Wednesday, May 27, 2015

This Mine is Yours and Mine

Guaqueros, or fortune hunters, outside the Puerto Arturo mine. (Photo:

In an industry plagued by illegality, unsafe working conditions, tax evasion and violence, the mine was intended to be a model of legality and high standards: After a group of Texas investors purchased the legendary Puerto Arturo emerald mine from emerald czar Victor Carranza in 2013, they invested $50 million, they said, to bring it up to international standards of safety and production.

A woman offers bags of rough emeralds
in Bogotá's informal emerald market.
And, according to an acquaintance of mine in the emerald business, under Minería Texas Colombia, the huge mine had become a model operation in the Muzo region. He described carefully constructed tunnels and high security.

But then, two weeks ago, trouble struck - The miners uncovered a super-rich emerald vein. What should have been a bonanza for the company devolved into travesty as more than a thousand informal miners, some armed with guns and dynamite, tore down fences, despite the presence of security guards, soldiers and police, and invaded the mine to grab a share of the ore for themselves.

Diamonds in a window in
the emerald district.
"It is incredible that this can take place on private property, placing in danger more than 50 million dollars invested in machines and equipment. What's more, the lives of more than 800 of our workers are in play," the company told journalists.

The invaders, for their part, undoubtedly justified their actions based on a feeling of ownership: They were lifetime emerald miners in the area, which is overwhelmingly poor, so why should foreigners profit from this rich strike?

The Emerald Trade Center in central Bogotá. Some
told me that prices plummeted here after the big find.
The Texans evidently intend to persevere in their operations, in which they have invested so mightily - but presumably with stronger security.

In Bogotá's emerald district, the rich vein also had consequences. Another emerald dealer told me that prices of certain types of emeralds had plummeted. I was dubious, until I learned about how the Puerto Arturo episode had flooded the market.

Puerto Arturo is not only Colombia's largest emerald mine, but under Carranza's ownership also produced what were reported to be the world's largest and most valuable emeralds.

Traders examine emeralds on Jimenez Ave. in Bogotá.
In past decades, Carranza and other 'emerald czars' fought wars over control of the industry, in which hundreds of people were killed. And the region's emerald mines, despite employing many workers and producing a fortune in gemstones, pay remarkably little in taxes and royalties. Emerald mining, as with much of Colombian mining, continues to be dominated by danger and informality. With terrible regularity, informal gold mines, particularly in the Pacific Coast region, collapse or are flooded, killing dozens of miners. Unregulated (and some regulated) mines also devastate ecologically sensitive landscapes and poison rivers with cyanide and mercury.
Victor Carranza with huge emeralds.

Minería Texas Colombia's efforts to improve and formalize its mine are a step forward. But mining in Colombia badly needs more control to reduce its human and environmental tolls.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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