An unstable terrain for peace: illegal gold mining, socio-environmental conflicts, and ecological degradation in Colombia


Based on several months of previous research (2011 to 2015) with mining communities in the Colombian Pacific Coast, I became acquainted with the challenges that the increasing mining activity in the country was posing to the government and to the rural communities. The enlargement of the extractive activities in different national areas had produced large environmental transformations and had elicited different social conflicts. In 2012, the Colombian organization Centro de Investigacion y Educacion Popular (Cinep), published a study that pointed out that between 2008 and 2011, the amount of social struggles associated with the extraction of oil, coal, and gold had increased by over 100% (Cinep 2012, 10). Most of the conflicts unfolded as confrontations between large foreign companies and either local rural or urban communities because the latter have refused to accept the conditions of the extraction. These communities, in alliances with NGOs and environmental activities, have disputed the alleged benefits of the mining boom. Drawing upon traditional and new media, protests, and demonstrations on the streets, they have foregrounded the social and ecological impacts of the extractive industries: contamination of rivers and water reserves, destruction of wide crop areas, and pollution with mercury and other elements. Side by side with these conflicts, illegal extraction got notoriety in regional scenarios, as well as, in the national contexts. Illegal gold mining became a pivotal public problem by virtue of the convergence of different dynamics around it. For instance, controversies about the ecological outcomes of mechanized extraction and disputes around the role that illegal economies play within the armed conflict, and dissentions. With this context in mind, I went to Colombia during the last summer in order to get to explore the social contexts where illegal mining is unwrapping. The purpose of the trip was to examine the contentious practices and understandings of the recent Colombian gold boom, with the main goal of having a better comprehension of the entanglements of extractive industries, rural livelihood degradation, sociopolitical transformations, and claims for autonomy that are crucial to the post-conflict moment that the country is going through. The activities that I undertook during seven weeks consisted of (1) visit and conversations with media actors in Bogota, (2) visit and conversations with environmental activists in Bogota, (3) visit and conversations with officials and public servants at the Ministry of Mines, visit and conversations with scholars at the Universidad Nacional and Universidad de Los Andes, (4) documentary research in Bogota’s libraries, and (5) Colombian press review specifically about illegal mining. In addition to the activities in Bogota, I conducted fieldwork in the region of Tolima, located in the southern part of Colombia. There, I also (1) visit governmental institutions and had conversations with officials associated with mining formalization programs such as Cor-Tolima and Gobernacion del Tolima, (2) consulted local libraries, and (3) did documentary research. This predissertation fieldwork allows me to define the sites and actors of my future doctoral fieldwork. It also contributed to get specialized literature made by Colombian scholars. The results of the trip will be used as the main input for the designing of my doctoral research prospectus.

Angela Castillo
Publication date: 
August 27, 2016
Publication type: 
Student Research