Close to 80% of all the gold produced in Colombia comes from illegal miners, according to recent data unveiled by the country’s government.
Speaking to Blu Radio (in Spanish) the Comptroller General of the Republic, Edgardo Maya Villazón, said the $2.5 billion illicit mining industry is creating a parallel economy that is deemed to harm the business of those who operate legally.
But the financial damages are not the only ones to fear. Illicit miners, which are present in 233 Colombian municipalities, have already caused the deforestation of 16,784 hectares (65 sq. miles) of old-growth —or primary— forest. And only last year, those operations also contaminated at least 19 rivers, data from the Environment and Sustainable Development Ministry shows.
In late July, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos unveiled a new plan to combat the problem. Among the fresh measures, Santos granted the Defense Ministry more powers to fight the country’s leftist rebel forces and criminal neo-paramilitary gangs, which are reportedly the ones behind the surge of illegal miners in the country.
Additionally, Santos announced a new bill to be drafted in the coming days that will increase the penalties against the criminal activity.
Colombia has also began a formalization process, which implies helping unlicensed miners “come clean” by paying taxes and filing environmental impact statements, while the government guarantees training and safety.
Rebels and gangs, who operate in large swatches of the country, have been pushing villagers out of areas with promising mineral profiles, taking over small-scale local mines or warring over who will control gold-rich areas.
Residents are caught in the crossfire. About 200,000 Colombians were driven from their homes in 2013, the latest year for which data is available, Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, a Colombia-based human-rights group, said early this year.
The country holds vast, and mostly untapped, reserves of coal, gold, silver and oil.