Gold fever has infected the Chocó region, one of the poorest in Colombia. A great opportunity for criminal gangs and paramilitary groups that make a good profit out of this, while the population is struggling to survive. The bishop of Istmina–Tado tries to help these people threatened by poverty and criminality.
Monsignor Julio Hernando Garcia Pelaez, 56, possesses the enviable talent of being able to sleep soundly even on the back seat of a car travelling along a road full of potholes, making passengers bounce around. His ability to relax under any circumstance could explain the strength and constancy he has shown in serving patiently as bishop of Istmina-Tado.
The diocese, in fact, is located in the Chocό region, one of the poorest in Colombia. An area almost completely covered by equatorial forests, where the beauty of nature, clashes with a harsh and violent reality. Criminal gangs and paramilitary armed groups are spreading across the Chocó region. Local populations, made up for the most part by indigenous and Afro-Colombians, live constantly under the threat of arms.
Monsignor Peláez has been bishop since 2010. His diocese covers about 22,000 square kilometers. Catholics are about 181,000, out of 206,000 inhabitants. The bishop is assisted in pastoral work by 68 priests and about 100 diocesans.
When Msgr. Pelaez took office as bishop, he chose just a wooden cross and a gold ring as symbols of his new responsibilities. Precious woods and gold mines are in fact the treasures of the Chocó region. “It may seem absurd, but its valuable possessions are the country’s main problem”, the bishop explains to us, during a trip to Novita, where he is going to visit a gold mine. “There is no other place in the world where gold can affect the Church’s work to this extent”.
Evilio Asprilla Martinez, the owner of the ‘Inversiones Martinez’ mine in Novita, welcomes the bishop. Engineer William Palacios and some workers are there too.
Thirty six miners have been working in the mine for several years, with permanent contracts, and another 36 are daily paid workers. They run heavy machinery to extract about 3 kilograms of gold and a couple of grams of platinum per day. The costs of running the mine amount to €150,000 per month, including wages. The owner says that the mine provides jobs for 50 workers and this way they can support their families. The mine is illegal, though it is located on the land belonging to his family. Over the last year, more than 20 illegal mines have been built in the area around Novita alone. Mining sites are 14,000 in Colombia; half of them are illegal.
The financial crisis of recent years has boosted gold prices, since international demand is soaring. The foreign investment boom for Colombia’ s mining sector continues, amounting to billions of dollars. Last year the country exported two and a half billion dollars worth of gold.
“The environmental impact of small-scale gold mining activities, however, is severe”, the bishop remarks. The small-scale mining sector, much of it illegal and unregulated, is expanding worldwide faster than at any time in history and, with it, the health threats posed by mercury. Gold mining is Colombia’s fastest growing industry, with 200,000 small-scale miners producing more than 50 percent of the country’s gold. This growth has turned Colombia into the world’s leading per-capita emitter of mercury. The poisonous metal has also become a threat to the food chain.
Msgr.Pelaez questions Mr. Asprilla about the significant presence of security guards at the mine site. “They protect us”, is the mine owner’s answer. But these few words, as a matter of fact, mean much more: far-right paramilitary and left-wing guerrilla groups, force mine owners to pay for protection. Informal mining operations, many of which have been passed down by families for generations, are left with no protection to defend themselves against the often-extortionate practices of paramilitary and guerrilla forces. These payments become a great source of revenue for renegade military groups that use it to purchase arms.
A threat to the Chocó inhabitants
The bishop is accompanied by Ruben Dario on his visit to the gold mine. Ruben is a young man, who in a few months will be ordained as priest. Ruben says: “My family lives in Puerto Salazar. They cultivate the land and search for gold as well. They spend about six hours, five or six times a week, searching for gold in the waters of Rio Chigorodó and its tributaries. My dad Luis digs with a shovel, while my mother and my sister use a sort of sieve, through which the water drains, to help separate gold from similar sized particles. My family sells the small specks of gold, making a €20/25 profit per week. They can pay my brothers’ tuition fees with that money. Gold is in the river, people go there and get it”.
In Puerto Salazar, half of the 700 residents are gold seekers, the youngest is eight years old. Both gold seekers and gold miners are aware that they are acting illegally, but no one obeys the law here. After all, Chocó is a no man’s land from the legal point of view.
Monsignor Peláez acknowledges that mines provide jobs to many people but he also underlines that they have a strong impact on the environment and that they are often controlled by criminal groups. “Criminality, with everything that it implies (prostitution, alcohol abuse, illicit activities), is a threat to the Chocó inhabitants”, says the bishop. “Church representatives have the task of protecting the weakest people, to guarantee their rights, and safeguard the environment around them. That is why we organize meetings in our community to make people aware of dangers. At the same time, we must raise our voice against exploitation and injustice perpetrated by criminal gangs and paramilitary groups in this area”.
It is raining while Msgr. Pelaez is on his way to Puerto Meluk. The tropical forest is one of the most humid and rainy areas on the planet and this makes travelling really uncomfortable. While crossing a bridge Monsignor Peláez greets a group of people that are busy searching for gold despite torrential rain. “Gold rush – he says – is a disease that is difficult to defeat”. (Franz Jussen)