headaches, and numbness. Every day, his wife came to comfort him as he wept over the loss of his brother and friends.

When we accompany Floresmiro to the cemetery in Sutatausa where three of the five killed in the La Escondida blast are buried, he's visibly moved. The victims lie next to each other in a vertical shelving system that resembles a beehive. Their names and dates are hand-painted on the cement – awaiting a time when the families can afford a stone plaque. It's the first time Floresmiro has been to the cemetery since the accident. He had visited Sutatausa twice earlier, but couldn't bring himself to come see the graves.

"It hurt so much and sometimes I think that when five could die, why not six?" he says. "It would be better not to wake up to this reality but to have gone with them. I pray to God for my children…. And thank God after all for being alive and to have been given a second chance."

Actually, the La Escondida accident wasn't Floresmiro's first brush with death. Five years ago he survived a similar explosion and lost another brother in a mining accident.

The fact is, mining accidents like these are increasingly common in Colombia these days.

Little Oversight

As the price of coal and minerals soars, the Colombian mining industry has been digging deeper and faster to bring cheap energy to world markets, especially the US and China. Between 2002 and 2010, areas with mining titles skyrocketed from 2.8 million acres to 21 million, according to government figures. Today, Colombia is South America's largest exporter of coal. The rock comprises 25 percent of the country's exports, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has put mining at the heart of the country's economic strategy. However, Colombia still lacks clear legal frameworks and well-financed environmental institutions to monitor and regulate an industry that can pose lethal risks to workers, neighboring communities, and the environment.

Although the nation's mining industry is dominated by big multinationals with massive strip-mining operations in the north of the country, Columbia also has many small-scale, largely unregulated mines scattered in the western and eastern mountain chains. In these mines, coal is extracted from shafts up to 600 meters deep. The mines operate with few safeguards or equipment to measure the accumulation of explosive gases underground. Which means miners like Floresmiro work under extremely dangerous, and often deadly, conditions.

Last year, 173 miners were killed in 80 mining accidents – three times more than the year before. In the country's worst mining tragedy in recent years, an explosion at the San Fernando mine in the northwestern town of Amaga in June 2010 trapped 163 miners underground and resulted in the death of 73 men. Following the tragedy, then-president Alvaro Uribe announced immediate mining sector reforms.

But little changed in the following months. Accidents continued. The February 2011 Sutatausa blast in which Floresmiro lost his brother occurred a mere week after another methane-explosion killed 21 miners in a coal mine in Sardinata in northeast Colombia. And more recently, on June 13, five miners, including a pregnant woman, died when a gold mine collapsed in Lopez de Micay, Cauca, in southwest Colombia. So far this year, at least 37 miners have died in accidents, according to official figures.

Again, the government – a new one this time, run by President Santos – expressed outrage. In February, it announced "strict measures" to ensure safety in the mines. The reforms were to take effect immediately. But progress has been slow due to the country's obsolete, ill-equipped, and often corrupt mining and environmental institutions.

At the time of the Sutatausa accident, only 16 government inspectors (and some other 50 outsourced personnel) were in charge of safety enforcement at the more than 6,000 mines throughout Colombia. This figure counts only the legal mines that report to Ingeominas, the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, which is in charge of overseeing safety regulations and granting mining titles. The government estimates that another 3,000 illegal mines are scattered in 18 of the country's 32 provinces.

Since February, mining authorities claim to have inspected 524 mines in three provinces. The inspectors reported that 73 percent of the mines were operating under unsafe conditions. They shut down 303 mines temporarily and permanently closed 21.

Meanwhile, Ingeominas is embroiled in its own corruption scandal involving its approval of mining concessions. In June, press reports revealed corruption rings within Ingeominas that had led to a "feast" of mining licenses being granted to individuals and multinational companies without the mandatory requirements being met. The mining fever spawned a black market for these titles, which were being sold at exorbitant prices to big investors and mining companies. A recent article in El Tiempo, the national newspaper, identified the "czars of mining titles" – a couple who have been granted, in record time, 12 mining titles that they have already sold to third parties. They are now requesting 500 more titles. Some of these mine titles can be sold for $100 million.

More than 20 public officials, including former Ingeominas director Mario Ballesteros, are being investigated by the Colombian attorney general.

President Santos, who has been severely critical of Ingeominas, is proposing setting up a new mining-regulatory agency. The hope is that the new agency will look into both mining safety and environmental threats posed by this rapidly expanding industry.

But while a new mining body might help better regulate big, multinational mining companies, overseeing small-scale mines is going to be much tougher.

Part of the problem is that small-scale mining, or what some experts call "folk-mining," is a colonial era heritage in Colombia. During the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries, the area that is now Colombia supplied most of the gold produced in the Spanish colonies. And most of this gold was extracted from small mines by peasant miners.

For many villagers in the Colombian countryside, this kind of mining is a traditional occupation handed down from father to son. The growing demand for minerals and poor miners' need for income (Floresmiro earns about $60 a day, six times more than the minimum wage), have led to a proliferation of these small mines, making them especially difficult to regulate. For every illegal mine that's closed down, another pops up elsewhere.

Another danger is the increasing involvement of armed rebel groups that are moving from the country's contested coca fields to exploiting gold, platinum, and rare earth minerals to finance their activities. It has become difficult to tell small-scale miners moved by need from those attracted by greed and violence. The government is attempting to tackle this by involving the police and the army in monitoring the mines, which, in turn, is provoking unrest in many mining regions.

In January, more than 5,000 peasants marched to the town of Anorí, Antioquia, to protest military operations against gold mining and coca cultivation. In neighboring countries – such as Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador – a similar policy has led to violent clashes between miners and police squads. Sending in the troops has not been a smart way to build confidence with local mining communities.

Back Down Under

Back in Sutatausa, Floresmiro has no choice but to take up mining again. He has a family to feed. The only other job he can get is with a local flower company that would pay him $10.50 a day.

Floresmiro hopes that his children will find a different career. But to be a miner is a sort of family inheritance in this region. Floresmiro was eight when he went into the mines with his father, Guillermo, who's now in his eighties. The old man is proud to have worked most of the 100 or so mines that started here in his lifetime. "I have worked in these mines from when I got my teeth and until I lost them," he likes to say. Floresmiro will probably tread the same path. And it seems his kids are following his footsteps too. The mines are their playgrounds. Every afternoon after school, they tour nearby mineshafts to fill bags with coal and bring some back home to heat their stove.

The Escondida mine was shut down after the accident. So Floresmiro's friends have helped him line up a new job at a bigger mine called La Fortaleza (The Fortress) further down the mountain. He's going to work as a "door builder" – the person in charge of securing the mine's internal structure. The mine is "legal" in the sense that the mine owner has a "permit" from Ingeominas, but doesn't have all the paperwork in order to operate legally. With some difficulty, we have been allowed to accompany Floresmiro on his first trip into the mine.

On our way to Floresmiro's new gig, we pass the abandoned La Escondida and several adjacent mines that have also been shut down.

The landscape here has changed radically since his childhood, Floresmiro tells us. Where there are now piles of coal, there used to be fields of wheat, rye, potato, and corn. The mines are taking over the countryside. It saddens him that he has to go to the market in town to pick up the food that once grew right outside his family's house. "All of these small mines are being replaced by larger mines," Floresmiro says. Along with the larger mines come lower wages and harder labor and more environmental destruction. "In them there is more exploitation," he says.

At La Fortaleza, everyone is wearing brand new safety equipment – helmets, overalls, gloves, and boots. The miners tell us that the equipment has been lying around for a while, but has been put to use in our honor. Jexcenia Corredor, a young, female security officer, makes sure that everyone signs for the equipment and reminds the miners to follow security rules. It's around 11 a.m. The previous shift, which started working at 7 a.m., has left for lunch.

We approach the 40-year-old shaft that runs 400 meters deep into the mountain. Floresmiro leans against the entrance and takes a deep breath. Corredor is already four meters into the mine. She turns and squints towards Floresmiro, who is still standing at the opening, summoning his courage.

"Are you afraid?" she asks.

"No, not scared, but you must understand that it is hard to come back," he replies. It's especially hard because Floresmiro feels guilty. He thinks others resent him for having survived the blast that killed their loved ones. He crosses himself and begins descending into the depths. We follow, walking along the rail tracks that carry the coal carts. Soon we can no longer see the opening to the outside.

As we go deeper, the shaft gets narrower. Our helmets often hit the low ceiling of the tunnel, which is just big enough for the coal cart to pass through. In some places, the wood from the supporting arches seems rotten; elsewhere arches are missing altogether. "These poles needs to be replaced," Floresmiro tells Corredor, knocking on them to test their stability. Fortunately the mountain is solid and the stone supports the mine for now.

It is humid. Floresmiro pats the stone on the sides of the shaft. When his headlight hits the rock, the coal reflects a cold, white light. Soon the air becomes thinner and colder. We sit down for a moment, some 300 meters deep into the mountain. "How much oxygen is here?" Floresmiro asks. Corredor shows him the measuring instrument. It displays: 20.8. "There you see, there is plenty," he says with a smile.

We descend to the very bottom of the pit where one of the miners, Dario Castiblanco, is at work crumbling the rock with his pick. Castiblanco also lost a brother in the La Escondida accident, and has not seen Floresmiro since then. Floresmiro greets him: "I'm really sorry, my brother. It is hard to bear." Castiblanco nods. The men put their arms around each other.


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