The Violence Behind the Gold Route

By Natalia Duarte*


A recent investigative journalism piece documented the illegal gold exchanges between some South American countries and those in the Global North—on the one side are Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil, and on the other are Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Falkland Islands, Panama, and several European countries. While mining in general creates various problems (for instance, pollution of water sources), these problems are magnified when actions surrounding the extraction of gold is done outside the legal regulatory framework.

First, the illegal exploitation of gold has direct negative consequences on a country’s tax revenues. For example, Bolivia has determined that in 2011, rather of receiving 30 million dollars for gold mining royalties, the country only received USD 500,000. This loss of tax revenue has also occurred in Brazil: in 2012, official gold production was 70 tons, but estimates concluded that illegal production increased this figure to more than 91 tons—a 30% increase that translates into a corresponding loss in tax revenue. Finally, in Peru illegal gold production is believed to reach 40 tons annually, which would create US$ 257,618,358 of income tax if such production were legal.

Image from  Actualidad Ambiental Perú . Amazon region of Peru.

Image from Actualidad Ambiental Perú. Amazon region of Peru.

Second, most of the cases of human trafficking related to gold mining occur in illegal mines. According to the International Labor Organization, in 2005, in Bolivia and Peru, 13,500 and 50,000 children respectively worked in small informal mines in 2005. Moreover, in Peru, approximately 4,500 people were sexually exploited in 2012 around the Madre de Dios region (a region where 97% of mining activities are illegal and/or informal) and 78% of these victims were minors. According to the 2016 Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, many women and minors are deceived by false employment offers or are recruited by intermediaries who offer them employment in illegal mining camps as cooks, store clerks, or waitresses. Once there, women are forced to provide sexual services in restaurants, bars, or mining camps.

Illegal gold mining in the Amarakaeri rainforest in Peru. Photo by:  Climate Alliance Org

Illegal gold mining in the Amarakaeri rainforest in Peru. Photo by: Climate Alliance Org

Third, armed groups traffic gold to fund their operations, as in the case of Colombia’s guerrillas and neo-paramilitary groups, or Brazilian drug traffickers who displace landowners and launder money in gold exploitation zones**. This criminal mining also leads to high homicide rates. A study in Colombia found that the rise in international gold prices increases the profitability of illegal mining activities, leading to increases in homicide rates and the number of massacre victims perpetrated by illegal armed groups.

Fourth, conflicts over land due to illegal gold mining are also prevalent. For instance, in Brazil, garimpeiros (small informal miners) encroach on indigenous lands looking for gold. The garimpeiros have even trespassed into neighboring countries including Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Guyana, where violent conflicts have resulted and indigenous leaders have been murdered. Internal community conflicts are also common, as garimperios’ coopt indigenous peoples to work in mines. On the other hand, land traffickers in Bolivia invade, take possession of and trade lands where the State has already granted use rights, such as forest concessions and primary or plantation forests. Finally, illegal mining jobs are highly insecure, since miners do not receive labor protections, remuneration is extremely low, and children and women are often exploited.

Both legal and illegal gold mining create serious, often similar problems. However, assuming that a certain amount of mining is necessary to fulfill some basic needs for technology and other crucial industries, it is important to close down the illegal gold mining trail. Local, national and transnational authorities should strengthen collaboration between countries. A stronger state presence is necessary, in particular along countries’ borders where this kind of mining is concentrated. Clearer legislation that differentiates between types of mining and their impacts is necessary, as are stronger regulations in areas where mining is environmentally and socially sustainable.

As for consumers, the lack of mining titles facilitates gold trafficking, as most illegal gold can be easily mixed with legal gold***. When international trading companies conveniently fail to check for proper documentation of the gold’s origin, the final consumer may be purchasing gold produced under unjust and violent circumstances. It is thus necessary that consumers themselves clamor for strong regulation and be conscientious about what they buy, because they might as well be purchasing violence and despair.


*Natalia Duarte is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia)

**Vortex Foundation (2015). Gold Trafficking in Colombia and the Andean Region (In press).

*** Illegal mining is usually confused with informal mining. The former cannot be formalized due to certain characteristics (for instance, it is not environmentally friendly) that in some cases leads to criminal mining.  Informal mining consists 0f the lack of legal mining titles that can be formalized eventually.