Mining Formalization in Colombia: Multinationals, Informal Miners ‘Have to Live Together,’ says Dora Elena Balvín, Antioquia Secretary of Mines
The mining sector in Colombia has been facing difficult challenges in recent years. Most notably, there have been a series of referendums across the country since last year in which several communities have voted to prohibit mining in their area.
Other legal challenges and environmental concerns have also persisted while the debate continues to rage about what some people call informal (or artisanal) mining and others call illegal mining.
Photo: Dora Elena Balvín, secretary of mines of Antioquia in Colombia. (Photo credit: Loren Moss)
Dating back decades — and in some cases centuries — individual miner and small, unregistered groups have pulled ore from the countless mountain ridges across the country that contain valuable minerals. Given the number of new mining titles handed out over the past 25 years, now more and more of these people are coming into conflict with companies that hold the rights to the land.
The government, companies, and the miners thus are still working to figure out how to either co-exist or otherwise find solutions to the issue.
To get more insight into this challenge, and the others facing the central Colombian department of Antioquia, Finance Colombia Executive Editor Loren Moss recently sat down to talk with Dora Elena Balvín.
Balvín, who became the head of the Secretary of Mines of Antioquia in November, discusses how her agency is dealing with the challenges of informal mining, the uncertainty created by mining referendums, the growing role of women in the industry, and other key topics facing the mining sector in Colombia.
Loren Moss: What is your principal vision, and what are the main goals you want to achieve as the Secretary of Mines?
“They must understand that they have to live together. There must be space for both the big mining companies and the small artisanal miners, because there has been mining in Antioquia since 500 years ago.” – Dora Elena Balvín
Dora Elena Balvín: The Secretary of Mines of Antioquia has been developing initiatives in cooperation with title holders in certain sub-regions to encourage legalization and formalization. Highlighting the benefits of the legalization to the small miners, that’s one of our biggest challenges — as well as a win/win for different actors, both the title holders and for the small miners, who have to sell their ore at very low prices since they lack the adequate environmental and technical conditions.
So that is one of the biggest challenges we have at the Secretary of Mines. We have made many advances. Last year, we were able to formalize about 50 mining units, and each unit is equivalent to an average of 15 people. When we speak about units, we speak about groups of people. So about 800 miners were formalized last year, and we have the challenge to create 60 new units during this year.
Loren Moss: I’ve seen something in Colombia that I haven’t seen in other places: There are opportunities for small and artisanal miners while, in other countries, the participation is reserved for the multinationals and the big companies. It’s interesting how here there is an ecosystem where both artisans, with their families, and the multinational companies participate. Speaking about that, there are still aspects that can be improved. What do you wish to focus on, what is your plan, what are the areas where you expect the best improvement, and where do you want to focus your resources to gain more progress?
Dora Elena Balvín: I believe that one of the intentions of this mining authority is helping these small miners in the area of technology. They are still working with minimal tools, so we want to provide them the technologies and the technical aids so that they can work with the correct elements. Also, we have permanent training, education, and forums designed for the miners to understand the risk to which they are exposed, not only themselves and their families but to the environment as well.
So, we have a huge challenge. We work jointly with the Ministry of Mines, which has a National Department of Mining Formalization, and we have been performing very important initiatives here in Antioquia. Antioquia is the department of Colombia with the largest number of formalized miners, according to the National Mining Agency. So right now, we are organizing resources and planning the way that we, from the institution, can help them through support and education and by emphasizing in all the positive aspects of becoming a legal miner.
Regarding the mining titles, we have a very pronounced mining control. Here we have 1,350 fiscalizations in Antioquia, we have a risk map, we have a continuous surveillance, and we are visiting the mining titles that are effectively fulfilling all the requirements. We also remove the penalties previously imposed when companies make improvements. Also there is the task of the mining qualification, with the subject of the dialogue and agreements for the concession of the new mining titles.
Loren Moss: How do you interact with the communities and get all the stakeholders to understand this direction?
Dora Elena Balvín: Regarding the subject of the dialogue and agreement — where we inform both the community and the mayors about the proposals — commitments are made, and we clearly explain the entire process. We establish a commitment to social responsibility with the mining title holder, the person in charge of the territory. It’s not only about taking new qualifications to the regions. Those title holder have a social responsibility with the sector in which they are working.
They must provide employment for that region, respect the environment, and help the communities and the local authorities in, for example, the areas of education and health. So we, in cooperation with the governor, have been helping the mining title holder so that it can perform the task successfully and include all the sectors. In this area, we all have a leading role.
Moreover, after the units are formalized, the agreement with the big companies is that they must buy the gold from them. There are 39 formalized contracts with the company Gran Colombia in Segovia and they sell their ore to Gran Colombia. 80% of the production of Gran Colombia is produced by artisanal miners.
Loren Moss: And that also ends the opportunity for unlawful groups to be part of it? Because everything has been regulated?
Dora Elena Balvín: That is where we are heading towards: For people to recognize that it is less expensive to obtain explosives being formalized than doing it in the black market. It’s three or four times less expensive. Besides the fact that they can be persecuted — and even imprisoned — the economic factor is very important as well.
Loren Moss: What indicators do you have to audit the legalization small miners in Antioquia? What strategy do you have to apply the control process? Obviously, they must be invited to become legal, but what more is there to it than just formalizing something unlawful?
Dora Elena Balvín: We audit the mining qualifications. We don’t control illegality or informality. We only audit the roughly 1,390 mining qualifications that we have. We are performing regular assessments in which, according to the development plan, we make periodical visits, we levy fines, or we retract them when it’s needed.
For informal mining, including illegal mining, we have been performing different activities with the objective of promoting formalization, so that the small miner develops activities within the legal framework and can finally reach an agreement with the mining title holder, fulfilling all the technical and environmental requirements.
We are mediators. If we obtain knowledge that there is a focus of artisanal mining, we contact the mining principal — the owner of the title — and we inform them about the artisanal miner’s desire to become formal and sign a contract of sub-formalization with them, where the miners are committed to fulfilling some minimum technical norms. We are the intermediaries between both parts. That is the role Secretary of Mines has in cooperation with the Ministry of Mines, which is a negotiator as well.
We also track the number of applications of sub contracts of formalization that come to the Secretary and verify that those sub contracts that arrive here gather some minimum characteristics in the land. So, we are the ones who make those refinements, and we are the ones who finally sign the request of the mining title.
“We have a region in Antioquia, in the southwest of the department, where other actors with different interests mislead the community. So we have a big task … Reaching out to the territory directly has become the main goal of the new mining horizon in Antioquia.” – Dora Elena Balvín
However, we have realized that the majority of the mining title holders in Antioquia want to join these agreements since they have been dealing with artisanal mining for long time. So they say that no one new will enter.
Nevertheless, they must understand that they have to live together. Like the governor says, in those territories there must be space for both the big mining companies and the small artisanal miners, because there has been mining in Antioquia since 500 years ago — and not only in the form of big companies but also small mining sectors like the ones of Segovia and Remedios, which were there many years before the multinational mining companies arrived to the department.
Loren Moss: Not too long ago, I visited the Continental Gold mine in the Colombian town of Buriticá, and I saw some very innovative programs to invite the illegal miners to become formal. You have already mentioned some of them, but focusing more on the initiatives that the Secretary of Mines has to achieve 100% legality, what other plans and programs do you have to invite those illegal or not formal miners to start working within the law? What strategy do you have to legalize the 100% of the illegal mining in Antioquia?
Dora Elena Balvín: Last year, thanks to the initiatives of the governor, we intervened at Buritica. Illegal mining was reduced by 90%. Mining was extremely harmful for the environment and offered no security conditions for the illegal miners.
The departmental government, in cooperation with the army and the police. took the decision to close these mines and eradicate all the existent illegal mining. The most important fact is that it was not done by force, as the governor said. Not even one bullet was used, nor was anyone mistreated in any way. It was thanks to the persuasion of the army and of the institution that they understood that they had to abandon that practice, and that was the way that a removal was made.
Today in Buriticá we have nine formal mining units that receive assistance from the Secretary of Mines and the company in terms of technical issues and the presence of Corantioquia, a sustainable development agency that has also been involved in this process. When they become legal, they need explosives and some minimum conditions. The nine mining units that have become formalized, which are recognized people of the region, have felt our support and help. So this a good start for others to become legal too.
Loren Moss: What plans, or projects does the Secretary of Mines actually have to repair the damage that illegal mining has caused in places such as Bagre and Segovia?
Dora Elena Balvín: We have a department in the Secretaría of Minas in charge of presenting projects and alternatives. In the development plan of the governor, there are some plans referring to the restoration of damaged areas and to the construction of the industrial mining areas of the municipalities.
We recently signed an investment contract with a great big mining company in Segovia and with IDEAM. We are going to create a mining industrial center where a community plant with zero mercury is going to be established.
We have a pilot project with the subject of technology in Buriticá as well, and we have another project with Pontificia Bolivariana University. In this project, the miner will be shown the benefits that eliminating mercury and replacing it with another reactive agent for their productivity, their health, and for the environment.
Loren Moss: With the program for substituting another reactive and eliminating the illegal use of mercury, what is the contingency plan regarding the law of mercury?
Dora Elena Balvín: We are constructing a nanotechnology plant involving some other alternatives — through biotechnology — with the Bolivariana University. We have to incentive the zero mercury plants. Very soon, we are going to install two of them in Segovia and in Remedios in cooperation with Mineros S.A. We are also going to install two plants of gravimetry in Bajo Cauca.
Having good mining practices in the territory is favorable for everyone now. Not only the miners, but other big companies are joining this campaign. When the final gold product is as pure as possible, is much easier to take it to any market.
Loren Moss: In other parts of Colombia, 2017 was a very interesting year for the mining industry here in Colombia. For example, some local municipalities voted against mining in their locality. It was not here in Antioquia, but, what can the mining companies and the municipalities, and the departmental administrations like yours, do to solve this lack of agreement? What role does the Secretary of Mines have in those cases? How can that conflict that exists in some parts of the country be mediated or solved?
Dora Elena Balvín: Well, the Secretary of Mines and the government of Antioquia have been developing a series of strategies for the training and dissemination of the official requirements to work within the legal status in the department of Antioquia, as well as to provide the necessary tools so that everyone can be informed of what is to be done regarding legal processes.
Those strategies are designed based on the legal mechanisms to present the productive mining projects of the zone in which the activity can be developed, assuring that the community takes decisions based on knowledge — without fears, since there is abundant misinformation.
We have a region in Antioquia, in the southwest of the department, where other actors with different interests mislead the community. So we have a big task, starting with the guidance of the local authorities and the communities by illuminating them about all the subject. There were 11 agreements to cease illegal mining that have been agreed to in Antioquia.
On the other hand, due to a court decision, before the concession of the mining qualification, we are holding public forums, where we have a dialogue with the mayor in which we show him the mining map of the municipality and inform him about the proposals, qualifications, and future evolution of mining in that region. In Antioquia, 33 mayors have signed to accept mining, and we are holding public forums monthly. We are informing, guiding and making the community more aware of the subject. Reaching out to the territory directly has become the main goal of the new mining horizon in Antioquia.
Loren Moss: When I visited the Continental Gold mine in Buritacá, I saw something else that was interesting: Many women dedicated to mining. I believe that this would not have been possible 20 years ago. That was something groundbreaking, which surprised me as it was the first time I had the chance to see it. They were proud of their job. How do you perceive the equality of opportunities within the mining sector now that there is a possibility for women to participate not only in the administrative roles but also as miners?
“Whenever I visit a mine, it’s not surprising to find women engineers, geologists, and technical workers wearing the uniform.” – Dora Elena Balvín
Dora Elena Balvín: I believe this situation reflects the national government. For example, Luis Pérez has been confident about female leadership, a reason why both the past Secretary of Mines and I are women. So, I believe this is a great message, since there has always been sort of a prohibition regarded to women and mining.
It’s the first time that there are two women in the leadership of Secretary, as I was also the director of mining control. The manager of the National Mining Agency is a woman as well, so I believe the subject has been changing and that can be shown on a smaller scale too.
Especially in Buriticá, there is a group of women who, through the company, were being trained by SENA [national vocational education program] to perform mining tasks. Whenever I visit a mine, it’s not surprising to find women engineers, geologists, and technical workers wearing the uniform.
I believe this will be changing also because of the leadership that women have in Antioquia — of working and providing for their families —and the great responsibility they have and the lack of opportunities. That can be read another way. Antioquia is a mining department, right? Industrial mining. And that means that, if we close mining, many families will be left without their livelihood. That’s the reality of the department.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.