The dangerous search for emeralds in Colombia – by Joshua Partlow and Julia Symmes Cobb(Washington Post – August 9, 2015)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/

After taking over a major mine, a U.S. company has been met with violence

Muzo, Columbia – The chopper touched down on the hillside helipad and Charles Burgess, a cigar-chomping former U.S. government employee, stepped out to survey the full sweep of his Andean domain.

Since before the conquistadors, men have dug for emeralds in the soil of this steep-walled jungle valley. The gemstone bounty found here fueled the empire of Victor Carranza, the feared billionaire “emerald czar” who vanquished his rivals in bloody battles that left some 6,000 dead.

Now all that Burgess could see — from the green peaks where the vultures circled to the valley floor where grimy campesinos shoveled dirt in the black river — belongs to his American mining company, which has taken control of the world’s largest and most valuable emerald mine.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Burgess said. By purchasing Carranza’s share of the mine two years ago, the Houston-based company, Minería Texas Colombia, known as MTC, is now the only foreign mining company in the treacherous world of Colombia’s emerald trade — once responsible for about two-thirds of the world supply.

As the Americans try to reverse declining gemstone production, they also intend to revamp a feudal system of peasants and patrons by paying salaries and benefits and using modern machinery. In that way, the company’s goals mirror those of the country, whose half-century conflict with leftist rebels is nearing a negotiated peace.

But as MTC has bucked local customs, and without Carranza to protect them, some residents and rivals have begun to revolt. On two occasions, armed villagers have seized the company’s mine shafts. Riot police and soldiers fought to control the crowds, but four people have died in the disturbances. Burgess has received threats that his enemies will seize his barbed-wire encampment, blow it up and make off with the emerald vault.

“It’s tough being the only foreigner out here,” he said.

A VIOLENT HISTORY

As the helicopter flies, Muzo is a short 60-mile hop north of Bogota, but by road it seems to lead back in time, a seven-hour bumping journey along cliffside switchbacks into a lost green world. The region is rich in coal and iron but it is world famous for its emeralds, considered the highest quality on Earth.

From open pits and dank shafts, miners have pulled out stones so precious they have names, such as Fura, at 15,000 carats one of the world’s biggest, named for a mythical unfaithful king whose wife’s tears turned to emeralds. A smaller but brighter gem named after the wife, Tena, is one of the most valuable, and was once owned by the Russian empress Catherine the Great.

Independent emerald mine laborer Efrain Sanchez displays an uncut emerald he found sorting through the dirt and rubble tossed out by MTC.

Around Muzo, people speak of the stones in superstitious ways.

“An emerald is an enigma. She’s a very jealous rock,” said Efrain Sanchez, a 63-year-old miner who has been searching for them for four decades. “To find her, you have to have enormous faith.”

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