Another informal miner interviewed by Diálogo Chino said another reason for the stoppages was the lack of job guarantees and support from the multinational for projects in the municipality. In 2021, the unemployment rate in Buriticá was 5.23% compared to a national average of 14.7%. However, the informality rate of the gold-rich municipality was 79.6%.
In response to these allegations, Zijin told Diálogo Chino that they had maintained their work during the pandemic “because the mining activity was framed within the exceptions decreed at the time by the national government” and a biosecurity protocol that ‘they presented to the competent authorities has been approved. Similar authorizations allowing mining operations to continue during Covid-19 shutdowns have been granted to companies in other Latin American countries, including Peru and Ecuador.
In terms of jobs, the company claims to employ 3,885 direct workers and contractors. “63.7% of the operational staff and apprentices come from the municipality of Buriticá and the area of influence of the mine,” explains Sergio Petro, public affairs manager of Zijin and director of sustainable development in Colombia. He added that there had been no dismissals for participating in the protests and that only 4.8% of the company’s staff are Chinese nationals, who “came to Colombia to carry out well-defined tasks that require specific experience.
Carolina Urrego, a specialist in international relations between Colombia and Asia who has followed the Zijin affair, said: “It is very common to demonize companies for the activities they carry out”, but asked: “Governments do they really set the rules of the game? in which they are obliged to comply with social and environmental standards that respect human rights?… caring for citizens is the responsibility of the state.
Guarco, the water reserve
Another issue that contributed to the latest shutdowns, according to miners interviewed by Diálogo Chino, is that Zijin is beginning to explore gold reserves in the village of Guarco, north of the town of Buriticá. This is where the municipality’s water supply is located and its inhabitants fear for their water source.
organized armed groups step in to settle issues that really should be settled by the state
The company said that its exploration activities correspond to one of the mining titles granted by the state and that these “are carried out outside the environmentally significant areas of this village”.
David Berrío, a Buriticá councilor, said the problem is that the municipality has a very old land use plan and Guarco is not considered part of the environmental reserve area. For this reason, “they can carry out the exploration without any problem”.
To prevent future damage, the city council is taking steps to have Corantioquia (the Regional Society for Sustainable Development of Antioquia) make the area a protected area.
Informal mining and Crete
A researcher from Antioquia, who prefers not to be named, highlighted the differences between illegal and informal mining. The former “is practiced outside the law, for example by armed groups”, while informal mining is that which can be formalized by a legal framework.
“There are different routes to formalization, depending on who is doing it and their situation. The fact is there is no way to legalize illegal mining,” he said, adding that often a worker informal ends up working for illegal structures that fight among themselves for the business.
Entrances to illegal mines are usually covered and camouflaged to avoid being seen by the military or police. What’s going on inside is modern-day slavery. Dozens of people work 8 to 12 hours a day, carrying bags heavier than their own bodies on their backs. The work is organized by a foreman who obeys illegal groups who pay for space and labor. To combat these practices, the use of force is very common in Buriticá.
Councilor Berrío worked with the previous administration of the municipality (2016-19) and was one of the coordinators of Creta, a military operation aimed at stopping illegal mining. This was funded by Continental Gold, which Berrío said invested around $20 million between 2016 and 2019, and involved some 1,300 police officers and more than 300 soldiers. About 300 mines have been closed. But attention has now shifted to informal mining. “I estimate that there may be 150 or 200 mines,” said the city councilor. “Informality and illegality have not disappeared. After this experience, you realize that the way to attack informal mining is with will, not with force.”