Sunday, August 18, 2013

Colombia's Invisible Mines

Colombia exports about 100 tons of tungsten per year. But, strangely, the country has only one legal tungsten mine - and it isn't operating, according to a recent Bloomberg News report. Instead, the tungsten - used in cars, smartphones and tablet computers - apparently comes from an illegal mine called Tiger Hill operated by the FARC guerrillas in southern Colombia.

Today's El Espectador contains a report about Colombian municipalities which recieve substantial incomes from gold mining royalties. Strangely, however, many of those municipalities have few or no gold mines.

Then there's coltan, also used in many electronic devices. Colombia has little coltan - but Venezuela apparently has lots of it, in particular near the Colombian border. In 2009, Venezuela prohibited coltan mining. That didn't shutter the industry, however, but just pushed it into the hands of outlaws such as Colombia's guerrillas, paramilitaries and other criminal groups.

Illegal mining has long been a bane for Colombia's society, economy and environment. Illegal artesanal miners use poisonous materials such as cyanide and mercury but don't have the knowledge or resources to safely dispose of them. But illegal mining has become a growing source of income for illegal groups. In 2012, Colombia exported almost $2 million dollars worth of tungsten to a single company in the United States which manufactures wire and other industrial supplies, according to Bloomberg news. After Bloomberg inquired, the buyer said it would stop purchasing Colombian tungsten.

And the legal mining industry, with all of its own social and environmental impacts, uses the spectre of illegal mining to pressure governments to approve large-scale mining. After all, in a country like Colombia with abundant minerals, corruption and weak rule of law, if legal companies do not exploit minerals, most likely somebody else less answerable to the law will do so.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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