Clandestine mining in the Atrato watershed, Chocó, Colombia
Ph.D. in Ecology
Suppose we knew nothing about international politics and economics. In that case, we could imagine that those countries with more resources and raw materials would be prosperous countries from an economic point of view. And therefore, the population of these places would share in these riches. Sadly, however, we know that this is not the case. We could list many cases of countries, especially in Africa and South America, rich in resources but at the same time with the most impoverished populations in the world. In other words, poor people in rich countries. This is known as the “resource curse”.
Africa has 90% of the world’s platinum reserves, 80% of coltan, 46% diamond reserves, etc. In addition to oil, fish, and timber resources. However, 40% of its population still lives below the poverty line. Similar situations exist in many South American countries, where the extraction of mineral and natural resources, far from enriching the people, plunges them into poverty and misery. This is especially shocking for indigenous peoples. One of the latest cases of foreign multinationals extracting resources leaving only environmental damage in their wake, is in Peru. At the end of January of this year, an oil spill at a Repsol refinery caused an ecological disaster on the country’s coast.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity with PROCLADE to learn first-hand about one of these cases in which resource extraction in South America generates wealth for a few and misfortune for the rest.
In the summer of 2019, I traveled to Chocó (Colombia), a jungle region bordering Panama, and bathed in the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific. It is one of the points with the highest rainfall and biodiversity on the planet. A place where I have found the best and the worst of human beings. The best: meeting people who are cheerful, welcoming, and highly committed to the community. The worst: is one of the areas most affected by the armed conflict between guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the army, where atrocities have been and continue to be carried out. Although the peace agreement signed by the FARC has improved, there is still much to be done in this region and throughout the country.
The whole of Chocó is structured by the Atrato River and its tributaries. The river is the primary means of communication and economic sustenance and a source of life and culture for its people. My first contact with the Atrato was in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó. I was able to meet Adriana, a young community leader who introduced herself as “Guardian of the Atrato”. She spoke to me about the river with affection, about how much it meant to the communities, but also about its problems, mercury contamination from gold mining, deforestation, the invasion of plastics, and so on. And I loved listening to him because he did not speak with sadness and resignation but with energy and hope.
In an ideal world, knowing that the river had gold deposits would have made me think that the local communities should share these riches. But once again, we know that, sadly, our world does not work that way. Illegal gold mining remains a harsh reality that pollutes the river’s waters and provides monetary funds to both sides of the armed conflict. At the same time, a corrupt military looks the other way instead of complying with river protection duties as required by Colombian law. In addition, there is an extensive list of multinationals waiting for peace to impose itself in the region to extract a piece of the pie in the form of gold, platinum, timber, etc. Something that would only serve to worsen the situation of the river and the people who depend on it. As Adriana was telling me, “The river and the communities are interdependent: if the river gets sick, so do we!”
We need things to change and real change. We need the countries’ natural wealth to be shared with their people. And this is related to social but also environmental justice. I am sure that if the local and indigenous communities themselves, who depend on the health of the ecosystems, could decide on this type of mineral exploitation, this would be done in a sustainable and respectful way with nature. Leaving social and environmental progress in the regions instead of contamination and armed conflicts as it happens today.
Ph.D. in Ecology