(Above) stones containing gold from the mines in Iquira, Colombia
To refresh our memories, BN co-founder Anna Bario traveled to Colombia last fall to attend a workshop held by the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) to provide an insider's perspective on the Cooperativa Multiactiva Agrominera del Municipio de Iquira, which is Fairmined certified. This Cooperative was formed in the early 2000's when interest rose in the gold, and to a lesser extent silver and copper, deposits in Iquira, Colombia. Previously the economy had been based largely on coffee farming, but with the new economic potential, some farmers began splitting their time between artisanal mining and farming. With great foresight, the surrounding community formed the Cooperative to protect the area and its citizens, with the common understanding that artisanal mining can have negative effects on the environment and local community. Since the Cooperative's founding, the gold mining operation has achieved Fairmined certification. Anna's goal in attending this workshop was to gain a firsthand understanding of the mining operations carried out in Iquira, particularly how Fairmined certification works in practice. Our goal in offering you this information is to maintain our promise to transparency, giving you the power to make informed decisions about your purchases.
This second installment of the Iquira-ARM Fairmined Workshop takes a look inside the mining tunnels, with a focus on worker health and safety and environmental stewardship. After a presentation from the Iquira Cooperative and a bumpy climb up a steep mountainside, Anna toured the inside of two of the 13 active mining tunnels with a group of miners from other mines in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru who are working towards Fairmined certification. Each tunnel winds through about 100 meters into the mountainside, following veins of ore. At the mercy of these veins, some tunnels have several shafts that travel vertically, in addition to laterally, and have up to four vertical levels reachable by wooden ladder.
vertical ladders enable workers to access upper level mining shafts
Before entering the tunnels, everyone donned mud boots and safety helmets. While the air was damp and cool, and water could be heard dripping down the rock walls, there were few puddles and the tunnels were relatively dry. The tunnels felt spacious and comfortable--everyone could stand upright, and the air was fresh, thanks to an effective ventilation system.
tour inside the mining tunnels
safety equipment signs inside the mining tunnels
As far as safety and work environment goes, the Fairmined standard adheres to the Occupational Health and Safety standards as well as the Convention of Safety and Health in Mines as laid out by the International Labor Organization. In order to achieve Fairmined certification, the Iquira mines had to demonstrate their compliance with these strict regulations that have an exceedingly high standard for health and safety in the working environment, specifically within mines.
One of the miners explained that a particular tunnel took three years to create, using a combination of carefully employed explosives and chisels to remove rock. While interest in the gold of this region has spiked in the past few years, these mountainsides have been mined artisanally for generations, some for hundreds of years. A few of the older tunnels have been long forgotten, but some remain in use. In this network of old and new tunnels, miners dig carefully because of the risk associated with intersecting with a lost tunnel.
Aside from workplace safety, the Iquira mines also had to comply with the environmental standards set forth by Fairmined in order to achieve their certification. The Fairmined standard defines responsible mining as being on a small scale without environmental contamination, and with a plan for full ecological restoration. If toxic substances such as mercury or cyanide are used, as they commonly are in mining activities, they must be handled according to strict regulations that aim to protect the environment and the health of anyone who may be affected. Additionally, the standard states that ecologically sensitive areas must be avoided.
Interviewer: Alyssa Robb
Interviewee: Anna Bario
AR: I understand that the Fairmined standard offers premiums for mining operations that avoid the use of mercury in their extraction process. While mercury use is common in this industry, and the elimination of it creates a large inefficiency from a miner's perspective, the environmental and health effects are serious. Do you know if the Iquira mines have discovered a way to reduce or eliminate their use of mercury?
AB: The FM standard is intended to improve environmental responsibility of artisanal mining organizations, and to encourage continual improvement. The standard doesn't prohibit mercury use - in part because of the reduced efficiency that you mention. According to ARM, mercury "must be in compliance with some minimum requirements such as the use of a retort, completely avoid mercury spills in the water and soil, not using cyanide on the amalgamation tailings without decontaminating them first, among others. The access to a fair price and to the premium is based on compliance with all the requirements in the Standard, a scheme much broader than only the responsible handling of mercury."
Completely eliminating mercury and cyanide from the process would make access to the standard prohibitively difficult for most artisanal miners. I think put simply the idea is that we have to start somewhere, and the standard is a difficult but achievable goal for these organizations. Progressive improvement and working towards mercury and cyanide elimination can follow, and there is an additional premium for certified Fairmined Ecological Gold which is produced without the use of any mercury or cyanide. The FM Ecological Gold standard also includes commitments to environmental restoration and rehabilitation of ecosystems, and the additional premium is intended to cover the reduced efficiency of the cyanide- and mercury-free processing.
AR: Did you feel safe while you were in the mining tunnels? Was there anything you noticed that seemed like it could put miners at risk?
AB: I did feel safe in the mines. The tunnels were more comfortable than I had anticipated, and we were with a group learning from their techniques and experience so it was much more an air of interest than of danger. It would likely feel different working with a small crew in the tunnels, and certainly handling explosives.
AR: Did you observe any concrete examples of how the mines are minimizing their environmental impact? Did you learn whether they had a remediation plan for when the mines are exhausted?
The Iquira cooperative is still new and developing as an organization, so they don't have a remediation plan in place yet, but that is something they can work on with their premium spending plan. That sort of plan could also include strategies for the community to transition to other economic activities when the mine has been exhausted.
The FM standard does touch on the exhaustion of mines, and it is a requirement of the environmental component that promotes mine closure (filling any mine apertures) with a focus on restoration.
AR: Were you able to ascertain whether the processes used to create the tunnels (explosives and chiseling) are done carefully and in the least destructive manner possible?
AB: I am certainly not that knowledgeable with explosives, but I know that the care taken with creating and expanding the tunnels applies to worker safety as well as environmental impact. The miners are working slowly and carefully to limit their own risk and make sure the tunnels are stable and secure.
AR: I've heard that certain mines limit their activities to the dry season to limit toxic runoff. Is this protocol followed in Iquira?
AB: Iquira is a completely closed loop for their water supply in the mine & processing so they can operate year round without the increased risk of toxic runoff in the rainy season.