Guest Blog: Representing Colombian Gold Miners – or: The Perils of Drones and the Perks of Talking

I am pleased to feature a guest blog from Jesse Jonkman, a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. In his doctoral research, Jonkman has been examining the organizational activities of gold-producing communities in the Colombian department of Chocó. He is particularly interested in how these activities relate to practices of state governance. He wrote this blog as part of the recent Weaving the World writing workshop at the University of Amsterdam.

Representing Colombian Gold Miners – or: The Perils of Drones and the Perks of Talking

by Jesse Jonkman

Informal gold miners in Colombia work for armed groups. At least, in the popular press they do. Most journalists – both domestic and foreign – don’t even bother to call them informal. “Illegal” seems to be their preferred term. “Criminal” will also do. Assisted by draconic headlines, these mining observes go at great pains to list the various social ills of wildcat gold delving. Child labor,[1] they exclaim. Lawlessness.[2] Prostitution.[3] Armed groups.[4] In effect, in many accounts on alluvial gold extraction – even those penned down by academics – the line between those with guns and those with washing pans is not always easy to discern.

The miners, the journalists tell us, are not only criminal henchmen. They also deforest. To reach their subterranean treasures the gold diggers use their excavators to bring down plants, trees, and woods. Moreover, they ruin rivers. They discard tailings in creek- and riverbeds, which clogs water bodies and interferes in the reproductive cycles of fish. We can also read that the miners poison. They sprinkle mercury in rivers, lands, and the bodies of human and non-human animals. In order for us to understand the fullness of this ecological apocalypse, drones, helicopters, and even satellites provide eye-catching bird’s-eye view pictures of lunar landscapes.[5] Our eyes tear at the sight of such devastation. What else to make of this than an “environmental holocaust?”[6]

Scenes from the gold mines in Colombia. Photos by Jesse Jonkman

But there is more to the story of “illegal” gold mining. Apart from criminals, we learn that there are victims. The victims are the poor tenants owning the lunar-like landscapes and living with the mercury-radiated rivers. They are victims of the outside excavator and dredge operators who wreak havoc on their alleged Edenic lives, livelihoods, and landscapes. Sometimes we are told that the tenants have fallen victim to their own greed and naivety–to the “lack of awareness[7] that renting out their lands to foreign miners is an unsustainable practice.

While we continue skimming the texts, we read, repeatedly, that the victims are indigenous, black, Afro-descendant, and Afro-Colombian victims. Perhaps the authors think that such incessant usage of ethnic and racial adjectives helps us to understand the hyperbolic dimensions of their victimhood. Here and there, we find some quoted lines, but by and large, the indigenous, black, Afro-descendant, Afro-Colombian victims of the predatory outside miners do not seem to talk much. They need journalists, academic experts, and politicians to talk for them.

This local silence does say something, at least to the criminals and victims that are being silenced. To them, their lack of citations may suggest that the journalists writing about them have hardly touched ground in their lives and gold mines and have looked at their grievances only from afar; through the bird’s-eye view pictures of drones, helicopters, and satellites.

Anthropologists don’t take a lot of bird’s-eye view pictures. They often don’t have money for drones, let alone helicopters or satellites. On the other hand, they do touch ground and do so rather abundantly. What they lack in helicopters, they compensate in time. They have loads and loads of time. And with all this time on their hands, what else to do but talk to people. Such talking often leads to contingent and open-ended stories, that may not find a large newspaper audience but can provide some shades of gray to black-and-white, rush-and-go journalism which presents environmental conflicts as zero-sum games with clearly distinguishable foes and victims.

As an anthropologist, I lived for one year in the department of Chocó – one of Colombia’s principal gold-producing regions. Though I am wary that my words may come across as somewhat shameless self-praise, I believe that this ethnographic immersion has allowed me to understand that the above-described depictions of Colombian small-scale mining rub off uneasily against the way that many chocoano tenants see themselves and the “predatory” outside miners.

Talking with tenants, you notice that few of them recognize themselves in the well-published and well-read trope of victimhood. Talking with tenants, you can hear people extensively lament the destruction of their lands. They certainly don’t like their trees being smashed to the ground and their beloved bocachico fish being filled up with mercury. But, talking with tenants, you find that they are more than their lands. They like to remodel houses, pay for tuition fees, have money for leisure activities, and dream of better futures. With renting out lands to excavator miners, those things come cheap.

So what about artisanal mining? Governors and journalists alike frequently applaud the use of pans, spades, and sticks as a sustainable alternative to excavators, dredges, and motor pumps. Yet talking with chocoano tenants you will likely here that in today’s mined-out landscapes one delves nada without the help of gasoline or diesel. “Na-Da,” as they say in Chocó, dragging the letter “D,” as to emphasize the genuine nothingness of nothing. Alright, then, what about cultivating crops? Well, living in a department that even imports rice, its main dietary staple, people probably tell you that agriculture would be a return to the unprofitable back-breaking past, nothing more nothing less.

In short, for many of the chocoano “victims,” mining is not so much a source of victimhood but a necessary evil. “Bad for their mothers,” Altanacios (a pseudonym) – the most dexterous motor pump miner I know in Chocó – replied, after I confronted him with the “bad” reputation of his mechanized activities among policy and opinion makers. “How many high school graduates are living in Chocó doing nothing? All of these hijos de puta have nothing else to do but mining, mining, and mining.”

Apart from victims, I didn’t see a lot of “criminals” in Chocó. There may be some guerrilleros enjoying the anonymity of the impenetrable forest – if with “criminals” one refers to non-state armed groups. These combatants certainly know how to point a gun and charge taxes on extractive operations. I guess, however, that most know little of mining technology. The same goes for the paramilitaries, who dwell in a number of chocoano villages and whose presence is only discussed in whispers.

However, when staring into the cabins of excavators, you will not see criminals. You’ll see the sun-gleaming, sweat-soaked faces of excavator miners. They are a lot of things, these miners. Some are cheating husbands, others lavish spenders, and almost all are lousy losers at card games. One might also suggest that they are insensitive talkers whose jokes – fueled with foul language and sometimes of a homophobic, racist, or sexist indole – are difficult to laugh at. And, granted, they are the rivals of Chocó’s rich flora and fauna and can be annoyingly indifferent about eating up large swaths of the forest.

Yet while they may be all these things, they are not criminals. They are miners paying extortion money. But what else to do? As they will probably tell you themselves – if only they were talked with more often – it’s paying up or not working at all.
[1] https://www.elnuevoherald.com/noticias/sur-de-la-florida/article194210829.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/world/americas/04colombia.html

[3] https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/the-illegal-gold-rush-and-colombias-new-wild-west/

[4] https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/economia/el-80-de-produccion-de-oro-colombiano-sigue-manos-ilega-articulo-670173

[5] http://www.eltiempo.com/multimedia/especiales/mineria-ilegal-en-colombia-problematica-ambiental-y-economica/16460194/1/index.html

[6] https://www.semana.com/nacion/multimedia/la-guerra-contra-la-mineria-ilegal-criminal-en-colombia/422834-3

[7] http://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-16460299

 

 

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