Investigation | 3/13/2009 12:00:00 AM
Stealing gold in the Colombian rainforest
With heavy machinery, a handful of Brazilians are robbing billions of pesos in gold from the town of Río Quito, the poorest town in all of Colombia, located in the Pacific Coast department of Chocó. The illegal mining changed the course of the river, deforested hundreds of hectares and has the town at risk of being washed away.
In little time, this peculiar machinery of some 200 square meters (2,150 square feet) had reproduced. Today there are 27 such monsters that in a swath of some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) along the Quito River are installed at points along the river banks. The pioneer was an older Brazilian man who was known as “Don Marco.” He is no longer there, but in his place new adventurers have arrived with their dredges, mainly from Brazil, who legalized their migratory status by marrying Colombians. Some came from the Colombian departments of Amazonas, Caquetá and from northern Antioquia while others came from Surinam, Bolivia and Peru. They did the same work in all of those places: destroy, pillage and leave.
Each one of these vessels whose cost varies between 500 and 1 billion pesos ($195,000 - $390,000 USD) is equipped with a tube of 10-16 inches in diameter that works as a powerful vacuum. All of the material that is absorbed is passed through some sieves, reducing it to fine grains. When they are removed, diminutive particles of gold appear. It is in essence the same process that locals have used for years, except on a grand scale. While gold panners are able to extract only what a tray and a shovel permit, each one of the dredges each day moves a quantity equal to what 300 trucks could transport. Additionally, in contrast to the locals, the dredgers use mercury in a process to join all of the particles that they fish out that they call a “retorta.”
“Nobody works here unless they extract at least 200 grams (.44 pounds) each day,” says Luciano, in poorly spoken Spanish. He says he extracts about 50 kilos (110 pounds) of gold each year. Therefore this army of 27 dredges each year extracts around a ton of gold, whose value in the market exceeds 100 billion pesos ($39,000,000 USD). Luciano says that the production is declining.
That is how a group of some 12 people per apparatus work, in continuous days of 20 hours. The crew of these vessels powered by diesel motors and equipped with rustic rooms is made up of operators, welders, helpers, a cook, boatmen and brush clearers who clear the jungle along the banks.
“Here you have to pay everyone,” laments Óscar. He is one of the Colombian partners in two dredges, trying to explain that his earnings aren’t so hefty. “The ELN, the FARC, the Águilas Negras paramilitary group and common criminals, we pay everyone,” he says and explains that the person who is most liked by each group is the one charged with negotiating with them. “What financing of illegal armed groups?” he says acting surprised. “Don’t you see that they are the law there?” But it is sure that the money that the dredgers pay strengthens those groups, to the point that not even the Marine infantry dares to enter those places unless it is a big operation.
SEMANA traveled the area and observed the work of 11 of the dredges, concentrated in the El Tigre point and in El Desecho. The cables to stabilize the vessels create a dangerous web that makes navigation difficult. “Now several in the town have cut their heads when they pass by and not seeing those cables,” says a local boatman who accompanied the SEMANA group. It isn’t easy to bypass the dredges. At some points the navigable channel of the river has been reduced by the dredges from 105 meters (345 feet) wide to just 30 (98 feet).
Town in ruins
This is just one of the many worries that the people of Río Quito have. “It hasn’t brought us any good because the people from the dredges don’t hire locals nor do they buy even a pound of rice from us,” says Herlín Mosquera, the mayor who by law should be controlling the problem. “How do they want me to do anything when I only have four trained policemen and 30 high school police trainees?” he asks. He adds that the dredgers pay royalties to legalize what they extract from the town, something that the law allows even if the mining is illegal. The dredgers claim that their gold is extracted in other parts of the country, not from this part of Chocó. Río Quito received in 2007 from royalties 47 million pesos ($18,000 USD) and after the mayor complained to the dredgers, in 2008 the town received 118 million ($46,000 USD). That is a pittance compared with what they extract from their land and contributes to making this the poorest town in the country. Over 98 percent of the population has its basic needs unmet according to the national statistics agency DANE.
Add environmental problems to these serious concerns that the locals are most worried about. The waters here are notably murky compared with the crystal clear rivers that they feed into them. Although there are no studies, local authorities fear that part of the skin problems that the waters produce is a result of the poorly managed mercury of the dredges and of the fuel dumping, as each dredge consumes 340 gallons of diesel each day. It is a devastating outlook for one of the regions that has the most water and biodiversity in the world.
The changes in the course of the river keep the residents awake at night. The dredges leave mountains of gravel, break river banks and devastate the jungles. There are areas that have become like lunar landscapes in the midst of the exuberant green of this part of the natural reserve. In Paimadó the change of the river’s course strengthens the current, which is causing erosion of the banks which protect the town. A few months ago a road of about 10 meters wide was swept away and devastated several homes, which were fortunately empty at the time. Sara Palacio, one of those left homeless, tells how one of the dredges stopped right in front of the town. “Environmental damage?” Says Luciano as he proudly shows the dredge that he operates. “That is a matter for the authorities. It is a question of life. Life is like this,” he says with a startling cynicism. Another of the dredgers, speaking in Quibdó, recognizes that “obviously there is an impact, but neither are we doing away with the planet.”
Aerial images of the region prove how only a narrow natural barrier protects the town from the fury of the river. The mayor’s fear and that of other authorities is that with rising waters, the barrier will give way, and the waters will take the town away, which would be a tragedy for the town’s 8,000 inhabitants.
And nothing happens…
Upstream in the town of El Cantón de San Pablo, the illegal mining has divided the community. In this area are the rest of the dredges that SEMANA wasn’t able to observe. But locals confirmed that they built two more in an improvised shipyard. In this town some community members support the miners because they have been paid two million pesos and a minimum percentage when they install the dredges on their property, something that they see as development. But for the mining authorities there is no doubt of the illegality of this activity. The reason is that the sector where the dredges are located is protected as communal lands for Afro-Colombian communities and in some cases there are also forest reserves. Therefore there is no way that they would authorize licenses for this type of mechanized mining. Even so, several dredgers have submitted applications to Ingeominas, a mining agency.
“You have to admit that this is a problem of great proportions that is beyond our capacity for a response. The Armed Forces doesn’t even go to that area. This has the government overwhelmed,” declares with resignation Héctor Damián Mosquera, director of Codechocó, the head environmental authority in the area, as he shows a folder of acts, resolutions and documents seeking to prove that they have indeed done something.
Nevertheless, a couple of operations together with SIJIN, the judicial police; the DAS, a national security agency; the Police; the Marines or the Army have been undertaken, but when they arrive at the dredges they find them empty or unable to be moved. In the few cases that they found someone, they took away pieces of the dredges so that they could not be moved, but in a few days they were replaced. They can’t be arrested because the waterway police of the nearby town of Turbo gave them permission for navigation. Also, the crime of illegal exploitation of resources is not punishable with jail, and they don’t have anywhere to leave the dredges if they take them to Quibdó.
Just in January of this year they placed fines on six dredges for amounts of around 23 million pesos ($9,000 USD). “We have difficulties in locating the owners and notifying them of the sanctions,” says an official, somewhat surprised that this magazine did not have any trouble finding a dozen of those Brazilians in a popular restaurant where they have their center of operations in Quibdó, on the same corner as the police.
It’s not easy to explain the reluctance of authorities in making the dredgers obey the law. A precedent that took place just 15 days ago that is being investigated could be part of the answer. In an operation of the Gaula anti-kidnapping agency, the secretary general of Codechocó was arrested. He was the person charged with placing sanctions on the dredgers, but was found with 50 million pesos ($19.5 thousand USD) in cash that a dredger had given him. But his office colleagues support him and say that it was a set up to smear the entity.
Meanwhile the dredgers respond with sarcasm, confident that nobody will touch them. In a statement defending them from a fine, the lawyer of one of the Brazilians argues “the good faith of his client, because as a foreigner he did not know that what he was doing was illegal.” Another of them commented that a key person in Bogotá had advised them that an operation against them was forthcoming, and they were already prepared.
The actions of the central government authorities don’t seem to be much different. In August 2007, the ministers of mines and of the environment, the prosecutor general, the solicitor general and the director of Ingeominas signed an agreement to work together in order to eradicate illegal mining exploitations. In Bogotá there have been meetings in the offices of ministers and some of them have spoken out about the issue in the media. But between agreements, meetings and weak sanctions to date, any possibility of truly solving the environmental tragedy that is being experienced in the heart of Chocó and ending the drama of the people of Río Quito has failed.
This part of the country is subject to the good will of a few unscrupulous people while the government pursues them in a timid way and in many cases even naively. Meanwhile the residents of Río Quito see the drama of their town advancing without anybody doing anything. They have already lost their peaceful traditional lives of fishing and gold panning in the river that today threatens them. As Isabel says, the men will go seek their fortune in coca and the women will seek work as maids in some big city.