Prospectors, barons and suits: Multinationals move in to Colombia’s emerald mountains (The Economist – January 4, 2018)

They offer steady jobs, but some miners would rather hunt stones on their own

AT THE bottom of a muddy basin surrounded by verdant mountains, Dora Alicia Hernández combs through black sludge and rock in the faint hope of finding an emerald valuable enough to lift her out of poverty. “All we need is one shiny stone,” she says, as rainclouds smother the mountains overhead. “Then we can get out of here.”

Alicia is seeking fortune near Muzo, a mountain town north of Bogotá that has attracted guaqueros (prospectors) from across Colombia since pre-colonial times. The region is renowned for both the quality and size of its emeralds.

Of the 20 that have sold at auction for more than $100,000 a carat, 19 were from Muzo or nearby. Guaqueros speak reverently of Fura, an 11,000-carat rock named after a mythical philandering wife who wept emeralds. Victor Carranza, who had started out as a guaquero and became Colombia’s emerald tsar, found it in 1999. As far as anyone knows, it has never been sold.

A guaquero’sodds of making a Carranza-like fortune, never high, have become fainter. That is not because there are no other $100,000-a-carat emeralds somewhere in the mountains near Muzo, but because the hunt is being taken over by multinational companies.

They offer regular jobs rather than a tantalising chance of riches. But not every guaquero can get one, and some prefer the thrill of the hunt to a pay cheque.

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