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Mining in conflict zones: Opening Pandora’s box

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By Jacob Kopas, AIDA

May 22, 2012

Promoters of Latin America’s recent mining boom have long been touting the benefits of their industry: job growth, increased revenues, infrastructure, etc. But peace? Human security?

Photo: Thousands from across Colombia have flocked to mining sites in Antioquia, where armed groups vie for control of operations
Credit: Stephen Ferry for The New York Times

While not in any promotional material, it seems that this is exactly what the Colombian government believes – that allowing industrial mining in conflict zones will improve citizen security. Colombia still suffers from one of the world’s worst situations of internal displacement according to the UNHCRYet over the past decade, Colombia has approved thousands of new mining titles, many of which are in areas under the influence of illegal armed actors.

In other regions of the world, some have argued that increased private sector involvement around conflict zones can help formalize commerce, particularly in the mineral trade, and build stability. However, Colombia’s recent history and the economic opportunism of illegal armed groups point to different conclusions

Reports of illegal armed groups’ involvement in Colombia’s gold trade are already common, and many areas rich with highly profitable minerals overlap with conflict zones. Of the top 25 gold-producing municipalities in Colombia,[1] only four did not present reports of paramilitary activities in the last four years.[2] According to official statistics, 20 of those municipalities also reported over 1,000 displaced persons within the last decade.[3] Despite this, no formal procedure currently exists for verifying the presence of armed actors or dispossessed lands before granting mining rights.

And when mining operations commence in these conflict zones, they are more likely to exacerbate the security situation than improve it.

For communities already facing problems with paramilitary groups or forced displacement, the stakes are very high. Paramilitary, guerrilla, and “emerging” armed actors (re-formed from demobilized groups according to many experts) are repeatedly involved in harassments, threats, assassinations and forced disappearances of peasant leaders.

Colombia’s recent history is rife with reports of paramilitary and guerilla groups extorting, colluding with, or enriching themselves from otherwise lawful businesses. Paramilitary involvement with palm oil plantations in the Chocó region are well documented and have led to a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Even large, multi-national companies are not immune. Reports of abuse have lead to ongoing lawsuits against Drummond (coal) and Chiquita (bananas), both accused of knowingly aiding and abetting paramilitary or guerrilla groups. 

In addition, highly profitable and untraceable minerals provide armed groups with an excellent source of funding to continue their illegal activities. Gold is particularly attractive not only for its high price and demand in international markets, but also because it is ideal for laundering profits from drug trafficking

Finally, large-scale mining is notorious for its potential to cause serious and long-lasting environmental and social harms if not properly controlled.  In the best of situations, adequately regulating mining activity is a serious governance challenge. Add paramilitary groups, internal forced displacement, weak state presence, and corruption in government agencies into the mix and you have a recipe for environmental disaster with harsh consequences for human security. This risk is particularly salient for Colombia’s invaluable and highly sensitive ecological resources, such as its biodiverse rainforests and high-mountainpáramo wetlands.

A strong and robust state presence, going beyond simple military control, is necessary to control mining activities. Policy makers in Colombia and other countries with similar security concerns should therefore take a hard look at potential consequences before opening up conflict zones to large-scale mining. At a minimum, regulators and mining companies alike must first guarantee that projects do not involve any area with presence of illegal armed actors or internally displaced communities.

[1] According to data from the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Ingeominas, reported production between 2008-2009.

[2] Paramilitary reports compiled by INDEPAZ. VII Informe sobre presencia de grupos narcoparamilitares en el 2011 (2012).

[3] Statistics are according to Acción Social’s database on reported expulsions from municipalities between 1999 and 2011.


Any opinions expressed in this blog are the authors’ own and may not be shared by the organization. AIDA includes them with full respect for the freedom of expression and plurality of our team of professionals.