Colombia – a hidden lead story

Located in the northwestern corner of South America, Colombia is the only country in the region with coastlines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific oceans. It is also a popular coffee brand specially appreciated around the world; and sadly, an infamous land of drug cartels ranked on the top of cocaine international suppliers.

Surprisingly, even hosting three mountain ranges (cordilleras) which belong to the Andes system- a prolific mineral terrain – Colombia is not a mining nation, being largely surpassed by its neighbours Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina, not to mention Bolivia with a rich mining history and tradition as well.

In fact, Colombia can be only attributed a marginal metallic production, mostly represented by gold, nickel, and some iron ore. On the other hand, the country is best known as a thermal coal exporter where operates one world-class open- cast, the El Cerrejon in the northern department of Guajira, which has extracted over 30 Mt of coal per year since the late 1990’s. In addition, emeralds, a scarce kind of beryl that is wanted as a gem, complete the Colombian relatively limited mining portfolio.

But, paradoxically, in recent years Colombia has been appearing as a significant lead producer on the South American scene. This despite the almost complete absence of polymetallic mines in the country; only a few projects – VMS deposits including a couple of active operations situated in the western cordillera, could be accounted as such.

No lead concentrate values have been officially reported or at least included in the Ministry of Mines statistics (, in Spanish). Moreover, according to the last Colombian Mining Census (2012), lead represents a modest 0.1% of the total metallic production of the country and is obtained from four small-scale operations (, in Spanish).

However, a documentary film aired by a private television channel in August 2016 with the title “Lead: invisible poison” reveals how Colombia has unofficially become listed among the bigger lead producers in South America. The film recently (January 2017): received the 34th King of Spain Award in the Environmental and Sustainable Development journalism category.

In order to find a plausible explanation to this apparent contradiction; an article published in the El Heraldo Barranquilla’s newspaper dated 31 August 2014, provides the key information: (, in Spanish). The author, Eel-Maria Angulo, denounced illegal activities undertaken by artisanal smelters, which not only created artificial lead production figures, but also caused serious health effects for human populations and animals.

Incidences of lead in Colombia reached dramatic repercussions following the death of 12-year-old boy along with his father and sister who inhaled the toxic gas emissions from a non-compliant chimney no more than 3.5m high and 10m from his home – where lead bars were produced by recovering and smelting car batteries contents. This tragic event happened in December 2012 in the Malambo suburb of Barranquilla, the capital of the Atlantic department in northern Colombia, after six years of chronic exposure to these untreated fugitive emissions.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Other family members and neighbours totalling 147 individuals show lead concentrations in blood above the levels recommended by the World Health Organization. Cattle, domestic animals and mango trees were also killed by lethal lead smoke.

Eventually, the local authorities ordered the closure of five irregular lead smelting installations following the tragedy. However, there are still complaints accusing the polluters of continuing their activities during the night while people are sleeping and no inspectors are active.

As a result, the problem is far from reaching a definitive resolution. Influence trafficking, corrupt government officials, and the limited advocacy power of the affected population (impoverished rural people), prevent the stop of clandestine lead production.

Ultimately, it is a shame and an unacceptable lost opportunity that secondary recovery of metals – particularly lead – is undertaken today using methods not environmental or socially responsible. Ie. applying the principles of the Technogenic deposits theory (Bogatinov, et. al., 2014), a promissory solution to the exhaustion of mineral natural resources. The most sinister side of this situation is the sacrifice in terms of human and living beings health in favour of unscrupulous industrialists and pure monetary interests. Government authorities and public opinion have a crucial role to play in the correction of this terrible mistake.

The video of the award-winning documentary is available at:

Cited reference:

Bogatikova, O. A.; Bortnikova, N. S.; Dokuchaeva, A. Ya.; Gurbanova, A. G.; and Karamurzovb B. S., 2014. Primary Aspects of Technogenic Deposits at the Modern Stage: The Example of the Tyrnyauz Deposit. DOKLADY EARTH SCIENCES Vol. 456 Part 1, pp. 585–589. © Pleiades Publishing

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