Artisanal and small-scale gold mining directly employs approximately 10 to 15 million people worldwide, with millions more connected to this sector as family members or through ancillary work.* The sector has a poor reputation, as a major source of mercury contamination, as a site for child labor, and as a link to arms trafficking and other criminal activities.
But small-scale gold mining is not always or only a problem to be solved.
We the authors, one a native of Marmato with a degree in anthropology from the Universidad de Los Andes, and the other an anthropologist from the U.S. who has conducted research in gold and silver mining for nearly three decades, would like to share with you a counter-example.
The centuries-old mining town of Marmato, Colombia is not a perfect place, but it shows the possibility of small-scale gold production as community-based, ethical, and sustainable.
Marmato is the fourth-oldest municipality in Colombia and the oldest gold mining town. It has approximately 8,500 residents perched on top of what is likely one of the richest remaining gold reserves in the world.
Gold mining in the area has attracted people over hundreds of years, including indigenous Cartama people, workers from Cornwall, enslaved Africans and free Black workers, as well as German, British and Spanish colonists. This history and the steep slopes of the mountain favoured the rise of small properties and small-scale mining.
Since the 1940s, a federal decree has designated the upper part of Marmato’s Burro Mountain for small-scale miners, and hundreds of mines and processing plants currently operate there, with various degrees of formal title, as part of a rich traditional culture. This culture has persisted in the face of threats of an open-pit mine and challenges of unregulated small-scale mining, to create a community that, while not free from social problems, has a strong social fabric and relatively little inequality or violent criminality.
An authentic sense of community prevails in Marmato. Mining work has been a powerful cultural element that has brought dignity and a sense of worth to the town and its members. This expresses itself today in various beliefs and practices in mining, in the everyday lives of the town’s inhabitants and in traditions of mining and poetry. The relatively equal division of mining concessions and the predominance of local ownership have meant that local people have been able to benefit from the mining economy and to build their lives around it. Most Marmateños (as the residents call themselves) are descendants of multiple generations of traditional miners. Because of this multigenerational quality, gold mining and the skills to accomplish it are accessible to nearly all Marmateños.
Organisations such as LBMA and the World Gold Council, along with NGOs and individual companies have worked in recent years to create ways to recognise and pass on ethical practices as a value-added dimension for jewellery and other gold products. Often these ideas of ethics are created in NGOs and government offices and laminated onto local communities, where they may not always find a comfortable fit. Marmato’s gold miners and their mining culture,
in contrast, have developed an elaborate sense of ethical practice in mining over centuries, including emphasis on solidarity and trust, mining carefully for gold, and using the profits from gold in ways that benefit the community. Some miners in Marmato, in keeping with Andean conceptions of the living earth, believe that gold is a vital being that only shows itself to those who mine in ways that conform to these local ethics.
Walk through the centre of Marmato, and ‘sustainable’ may not be the first word that comes to mind. You’ll see piles of rocks, open flames, dangling wires, and contaminated water, and you’ll hear what you might call a cacophonous din of industrial sounds mixed with the music of the cantinas, the clip-clop of mule trains, and the roar of motorcycles and trucks.
Work needs to be done at the local and state level to regulate waste disposal and mitigate the geological risks caused by mining. Yet in many ways Marmato’s economy compares well with other small-scale mining operations. Marmato mills produce gold without mercury, and gold production in Marmato gives work not only to hard-rock miners and mill-workers but also to the gold-panners who purchase the ‘sands’ from the mils and extract even more gold using the batea, a wooden mining pan
in use since pre-Columbian times. And it compares well to large-scale projects that often have a life of mine of 15-20 years. Marmato’s mining economy continues to sustain itself and to sustain many families, not to scrape out a living under inhumane conditions, but to live well and enjoy their lives.
The past 15 years have brought new tensions and further damage to the local environment, resulting from the intensification of mining, migration from other parts of the country and from Venezuela, and pressures from outside mining companies. These companies have responded with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, which while seemingly well-meaning and beneficial, generate a lot of mistrust, because they are implemented without a full dialogue or a right of refusal. While some residents appreciate the company’s CSR gifts and programmes, many others see them as directly threatening the moral and social order of the town. This is because in imposing these programmes, companies undercut the idea that the upper part of the mountain belongs to the traditional miners who have been there for generations–an idea backed by custom and by federal decree.
As we said at the beginning, Marmato isn’t a perfect place – no such place exists.
However, attention to the actual activities and lives of Marmato’s traditional gold miners reminds us not to see all ASGM miners as criminals, polluters, opportunists, or even as downtrodden victims, but to take seriously their strategies for community life, ethics, and sustainability. A productive and respectful dialogue with small-scale miners can not only bring healthy change to Marmato, but also allow others to learn from Marmato, and elsewhere.