Anna Bario, co-founder of Bario Neal Jewelry, attended the Cooperativa Multiactiva Agrominera de Iquira--Alliance for Responsible Mining Workshop in Colombia last November, 2014. Iquira is a gold and silver mining cooperative that was formed in 2004 in collaboration with the coffee farms in the town of Iquira. In fact, many of the miners and their families alternate seasonally between artisanal gold mining and coffee cultivation. The goal of the cooperative was to create a platform for community organization, enabling the development of safe and environmentally sustainable mining and cultivation practices that also yield a fair and livable income. Iquira has since achieved Fairmined certification. Anna will recount her experience at the workshop in three posts, first giving an introduction with an inside look at Iquira's Fairmined practices, followed by a walk through the mining tunnels, and finishing up with a look at the processing plants. Each section will finish with a quick Q&A. We hope you enjoy!
Part 1: Intro
The ARM Iquira workshop began in Neiva, a small city in the mountainous Huila district of south central Colombia, an hour's flight from Bogota. Neiva is a working town. People on motorbikes and in buses rush around the city's center as we take the taxi a mile or two from the small airport to our hotel. We got in just before dinner, which was another quick bus ride from the hotel, along a slow-moving river that ran through town. We ate at a big open-air restaurant that served us enormous platters of roasted river carp, plantains and rice with lime. There were 3 American jewelers -myself, Luana Coonen
, and Christine Dhein
, who is also an educator and writer working on a book about sustainable practices in the industry. We joined ARM staff, and about 40 miners from Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru who were either Fairmined certified or working towards certification. The goal of the workshop was to celebrate the certification at Iquira, and to allow other miners to learn from Iquira's experiences and methodologies. Since the start of the Fairmined initiative, ARM has arranged these workshops to facilitate knowledge exchange between miners and market actors, strengthen the standards, and provide training to miners. I was there to see the Fairmined model firsthand, to learn from the miners about their work & how Fairmined affects them, and to share why Fairmined is important to jewelers and consumers in the US.
The next morning at 6am the workshop group boarded two small buses for the 5 hour trip from Neiva to Iquira. We passed from highways to bumpy dirt roads through a number of small villages, and began to climb beautiful green mountains as we got closer to Iquira.
We drove through the small town of Iquira and arrived at an open field with a big flat tent and banners for the cooperative. Armed military guards --ubiquitous in Colombia --stood at the edge of the cement floored pavilion. Iquira members were preparing for their presentation, and dozens of people were helping prepare a roasted pig for lunch.
We sat in the pavilion as Iquira's secretary Adrid Pérez, presented a history and a structural overview of the cooperative. Iquira has 5 exploration tunnels and 6 processing plants, and several committees oversee areas like education, social initiatives, administration and finance. Adrid also presented a timeline of Iquira's work to improve environmental impacts and worker safety, and described how they began achieving certain benchmarks toward Fairmined certification. She outlined the 10 or so entities involved in oversight at Iquira, including the Ministry of Mining and Energy and Fairmined, and described their native plants reforestation projects and other environmental efforts. After the presentation we ate a bountiful lunch and then prepared to head up to the tunnels.
The miners had matching teal shirts with the Fairmined logo and Iquira's name emblazoned on them. The color stood out perfectly against the steep, bright green hills. We loaded into the back of a tan off-road truck with a representative from SENA, a regional mining authority. Our driver, a smiling man in his 50's, struggled for a few minutes to get the old truck's engine started, and we were off. We drove back into the village for a few blocks, and the driver stopped in front of one of the houses with a couple of kids sitting in the open doorway. He explained that he had the wrong key to the truck, though somehow he had made the wrong key work. He jumped out, taking the key with him while the engine still ran, returned with a different key, and we continued on.
Heading up hill, we started on a dirt road that crossed several small streams. The truck had to drive impossibly slowly down through the water, and we thought a few times that we ought to get out to push or at least ease the engine's work. Most of the miners rode motorcycles or dirt bikes, and they had built perfect little wood plank bridges up over each of the streams, so that as we wallowed around in the water they zipped up and over in a few seconds. They made an impressive sight—about 30 miners in matching shirts, and some with leather jackets, riding motorcycles up the incredibly steep hills, like a friendly biker gang of artisanal miners.
As mentioned in the intro, it is common for miners and their families at Iquira to also work on coffee farms, many of them producing certified Fair Trade coffee. The mining and agricultural activities supplement one another. Many of the miners I spoke with also mentioned this relationship between agriculture and mining as essential to how they see the connection to the Fairmined standard --the impact of their mining activities is not only in their 'front yard' but also in their farming fields.
AR: When Adrid presented the timeline of Iquira's work with ARM, what did it reveal about the Fairmined Certification process? How much work is it to become certified?
AB: It is a significant effort to meet the Fairmined standard. Every group is starting from a different place, and I think one of the model's strengths is that it sees each mine or each cooperative as a unique and specific group of people in unique circumstances. Everything from the ore quality to the political reality onsite is part of that equation and part of the group's starting point toward certification. One of the goals of the workshop was for Iquira to share their process, and the timeline for certification really depends on how much structure is already in place for the miners. In most cases it takes years of work to achieve certification.
AR: How has Fairmined changed the way the miners work? Has it changed certain protocols? Do they feel safer?
AB: Absolutely--one of the primary goals of the Fairmined standard is to improve health and safety for the workers. This graphic really helps outline the broad strokes of the worker safety and health aspects, but two things that I heard mentioned were emergency preparedness and ventilation in the tunnels. I also heard this feedback through ARM's Sarah Graskov: Some community members were skeptical when they heard of plans to expand mining and build processing plants. They were concerned there would be damages to the environment, as mining does not exactly have a good reputation. But after understanding what Fairmined Certification is about and how they have received international recognition for reaching certification, people not involved in mining activities are now positive towards the cooperative and proud of the attention the community gets. I know the cooperative members do a great deal to inform the community about the activities and certification, for example, through meetings with neighbors to the processing plants and also through activities at the local church.
To learn more of the specifics of the regulations and Fairmined protocol visit the Fairmined website.
AR: How has Fairmined changed the way the community relates to the mine? Do community members, in fact, feel assured that they and their environment are not being harmed as a result?
AB: It's hard for me to know the relationship of the town to the mine before Fairmined regulation. But now it seems that so many people take pride in the efficiency of the mine. The relationship between the coffee farming and the mine is critical for miners to be able to make a profit. Maintaining the health of the area and using the premium for community improvements is a great source of pride.
AR: Do the miners and the surrounding community have access to information about how the mine affects their environment and health?
AB: Although many more people work at the mine, there are only around 30 or so members of the cooperative. The cooperative members are in charge of testing and reporting. I can't speak in detail about how this works, but from my impression it seemed as though there was access to information for non-members.
AR: Has the Fairmined certification changed the income the miners and community receives from mining activities?
AB: Yes absolutely, the Fairmined premium has direct impacts on what miners are paid for their gold. I can't speak to how much the individual miner makes but the Fairmined model was designed to provide a financial incentive for miners to meet the standard.
AR: What is the miners' and community's general attitude about Fairmined?
AB: The community seemed genuinely excited and proud of their work. The workshop was a celebration for achieving the standard. The miners I spoke with who were working toward certification seemed enthusiastic and determined despite the difficulty of achieving certification.
AR: From the way you talk about the miners/coffee producers, it sounds like they are very aware of the impact they have on the land and their community, and are actively working to create as positive of an impact as possible. Do you remember any specific conversations you had with workers there that really stuck with you?
AB: One of the most memorable conversations that I had was with a group of miners from Neiva. They were very curious about why jewelers and customers wanted to buy Fairmined gold. They saw how the Fairmined model and the premium benefits miners and their communities, but wanted us to describe why Fairmined gold is important to Bario Neal & other jewelers.
For more info: fairmined.org/community-profiles/