By Santiago Cárdenas Herrera *
There are 520 tons that have arrived imported since 2009, from countries such as Mexico, Germany, Spain, the United States and the Netherlands. Mostly by companies located in Medellín. And that largely end up in more than 1,500 mines and 13 rivers in Antioquia, affecting the health of more than a million people in 16 municipalities of Bajo Cauca, Southwest, Northeast, West and Magdalena Medio Antioquia.
In the heart of Bajo Cauca
When you arrive in Bajo Cauca, the mountains disappear and a tropical nature begins to cover the landscape. The heat and humidity stick to your skin and the cattle ranches with meadows of a thousand colors steal the picture. In the swamps you can see buffalo and fishermen pulling their nets, as if they were part of a painting.
It is a coastal region, with talkative people, who eat fish and live to the sound of vallenato. Its culture and economy depend more on Córdoba than on Antioquia. “The one from Bajo Cauca is half an arepa. We like the paisa tray, but also the cheese nickname ”, says Eduardo Arias, a strong miner, with a fine humor and chameleon features.
Eduardo is the owner of the Las Palmas mine, in Caucasia, located on a 300-hectare farm that with 60 workers, five backhoes and four dump trucks works as a company 365 days a year. The hacienda is divided in two, a third for alluvial gold mining and the rest for livestock.
“My partner, from whom I leased this farm, is a rancher. I have told him that this is no longer a business. That livestock leaves 500,000 a year per head and mining much more. The same drug trafficking is egg next to this. Gold is legal and makes a 1,000 percent profit ”, Eduardo indicates, as we walk through the extensive green of his estate.
In 1987, Eduardo was an accountant and another unemployed person who could not find work in Medellín. “One day when I was handing out resumes, a friend invited me to work as an accountant in a mine in El Bagre and I went there. I realized what this business was leaving behind and set up a mine in Puerto Claver, the guerrillas took me from there and I broke down. I ended up in Chocó where it did very well for me and I earned good money, then I came to Caucasia ”, states Eduardo.
The Eduardo mine is reached through mud roads and mounds left behind by backhoes and dump trucks that move tons of earth from the exploitation fronts to the mining sites where the gold is selected. Between one place and another, there are devastated and desert areas, valleys of a vivid green, to reforested lands that look like a patchwork quilt.
The mine is located in front of the Rifles Battalion of the 11th Brigade, in Caucasia. At the head of this Battalion is the house where the mine workers sleep. A house in the plains style, divided into a first open-air area where the kitchen and dining room are located; a second where the miners sleep in air-conditioned rooms; and a third, which is the laboratory where they burn the amalgam, which is the mixture of gold with mercury that is collected in the boards.
“Mercury is added in the morning and at night. At the change of each shift at 6:00 in the morning and at 6:00 in the afternoon, about 20 pounds of mercury are added. Then all that amalgam that remains is collected and brought to this laboratory where it is blown, ”says José Heriberto Sinitabe, a miner and fuel warehouseman in Las Palmas.
On the board, located a few kilometers from the main entrance, there are about six miners. Two of them work with powerful hoses that clean the tons of earth that fall into the channels of the dump trucks. Another is responsible for removing the stones that accumulate in the channels and that prevent the passage of the material. And a fourth miner like Sinitabe who is in charge of applying the mercury.
The miners apply the mercury without any type of protection, without gloves or a mask that prevent contact with the skin or that it is breathed after its evaporation. The metal is spread into the sorting grid using a rag and this accumulates on the surface of the grid, trapping all the gold that runs through the channels. After three days, production stops and the metal is collected, likewise, without any protection, but converted into amalgam, the mixture of mercury with the trapped gold. A large part of the metal goes into the waters of rivers and streams. (This is how the miners of Antioquia use mercury)
Eduardo knows everything about the use of mercury and he is one of the few miners in Antioquia who is ready to change methods to eradicate it, which is why he is considered a guinea pig for the Global Mercury Project. "It is one of the six mines in Antioquia that is reducing mercury consumption and one of the 15 that reforests exploited lands," says Oseas García, coordinator of Bioredd, a USAID project to reduce mercury emissions.
Hosea is a 56-year-old researcher with Brazilian roots, with a beard and slow speech. He has been living in Antioquia for more than four years leading the fight against mercury. He lives in Caucasia and suffers the problems of Lower Cauca and Northeast Antioquia like no one else. He is a hero of impossible causes, of those who do their homework and believe that things can change.
“Mercury is acting like a sleeping monster in Bajo Cauca. People in these regions don't care because it's a 30-year problem. Here they do not speak of someone killed by a mercury problem. But people are very affected. In Caucasia, for example, there is a gold buyer who claims to have erectile dysfunction and from tests we know that he is unable to walk in a straight line or make a line on a piece of paper, ”says Hosea.
The mercury that travels to La Mojana
This problem has all national and international authorities on alert. According to the Comptroller's Office, in one of its latest reports, there are 80 municipalities, from 17 departments of the country, that are contaminated with mercury, a product of the informal extraction of gold.
“The most polluted area is Zaragoza, in Bajo Cauca on the Dagua River. There we found heavy damage to the dynamics of the river and its flood zones. We found contamination not only with mercury, but also with cyanide and combustible liquids ”, indicates the report of the Comptroller's Office.
National authorities have their eyes on Bajo Cauca, where tons of the metal fall into rivers such as San Agustín, Tarazá, Nechí, Porce and Cauca, considered the most contaminated in Colombia, according to the Ministry of Environment and Ideam. It should be remembered that until just two years ago, Antioquia was considered the region most contaminated with mercury in the world and the rivers of Segovia and Remedios, the third largest contaminated with this metal.
But the mines of Bajo Cauca and Nordeste not only contaminate the rivers of Antioquia with mercury but also neighboring regions, such as La Mojana, located in Bolívar and Sucre, one of the richest areas in fish and rice crops in the country.
“In La Mojana Bolivarense we identified very high concentrations of mercury in fish, water and weeds, which come from the mines of Antioquia, the gold mines of southern Bolívar, Ayapel and those near the San Jorge and Cauca rivers, due to the movement of the water in the riverbeds. In addition, there are cattle contaminated with mercury that consume the weeds of these swamps ”, says Rafael Pedraza, a Corpoica researcher, about an investigation led by Inés Toro.
In Bolívar, according to the Comptroller's Office, mercury contamination is reported in 17 places, such as Soplaviento, Simití, Pinillos, Santa Rosa del Sur and Arenal. (Prosecutor's Office alerts about mercury in Colombian rivers)
Likewise, fish from the Canal del Dique, the swamps of southern Bolívar, La Mojana and the Nechí river basin in Antioquia, reveal contamination levels above the maximum permissible value established by the World Health Organization, states in a study on Bajo Cauca and the Bolívar region, Stephanie Console, researcher at the University of Toronto.
In another investigation carried out by the Caribbean University Corporation, high concentrations of mercury were found in rice crops in La Mojana sucreña. There, rice farmers are sowing on contaminated land and trading without knowing the danger. Edgar Francisco Inmbet, leader of the region's rice farmers, affirmed that the lands are being contaminated with mercury, lead and cyanide, which comes from the Antioquia, Sucre and Bolívar mines.
Inmbet argues that the 400 rice farmers in the region planted their product in lands flooded by the San Jorge and Cauca rivers, where the mercury from the mines arrives, but acknowledged that they still do not know the impact that the consumption of that rice may have, since they do not There is an agrochemical study that certifies the concentration of mercury, chromium and arsenic in the growing areas.
Contaminated fish reach Medellín
From these rivers contaminated with mercury, at least nine tons of fish arrive at the Medellín supply centers per month. For example, from Bajo Cauca and Magdalena Medio, eight tons of catfish, bocachico, bearded and tilefish, among others, arrive per month. And from the Northeast, another important part of sabaleta and black tilapia, as confirmed by wholesalers.
From there, at least half a ton of fish is distributed daily to large supermarkets, mini markets, butchers, restaurants and shops. For example, a Nechí catfish that costs up to 80,000 pesos, can travel kilometers with the mercury in its body in the form of methylmercury (the most toxic form of metal) until it reaches homes.
Another class of fish, mostly from the south of Bolívar, Tarazá and Cáceres, end up in other markets such as Bogotá where they arrive frozen. “We cannot say that in Medellín and other cities in the country there is no risk of being contaminated with mercury. If contaminated fish arrive from these areas and the person frequently consumes these foods, they will be at greater risk ”, indicated Carlos Mario Quiroz, coordinator of Occupational Health of the Faculty of Public Health of the University of Antioquia, who has been conducting studies on the effects of mercury in health since 2009.
For its part, Corpoica research warns that the problem of local consumption should not be set aside. "People who live in these regions, such as Bajo Cauca and Northeast, consume a lot of fish and use fried fish with fish fat to prepare their food, which increases the problem," says Pedraza.
The invisible mercury
Not only the mercury that spills into the rivers worries the authorities, but also that which evaporates in the burning of amalgam (the mixture of mercury and gold). In Bajo Cauca alone, to produce 27,000 tons of gold each year they need more than 2,700 units or coconuts to burn the amalgam. They waste more than 49 tons of mercury annually in the air.
“Mercury evaporates very easily. At 24 degrees Celsius the concentration increases 300 times. And in these mining municipalities with high temperatures, where mercury evaporates just by holding it in your hands, the levels of contamination are well above the norm, ”says Quiroz.
These amalgam burns, which are mostly carried out in gold shops, located in urban centers, release vapors that affect people's health. For example, in Caucasia and Segovia there are more than 40 sales and 473 mines that burn amalgam 365 days a year.
“Gold buyers are the population most affected by mercury. In Caucasia, due to the mercury gases, there are people who have memory problems, altered behaviors and physical problems, ”says Hosea.
In a study conducted by Paul Cordy, Canadian consultant for UNIDO, to measure pollution levels in Segovia and Caucasia, something curious happened. “The teams were saturated when measuring mercury contamination in these two municipalities. We measure more than one million nanograms per cubic meter, when 1,000 nanograms per cubic meter is the maximum allowed by the World Health Organization ”, says Hosea.
In Cordy's study, artifacts were used to generate images that reflected the elevated levels of concentrated mercury in the air surrounding the gold deals. Levels that exceeded the limits allowed by health specialists, something that increased the risk of suffering diseases from contact with this metal.
In the images it was appreciated how the owner of the sale came out with a kind of wake that surrounded his entire body, as if the mercury circulated through his veins. “Antioquia is a serious case. And Colombia is one of the worst examples in South America. I have been in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador investigating this situation and in Colombia much more mercury is applied than necessary. In Segovia, for example, 14 grams of mercury were applied to extract a single gram of gold, when it should be used gram for gram ”, says Cordy.
Health the most affected
In these mining areas the effects are not long in coming and are already beginning to wreak havoc. Mercury poisoning, better known as Minamata Syndrome - a town in Japan where more than 400 poisoned people died - begins when the metal accumulates in the brain, affecting the nervous and neurological systems of people. It produces heart, kidney, respiratory failure, dermatitis and even sexual impotence. In pregnant women it can cause abortions and malformations in their fetuses.
“In Segovia we evaluated 400 gold buyers and found that 90 percent have abnormal levels of mercury. Likewise, in 2011 we studied 190 students between the ages of 8 and 18, in one of the municipalities of the Northeast of Antioquia and found that almost 87 percent had impaired executive function and 60 percent had memory loss. In Puerto Berrío, the evaluated people did not even remember the exams we had given them. And in the rural area of the Andes, we found a girl under the age of 13 who lived next to a mine boiler and who had levels above 500 nanograms of mercury per cubic meter in her urine ", Quiroz said about various investigations carried out by the Faculty of Public Health of the University of Antioquia.
This type of problem is repeated throughout the department. In the case of Caucasia, there are miners and gold buyers with problems such as lack of coordination, tremors in their hands, eyelids and tongue; memory loss, irritable moods, as well as loss of sexual potency. (The poison that bathes the miners' hands)
Among the most curious cases found by Quiroz is that of an increase in the sale of sildenafil, better known as Viagra, in the municipality of Andes. According to the researcher, this drug has skyrocketed in sales among the mining community. “Before they didn't sell any Viagra. And now that mining has increased, the consumption of this drug and others like it is very high. Long-term mercury managed to reduce the lividity of these men, who can present up to 1,050 nanograms in their urine, ”Quiroz indicated.
Eradicate mercury, a task among violence
In Antioquia there are about 1,526 gold mines, of which 186 are legal and 1,339, between informal and illegal, very difficult to access. And although payroll, taxes, mercury and fuel spending can amount to 270 million pesos a month, earnings can triple that figure. This is known to the guerrillas and the gangs that see there a more profitable business than the export of cocaine. (Illegal mining affects more than 68% of the country's departments)
According to the Prosecutor's Office, the criminal gangs, the Farc and the Eln, among other illegal groups, would be extracting tons of gold from the Lower Cauca of Antioquia, especially from Cáceres, Tarazá and Nechí to Panama, the United States and Europe. For this reason, the environment, money laundering units, among others, work to establish how the Colombian gold is being sold abroad and if it has illegal origin.
These armed groups that organize around mining, collecting vaccines and controlling the circulation not only of gold but also of people in these territories, make it difficult to eradicate mercury. "That is the work that we have been doing, formalizing the miners and giving them the option of having new equipment for their mines, so that they stop using mercury," says Darwin Gutiérrez, one of the researchers at the National University, who is part of the Global Mercury Project.
But this formalization in most cases is long-term, contradictory and difficult to resolve. In Eduardo's case, he has been waiting for a mining title for more than four years. “It is contradictory, they ask you to stop using mercury, but they don't let you care about machines. In Brazil I bought two trommels to wash the mineral without using mercury, but they would not let them import them. They ask me, where is the mining title and that's where all that was left. We had to invent a trommel and we are finishing it there ”, says Eduardo.
Like him, there are many miners in Segovia, Buriticá, Remedios, El Bagre and Caucasia, who walk that fine line between crime and business. In addition, few are earning enough to invest in more efficient technology to move away from mercury.
The heroes behind the Global Mercury Project
A study in the journal Nature, published on August 6 this year, affirms that the level of mercury in the oceans has tripled as a result of human activity in recent centuries. These measurements indicate that oceans such as the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Antarctic have about 290 million moles of mercury dissolved. This is equivalent to more than 58 thousand tons of the harmful metal, the same as 580 blue whales, the largest mammal in the sea, weigh.
"The combustion of coal, the extraction of gold, the production of cement and the incineration of garbage have contributed to this increase," said Carl Lamborg, geochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States and responsible for the study. And this is one of the objectives of the Global Mercury Project, to reduce mercury consumption to a minimum and avoid a global environmental emergency.
In Antioquia, the Global Mercury Project seeks to reduce by 50 percent, in five years, the use and emissions of mercury in mining in Bajo Cauca, where more than 25,000 people live from this work. For this reason, more than 2,000 miners have been trained in the use of clean technologies and in the recovery of mercury.
To date, some 103 hectares of land affected by mining have been recovered in the Cuturú district, in Caucasia; Some 750 hectares began to be recovered in Nechí and 132 in El Bagre, with Acacia magnium and native species. In the town of Trinidad, in the municipality of Nechí, a nursery was implemented for the production of these plants. Likewise, with the support of Biorred, 20 bee hives have been established, so that the families that live near the Acacia fields take advantage of this honey-producing species.
Likewise, at the Cimex mineral processing plant of the National University's Mining Faculty, miners like Eduardo are taught to work without mercury. “We have this plant adapted to mercury-free gold recovery processes. We use the weight of gold to separate it from other minerals. We show the miner that the use of mercury only damages health and loses a lot of money ”, indicates Óscar Jaime Restrepo, professor at the National University's Mining School.
For this researcher, who supports the Global Mercury Project, the secret is that small mining is established as a company. “Mining is an industrial activity and it must be regulated. The miner must establish his company to have more profit. And these must be invested in equipment and plants to reduce the use of mercury, ”says Restrepo.
And although in Colombia, through Law 1658 of July 15, 2013, the use of mercury was prohibited since 2018, the commitment must be even greater.
In addition to requiring miners to comply with laws and regulations, imposing taxes and control, miners must receive support such as access to credit, training, technical assistance and receive from the State the minimum conditions to have a decent life.
* Journalist on current affairs in the digital area, social communicator and journalist with a master's degree in Social Sciences.