It’s a sweltering day in March, and Javier Garcia slogs through the dense undergrowth in a remote stretch of the Amazon jungle in southeastern Colombia.
He and a friend have hiked all day toward their goal, a mining site 100 kilometers from the nearest town. As the men hack through the thorny brush with machetes, following a narrow, muddy path, Garcia stops in his tracks.
Centimeters away, a venomous snake called four-noses coils up, poised to attack. Garcia says he will be dead within an hour if the pit viper strikes. His friend grabs a long stick and carefully flips the snake into the jungle. They move on, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its September issue.
Garcia, a Puinawai Indian, is exhausted. He has been traveling seven hours by boat and foot from Chorro Bocon, his village on the Inirida River. Finally, he and his friend arrive at a small clearing pocked with shallow holes gouged into the sandy, red ground. A torrential rain starts to fall.
Garcia, 30, squats by a stream, takes a shovel out of his pack and scoops dirt into a sifter made from a rusty screen.
Like gold prospectors, the men swish watery red mud around a flat wooden pan until pebbles containing a metal called tantalum appear.
“It’s hard work but worth it,” Garcia says. Amazon Indians like Garcia, who inhabit a Denmark-sized region along the borders with Venezuela and Brazil, have for decades made a living exploring the rain forest for valuable rocks that contain tantalum and tungsten, both of which are used to manufacture smartphones and other mobile devices.
While the Indians do the digging, they rely on another, more powerful group to get the ore to market: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. The rebel army uses the cash it makes from selling metals to help finance one of the world’s longest-running guerrilla wars, the Colombian National Police say.
Garcia says he has mined metals during the past year for the FARC.
“People all over the world seem to want these little stones,” he says. He’s got that right. Tungsten, in particular, is in high demand.
The dark, heat-resistant and super-hard metal is inside the engines of some of the most popular cars in the world. It’s used for screens of computers, phones, tablets and televisions. It helps mobile phones vibrate when they ring. Semiconductor makers use the metal to provide insulation between microscopic layers of circuitry.
The FARC, in addition to charging Indians like Garcia for the right to mine, operates its own tungsten mine known as Cerro Tigre, or Tiger Hill. Garcia says he and a friend worked there in 2012, earning enough in a week to last several months at home.
Tiger Hill rises above the rain forest in an area ruled by armed FARC fighters more than 220 kilometers (137 miles) from the nearest road, town or police station. On top is the mine, where hundreds of people toil in 6 hectares (15 acres) of muddy pits, according to the National Police.
The mine is illegal in three ways: It’s inside a forest preserve, it’s banned by Colombian law because it’s on an Indian reservation, and it’s run by the FARC, which is classified by Colombia, the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
“It’s completely illegal, but we haven’t been able to stop it yet,” says Colonel Luis Montenegro, the National Police commander in Guainia province, where the mine is located. “We don’t control any territory out there; FARC controls it,” says Montenegro, who has studied aerial surveillance photos of Tiger Hill.
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