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Into the green land: Emerald mining in Colombia

Emerald seekers scour Colombia's Muzo Valley, searching for the gem that could lift them out of poverty.

Two miners from an unregulated emerald mine in Pauna, Western Boyaca, look for signs of emeralds in the dark, poorly ventilated mine. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Two miners from an unregulated emerald mine in Pauna, Western Boyaca, look for signs of emeralds in the dark, poorly ventilated mine. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera

Muzo, Colombia - The struggle over land is Colombia's oldest conflict.

For decades the mines of Muzo - widely known as the "emerald capital of the world" - have produced great fortunes for their owners.

In the so-called "Green Wars" during the 1980s, territorial disputes escalated into full-blown conflict as the country's leading mining families fought over territory.

In those days, the "barequeros" - emerald seekers who dig through debris -gathered by the thousands around the Muzo Valley, hoping that emeralds would arise from the dark soil to rescue them from extreme poverty.

While the Green Wars are over, there is still a low-level conflict of assassinations and murders as rival groups vie for access to the gemstones.

Although Colombian environmental laws now prohibit the dumping of leftover grit and rocks from mining excavation, some surplus debris continues to be dumped on land and rivers around the mines. A few dozen emerald seekers scour this debris, often using their bare hands. Others mine the area informally.

The barequeros tend to live a tough existence in slums on the hillsides of surrounding mountains, without running water or services.

When a barequero finds an emerald, they can either try to pay a carver to re-work and increase the value of the gemstone or, if the emerald already has a notable value, they will sell it to a merchant who trades the gems directly on the streets of the capital Bogota.

In this system of both legal and informal activities, the wealth extracted from Colombian mines is very difficult to calculate. This also applies to the value of the emerald itself; its price is based on a series of characteristics - such as colour, size, carve, and transparency - and varies depending on whose hands hold them.

It is easier to sell the emeralds on the market if they are already carved, but some buyers prefer the raw, uncut emeralds to oversee this delicate process themselves, before selling it on international markets. Around 95 percent of Colombian emeralds are destined for export.

Colombia is a country with a largely poor population living on an incredibly rich soil. The right to exploit its resources is an ongoing struggle in which the weakest have to fight for survival.

A miner from La Pita mine, Maripi, holds an emerald rock. Its commercial value is low because the gems that can be extracted after carving are very small. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
A miner from La Pita mine, Maripi, holds an emerald rock. Its commercial value is low because the gems that can be extracted after carving are very small. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
Jorge Gutierrez works at La Pita mine. His green eyes identify him as hailing from the Santander region; a rare background in Muzo, where most descend from the Muzo indigenous people. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Jorge Gutierrez works at La Pita mine. His green eyes identify him as hailing from the Santander region; a rare background in Muzo, where most descend from the Muzo indigenous people. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
The surplus debris from mining excavations is deposited in the surroundings of the tunnels or thrown into the river. This very common practice is prohibited by Colombia's environmental laws, which have been strengthened recently. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
The surplus debris from mining excavations is deposited in the surroundings of the tunnels or thrown into the river. This very common practice is prohibited by Colombia's environmental laws, which have been strengthened recently. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
The mining river crosses the west of Boyaca. Different companies extract emeralds from the nearby mountains, and the miners and barequeros establish bases nearby. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
The mining river crosses the west of Boyaca. Different companies extract emeralds from the nearby mountains, and the miners and barequeros establish bases nearby. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
Jose Elias Vallejo has been a barequero in the ravine of the mining river for more than 40 years. He lives in Matadecafe, an informal settlement of shanty towns in the vicinity of the Muzo mines. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Jose Elias Vallejo has been a barequero in the ravine of the mining river for more than 40 years. He lives in Matadecafe, an informal settlement of shanty towns in the vicinity of the Muzo mines. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
Jaime Vargas lost his leg in a mine accident. Since then, he dedicates himself to seeking emeralds in the ravine with Luis Gomez and Marcos Errada. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Jaime Vargas lost his leg in a mine accident. Since then, he dedicates himself to seeking emeralds in the ravine with Luis Gomez and Marcos Errada. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
A group of barequeros stir up the land of the mining river with the aid of their shovels and their bare hands. Carlos Salamanca, foreground, is one of the elders in the region. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
A group of barequeros stir up the land of the mining river with the aid of their shovels and their bare hands. Carlos Salamanca, foreground, is one of the elders in the region. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
Scouring the earth is a fully manual job and requires the ability to detect the green glow of small emerald sparkles that may appear mixed with the black rock. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Scouring the earth is a fully manual job and requires the ability to detect the green glow of small emerald sparkles that may appear mixed with the black rock. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
The stones that they can find today in the ravine are small and of low value. When they do find something, the barequero usually hides the sparkles of emerald in their mouth to preserve it and to avoid raising envy among their companions. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
The stones that they can find today in the ravine are small and of low value. When they do find something, the barequero usually hides the sparkles of emerald in their mouth to preserve it and to avoid raising envy among their companions. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
A female barequera rests after having travelled several miles from her house in search of emeralds. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
A female barequera rests after having travelled several miles from her house in search of emeralds. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
There are only a few women among the barequeros and miners. Many of them work in 'cantinas' - food and alcohol stores in the suburbs, and also washing the clothes of guaqueros and miners. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
There are only a few women among the barequeros and miners. Many of them work in 'cantinas' - food and alcohol stores in the suburbs, and also washing the clothes of guaqueros and miners. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
Fredy Mantilla, a carver in Muzo, polishes an emerald in his workshop located in his house. When a miner or barequero finds an emerald and manages to keep it to himself, he can sell the rough stone directly or pay a trusted carver to re-value the stone. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Fredy Mantilla, a carver in Muzo, polishes an emerald in his workshop located in his house. When a miner or barequero finds an emerald and manages to keep it to himself, he can sell the rough stone directly or pay a trusted carver to re-value the stone. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
Miners, barequeros, merchants and tourists make deals every day in the market of Muzo in search of the best emeralds. The emerald trade is carried out in small scale at the surroundings of the Avenue Jimenez, Bogota. There are many shops and workshops in the neighbourhood dedicated to valuing, carving, and selling these precious stones. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Miners, barequeros, merchants and tourists make deals every day in the market of Muzo in search of the best emeralds. The emerald trade is carried out in small scale at the surroundings of the Avenue Jimenez, Bogota. There are many shops and workshops in the neighbourhood dedicated to valuing, carving, and selling these precious stones. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
Monsignor Hector Gutierrez was the mediator of the peace process between emerald mine owners during the Green Wars. He wears a golden ring with six emeralds embedded forming a cross. The ring is a gift from the deceased Victor Carranza, a renowned emerald leader and a close friend of the bishop. [Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera]
Monsignor Hector Gutierrez was the mediator of the peace process between emerald mine owners during the Green Wars. He wears a golden ring with six emeralds embedded forming a cross. The ring is a gift from the deceased Victor Carranza, a renowned emerald leader and a close friend of the bishop. Javier Corso/OAK stories/Al Jazeera
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Summary | 4 Annotations
Muzo - widely known as the "emerald capital of the world
2017/03/22 01:21
While the Green Wars are over, there is still a low-level conflict of assassinations and murders as rival groups vie for access to the gemstones
2017/03/22 01:21
In this system of both legal and informal activities, the wealth extracted from Colombian mines is very difficult to calculate. This also applies to the value of the emerald itself; its price is based on a series of characteristics
2017/03/22 01:21
Colombia is a country with a largely poor population living on an incredibly rich soil. The right to exploit its resources is an ongoing struggle in which the weakest have to fight for survival.
2017/03/22 01:22