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Informal Mining is the Next Big Challenge for Colombia Peace Process

The creation of a land bank that would redistribute FARC-occupied territory as reparations to victims of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict is an important component of the country’s peace accords. Land, after all, was one of the catalysts of the struggle.

The challenge posed by widespread informal mining, then, becomes central to a discussion of how the country moves forward.

Many territories in Colombia are mineral-rich and in danger of being targeted by miners linked to guerrillas and narcotraffickers. So-called “criminal mining” accounts for 80 percent of the country’s gold production and generates revenues equal to that of the drug trade. Criminal mining’s large production implies the use of heavy duty machinery: this is similar to midscale mining companies, but without any kind of safeguards. This type of mining is also linked to pollution, violence and human trafficking.

And criminal mining is only the most violent and immediate part of the problem. It is estimated 220 municipalities in 25 departments see “informal” mining.

Artisanal mining is carried out, in most cases, without permits. This type of mining is deeply linked to the subsistence of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in departments such as Chocó and Guainía. While they make up a relatively minimal portion of the informal sector, these communities deal with the environmental issues and violence left by criminal mining. While it employs impoverished rural migrants, small-scale non-mechanized mining is similar to artisanal mining. Due to a lack of mechanization, productivity levels are low.

Extractive sector actors point to a market solution. Opening the sector to large-scale legal and formal mining, they argue, would allow high-level miners subject to tax from the state to enter. This is the consensus of the Colombian Mining Association union and the Colombian government’s National Mining Agency.

Nevertheless, several populations have already voiced opposition to large-scale mining. In terms of territorial management, the Colombian Constitutional Court has provided a series of rulings that favor subnational governments in extractives decision-making. That’s why Colombian government officials needs to hear out various stakeholders to solve the problem. The people need to be involved and informed. Excluding or ignoring their input would likely mean more extractive industry related conflict.

After the peace accords, informal mining’s challenges require the combined efforts of different levels of government. More spaces for dialogue between companies, communities and the state is essential going forward. The creation of citizen participation mechanisms and training tools on the impacts of formal and informal mining activities are required in this dialogue. A strong decentralization process that encourages local jurisdictions to make territorial arrangements according to their own development objectives would also counterbalance the issue of stakeholder mistrust.

Finally, the peace deal does not mean the end of violence in Colombia, as drug trafficking is still prevalent in many parts of the country. The role played by formal mining in conflict zones, where human rights violations is a constant, also represents a challenge for the sector.

It is precisely for this reason that, last December, the OECD presented a due diligence guide for responsible supply chain management in conflict-affected areas. The guide aims to equip OECD countries with the tools to regulate companies in areas with poor human rights records.

Alonso Hidalgo is a Latin America program assistant at Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).

Latin America