Some 1,300 metres above sea level, where millennia-long tectonic movements pushed golden veins to the upper crusts of the earth, sits an ancient town.
It’s mining that dictates the clock in Marmato, nestled in the Central Cordillera, the highest of three mountain ranges in the Colombian Andes. At night, lights appear on the hillside where processings mills are grinding stones that contain precious gold. At first daylight, vehicles start to climb the winding roads, up to the higher parts of the mountain where a new day of hacking away in the narrow tunnels begins.
About 80 percent of the village population depends on mining activities to survive, and it’s typically not on any sort of contract. Organized in cooperatives, independent miners say they can earn about US$300 a month. Since almost everybody relies on their luck in the mines, people help each other out when a mine does not produce.
The village now is at the centre of an international legal battle, because of a free trade agreement that enables multinational companies to claim high sums of money from the Colombian state at a World Bank tribunal if projects are perceived to be unrightfully halted or blocked.
Mining is massive business in Colombia. The country is the world’s leading source of emeralds, its coal reserves are Latin America’s biggest, and illegal gold mining brings in $2.4 billion a year, generating more money than the cocaine business.
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