The Latin American Diaries |


The Devastating Environmental and Social Impact of Gold Mining in Chocó, Colombia


by Louise Winstanley, Programme and Advocacy Manager, ABColombia

Rio Quito

Chocó is situated between the Darién Gap on the border with Panama and the departments of Antioquia and Valle de Cauca. It is one of the planet’s hidden tropical treasures, classified as a Forest Reserve [i] and home to approximately 56 per cent of Colombian bird species and 11 per cent of all known bird species in the world [ii]. Chocó is also rich in mineral resources, particularly gold and platinum. It is therefore no coincidence that Chocó, a region rich in natural resources, has become one of the focal points of the Colombian conflict, with thousands of people killed or forcibly displaced.

Uncontrolled exploitation of small-scale mechanised gold mining in Chocó has proved to be a lucrative business for illegal armed groups. These groups operate in territories belonging to indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, spreading violence and fear, with opponents to mining threatened, attacked and killed. As well as generating violence, these mining operations have serious health and environmental impacts, threatening the lives and livelihoods of the population and damaging large areas of one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

Chocó is an unusual department in that 96 per cent of the land in Chocó is collectively owned by indigenous or Afro-descendant peoples. For these ethnic groups, their territory embodies the essence of life and development. Therefore, Colombian law considers territory a fundamental right for these groups. Their livelihoods revolve around hunting, fishing, farming and small-scale artisanal mining. This way of life has preserved the rich biodiversity of this exceptional corner of Colombia, allowing it to meet the communities’ basic needs for centuries.

diggerHowever, in the 1980s a gold rush in the south of the department saw miners arrive with mechanical diggers and dredgers. Using mercury to separate out gold, they washed the residue into the rivers, along with other chemicals. Mercury pollution built up in the rivers of Chocó as a result of the rapid growth of small-scale mining operations. In 2009 a government commission revealed that four tons of mercury had been washed into Río Quito (above), just one of the tributaries of the Atrato River (the main river running through Choco) [iii]. In 2010 Colombia was named as the world’s worst per-capita mercury polluter from small-scale mechanised gold mining, and Chocó was one of the worst-affected areas in Colombia [iv].  Small-scale mechanised gold mining also became a lucrative business for illegal armed groups, increasingly important to them as a means of funding the conflict. Paramilitary and guerrilla groups not only extort ‘rents’ in exchange for ‘protection’, they also loan out machinery to these small-scale operations and sometimes even become owners of mining operations themselves.

As well as intensifying the conflict, small-scale mechanised mining has damaged the social fabric of many communities.  First, the presence of these illegal armed actors severely limits the possibility of communities engaging in traditional artisanal mining, which only intensifies the threat to livelihoods already jeopardised by environmental damage to local rivers. This has forced some women to seek work as cooks and cleaners in mining camps, where they can face immense violence and poverty.


Community leaders in Chocó report a number of interrelated issues stemming from this form of mining:

‘…many women have been sexually affected by these guys who come here to mine, they offer them jobs and end up raping them and then other men [at the camp] continue raping them … there are women who are psychologically traumatised by what has happened to them… in order to work they have gone to these mining camps and because the mine owners are mixing together with the armed actors, the women are seen as collaborators and this affects them considerably because they are stigmatised as collaborating with armed groups… the lives of women are controlled by those who dominate their territory… they control their sexual life, the way in which they dress, everything… They start looking at them as women when they are only 10 years old’.

‘… [T]he chemicals used in mining affect the women’s bodies… you see women with skin blemishes on their bodies as a result of exposure to chemicals used in mining. Sometimes they have babies with deformities…’

‘The impacts of the mining activities have been disastrous for us; we are not the same communities as 10 years ago. We have experienced many crop failures; mercury causes disastrous problems in our community. In particular as farmers we experience the full impact… We do not use the waters from the river … the fish are no longer edible due to the mercury. People who eat the fish get stomach pain and diarrhoea’.

Fishing ABC

These communities also face a newer challenge as they discover that during their forced displacement much of their territory has been conceded to multinational companies (MNCs). Investment by MNCs in Chocó is actively promoted by the Colombian Government despite being associated with militarisation and social conflict. The majority of concessions granted to MNCs are in the early exploratory stage but they are already generating legal disputes and social protest. The communities have been working with lawyers and the Dioceses of Quibdó to mount legal challenges to mining operations, environmental destruction and human rights abuses.

While international norms and Colombian Constitutional Court judgements have strengthened the guarantees for Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples to “free, prior, and informed consent” processes, recent Colombian Government legislation appears to seek to circumvent these rights.

Communities are trying to find ways forward to address these issues, including through legal and environmental strategies. Some have been successful in preserving their territory and way of life, but the challenges they face remain significant.  These challenges and their possible solutions will be explored at a conference hosted by ILAS at Senate House at the University of London on 11 November 2016. Places at this conference are limited so please reserve your place at:


For more information on our organisation visit:



[i]   Ministerio de Ambiente, Vivienda y Desarrollo Territorial. Dirección de Licencias, Permisos y Trámites Ambientales. Oficio No 2400-E2-95921 de 02/09/2010. Suscrito por Magda Constanza Contreras Morales – Coordinadora Grupo de Relación con Usuarios.

[ii] Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Ecosystem profile: Chocó-Manabí Conservation Corridor, Colombia and Ecuador, 2005.

[iii] Fiscalía General de Nación, Comunicado del 21 de abril de 2009, Bogotá cited by UPME (Unidad de Planeación Minera Energética) in Panorama del Sector Minero, August 2014.

[iv] NIDO, Antioquia, Colombia: the world’s most polluted place by mercury: impressions from two field trips, 2010.

Travelling to do a PhD: The role of international postgraduate students in networks of information circulation


by Jose Luis Guevara Salamanca, Research Student, Institute of Latin American Studies

I am writing this post one year after arriving in London. Having finished my undergraduate studies in 2005 in Colombia I began looking for a place abroad where I could develop my scholarly career. Eventually, in 2011, after six years in academic publishing, I took a Master’s in History in Colombia, and then in 2015 I began my PhD here at ILAS.

From the beginning I have been interested in the history of books, and during my PhD I have been able to relate this topic to questions about the legitimacy of knowledge, the roots of public policies on science and technology in Latin America, and how my personal experience fits into global networks of knowledge production and information circulation that have driven particular projects by scholars new and old.

For many British scholars the idea of coming to the UK to study the history of the book in Peru and Colombia seems strange. But the biggest surprise to me was not their posture, but rather how I took for granted that I would go abroad to do my PhD. Why did this seem the next logical step in my career? Clearly the main reason is that accumulation of capital and knowledge had created an imbalance in scientific and academic development between Colombia and the UK. Consider alone the concentration of books that Bloomsbury provides for the students of UCL, the School of Advanced Study, SOAS, and other institutes and members of the University of London.


A reading room at Senate House library, Bloomsbury

However, this vision only reproduces the traditional scale of centre-periphery explanations, which basically rely on an economic perspective to study the relations (and perhaps hierarchies) between different places[1]. In my research there is an ongoing battle to separate myself from perspectives that reduce cultural and social variables to the flows of capital, thereby hiding the networks that allow us to identify global organisations that challenge the metropole-colony understanding.

In this struggle for intellectual independence a question emerges: is it possible that after more than 200 years of independent history Latin America has not created its own, original corpus of knowledge? I have heard many explanations of why Latin America has not produced a school of thought distanced from European roots, with an underlying frustration about never becoming a place where knowledge is produced instead of reproduced. Could it be a lack of PhD programs in universities? The absence of a strong conversation among our scholars? A public policy that cannot free production of knowledge from “dependency” on Europe?

Two trains of thought split off from this issue. The first one relates to the common binary explanation in which “first world academia” is opposed to “third world academia” because of the obvious resource imbalances and the dependency of the latter on the former. The second, meanwhile, sees the circulation of information and knowledge as a global network that connects different geographies beyond the developed economies.

In the first case, voices from different parts of the world have gradually achieved global recognition[2] since the midpoint of the twentieth century, emerging from former colonies of the Imperial European enterprises. As such, oppositions like “developed world” and “emerging economies”, or “first world” and “third world”, can be understood as euphemisms for colonizer and colonized.[3] This is especially true where mechanisms of legitimacy of knowledge – rankings, databases, avenues to scholarly publication – work more in terms of the market than of scientific progress. However, this dichotomy only creates a dual vision that disempowers knowledge producers outside of the major centres. These producers, of course, already suffer from a lack visibility within a largely Anglophone system which reinforces the idea that “discoveries” happen in specific places[4].

The second case tells a different story, albeit one that provides as many questions as answers. An understanding of how information circulates outside of the bipolar world demands a broader view encompassing materials, channels, translations, deviations, influences, interests, global contributions to knowledge production, and meanings achieved by readers as active participants in the reproduction of information. Instead of telling a story of isolated creators blessed by “genetically unique cleverness”, this view underlines the connections, borrowings, influences and multiple ways in which the world of scholarship is linked. One of the ways in which geographically separate academic arenas encounter each other is through PhD students themselves. Although we come here to learn, in many cases we have an ongoing research career in our countries.  And because of the nature of our economies and our growing academic sectors, many students already have some experience of publishing, teaching and researching. We carry our own methods, questions, interests, and passions along with us on our research voyages.

For Colombian scholars the PhD is sometimes considered the summit of an academic career. It comes, especially in the social sciences and humanities, after lengthy research projects at undergraduate and Master’s level.[5] Reaching the required language proficiency for a PhD in a non-Spanish speaking country can also represent a significant and time-consuming challenge. Some scholars spend years looking for funding, studying languages and completing relevant exams and applications. This idea of the PhD as the pinnacle of one’s career is also shaped by the fact that once in post at a Colombian university, academics have to split their time between research itself, administrative tasks and teaching courses, many of which do not fit their area of expertise. Thus, later research lacks the luxury of time afforded by the PhD.

In the UK, meanwhile, the PhD dissertation is considered the beginning of a scholar’s academic life. The publication of the thesis as a monograph helps to position the researcher in a given field and that process turns the young scholar into an author: he or she knows how to respond to the publisher’s expectations, how to rewrite a text for a more general audience, and how to sell the idea of the project within a particular collection or series. This training in the communication of science and knowledge is part of the PhD process, allowing for insertion of the scholar into particular networks of information dissemination.

To come to the UK is to take part in a process of dissemination that flows in many directions – not only from Europe or North America to the rest of the world. Perhaps we have been too focused on showing how the “centre” spreads around the globe rather than how different geographies nourish each other. Gone are the days when audiences, readers, students and consumers were understood as passive agents in the processes of circulation of goods and texts, for new advances in the study of consumption, readership and education have shown how meaning changes in the process of circulation and how the practice of reception has come to define the production of knowledge itself.



[1] Peter Burke works on this perspective on his book, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot, Kindle edition (Cambridge, UK : Malden, Mass: Polity, 2000). Effectively, this author locates the center-periphery approach into the geographical explanation of circulation of knowledge, this strengthens the idea that behind those geopolitical explanations exist an specific way of understand the space, also position geography in the middle of this debate.

[2] Authors like Samir Amin, Edward Said, Dipesh Chakravarti, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Walter Mignolo and Jorge Canizares Esguerra have become widely known.

[3] Many of those voices have been gathered in academic trends that have searched for rewritte the colonial history like the postcolonial studies, decolonial studies and subaltern studies. However, many of this alternatives have been born in Southeast Asia, for that reason they tell the story of colonialism from the experience of the British Empire. A few steps ahead have been done for Hispanic American colonies in the work edited by Mark Thurner and Andrés Guerrero, After Spanish Rule. Postcolonial Predicaments of the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).

[4] Examples could be found in the difficult access to works in Chinese and Japanese history because of the lack of use of English. Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Writing History ‘Backwards’: Southeastern Asian History (and the Annales) at the Crossroads. Studies in History, 10(1994), 131-145. Even many of the works in Latin American history written in Spanish are absent from certain networks of circulation because of the language barrier.

[5] Although this is changing because the years to get an undergraduate diploma have been reduced considerably in recent times.