EXPLORING COLOMBIA'S EMERALD MINES
When we see the sparkle of a beautiful gemstone in a piece of jewelry, the thought of where it came from doesn’t usually enter our minds. A recent tour of mines in Colombia in search of the nation's elusive emeralds gives new meaning to the term “mine to market.”
By Cynthia Unninayar
This slideshow offers a few of the sights in and around some of the emerald mines in Colombia.
Before the day had dawned over Colombia’s capital city, I was among 38 intrepid adventurers who set out on a six-hour trip from Bogotá to the small town of Chivor in the eastern part of the province of Boyacá. It was the first stop on our trek to visit some of Colombia’s most famous emerald mines.
From Legend to Reality
Many gemstones come steeped in the history of discovery, intrigue and adventure, but few have a past like the Colombian emerald. The early Indians collected and fashioned the green crystals as early as 500 A.D. They were worshiped, used in jewelry and had an important role in sacrificial offerings such as the infamous El Dorado ceremony on Lake Guatavita, northeast of Bogotá.
One legend relating to Colombian emeralds tells of Fura and Tena, two humans who were created by the god Are in order to populate the Earth. Are specified that they had to remain faithful to each other in order to retain eternal youth. Fura disobeyed, though, and their immortality was taken away. When they eventually died, Are took pity on them and turned them into two cliffs protected from storms and serpents.
Inside their depths, Fura’s tears turned into emeralds. Today, symbolic guardians of Colombia’s emerald zone, the Fura and Tena cliffs rise 840 meters and 500 meters, respectively, above the Rio Minero valley, some 30 kilometers north of the famed Muzo mines, among the largest in the country.
As time went by, though, Fura’s tears were not the only ones shed in Colombia’s turbulent emerald saga. When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in the early 16th century, they took control of the Muzo area and enslaved the Muzo Indians, forcing them to work in the mines. By the end of the 16th century, both Chivor and Muzo, in what is now the Boyacá Department, were being vigorously worked using Indian slave labor. In 1871, some 61 years after Colombia’s independence from Spain in 1810, the new government took over ownership of the mines, and granted mining rights to various private companies. Yet, more power struggles, lawless disorder and violence followed.
The Green Wars
In 1946, the mines of Muzo came under the administration of the Banco de la República. In 1968, the state created a mining corporation (Esmeralda de Colombia) to take control. It awarded contracts to private families, but the robberies and violence continued. Finally in 1973, the army closed the mines.
In 1976, private consortia entered the scene, with a resulting free-for-all. By the mid-1980s, one of the leaders of the Medellín drug cartel, Jose Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, who was a partner of the infamous Pablo Escobar, entered the fray. In his attempt to take over the emerald mines, Gacha incited the rivalry between two of the local groups into an all-out war. The ensuing Green Wars or Emerald Wars claimed thousands of lives, with estimates ranging up to 10,000 or more.
It wasn’t until 1991, when a process, brokered by the Catholic Church, established a relative peace dominated by the so-called Emerald Czar, Victor Carranza. Working in the mines as a child, Carranza fought his way to the top, and by his mid-20s received one of the area’s first official mining licenses. His ascendancy was not, however, a romantic rags-to-riches tale, but an intense story of power, violence and death.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Boyacá area was left to its own devices because the Colombian government was busy fighting left-wing rebel groups. Law and order in the region were often maintained by mercenary armies supported by the local barons, such as Carranza.
After the Emerald Wars, Carranza emerged as one of the most powerful players in the Colombian emerald scene. Surviving several assassination attempts, he became both protector and warlord, and, importantly, he became owner of the large and productive Muzo mine.
Today, times are dramatically different in Colombia, and its emerald story continues with our visits to the various mines.
A Bit of Geology
Most of Colombia's emerald deposits are located on the eastern ridge of the Andes Mountains that run northeast-southwest through the country. The three main mining areas are Chivor, located in the eastern part of Boyacá Department, and Muzo and Coscuez in the western part of the province.
Colombian emeralds are different from other emeralds in that they are the only ones in the world to be associated with sedimentary rock rather than igneous rock. The tectonic movements that created the Andes Mountains forced the elements of emeralds (beryllium, chromium and vanadium, which give the gem its green color) into liquid and gaseous states that moved into cracks in the surrounding sedimentary material.
These elements eventually cooled and crystallized in veins with hydrothermal brine that washed out impurities such as iron. Often associated with quartz, pyrite, albite, calcite and other minerals, deposits of this vein-type ore are estimated to have been formed 40 to 65 million years ago.
The sedimentary layers are heavily faulted and folded, and are mostly shales and argillites with some blocks of carbonaceous limestone present near the top of the stratigraphic section. The calcite vein material that may contain emerald crystals is oriented in various directions within the shale and in some instances they may intersect.
First Stop - The Chivor Area
After six hours, our caravan of 4x4s arrives at the small town of Chivor. The weather is comfortably cool, since we are at an elevation of 2300 meters.
The first Spanish mine can be traced back to the Chivor area in 1537. The green stones the Spaniards removed, though, were stained with the red blood of their Indian slaves, who died by the thousands under deplorable conditions. When word got back to Pope Clement X about these atrocities, he convinced King Charles II to close the mine. Around 1675, it was sealed and then overtaken by vegetation before being eventually lost. It remained forgotten for more than 220 years, with the only clue to its whereabouts the Spanish inscription: The mines of Chivor are situated on the point of a ridge from which the Llanos (the vast grassy plains of eastern Colombia) of the Orinoco can be seen.
In 1896, using this description as a guide, a miner named Pacho Restrepo crisscrossed more than 130 square kilometers of steep mountain terrain before he finally found the lost mine. And, then, it was by a stroke of luck. A dog had chased a buruga (groundhog-like animal) into its burrow and, as one of his men was digging out the animal, he broke into one of the mine’s tunnels. Restrepo’s luck did not continue, however. Unable to make the mine pay off, he was forced to sell out.
After visiting the town square of Chivor, featuring a statue of two Indians holding emeralds, we leave the small town. Our 4x4s jostle along a very bumpy dirt road for 45 minutes until we reach the Manantial mine. After suiting up in rubber boots, hardhat, headlamp, gloves, black shirt and face mask, we follow our guide down a stairway leading to the main tunnel. Rain water that drains through the mountains fills the floor, and we slosh through several wet centimeters during the 1.7-kilometer walk through the narrow tunnel. Ventilation tubes run along the ceiling, but there are no lights. Divided into three groups, we follow one another single-file in the dark, with only our headlamps lighting the way.
The first 1.5 kilometers, we are told, contain no fine emeralds, only the inferior quality moralla. The black shale walls of the tunnel are wet and powdery. Merely touching them leaves thick black powder on our gloves. The tunnel follows veins of calcite, some with a yellowish color, that include quartz and pyrite. Several stalactite-like formations hang from the ceiling or from the ventilation hoses, made up of calcium salts deposited by the dripping water.
After 1.7 kilometers, the tunnels diverge and one leads to an active face where the veins contain emeralds. Here the miners use picks and chisels to carefully remove the calcite without damaging the green gems. The emeralds from the Chivor area are bluish-green compared to the deep green stones found in Muzo. After the mine visit, we are treated to a delicious lunch with the miners, who show us samples of emerald, moralla, and remarkable specimens of large pyrite crystals in quartz taken from the mine.
On to the Cunas Mine
The next morning, we leave very early for an 11-hour ride to the western part of Boyacá. After leaving the main road, our 4x4s spend hours crawling along deeply rutted roads that zigzag between steep mountains and deep valleys. The scenery is amazingly spectacular with high peaks and low valleys blanketed in lush rainforest, evoking every color of green imaginable along with beautiful colorful flowers. The luxurious landscape is punctuated with various crops such as maize, sugar cane, coffee and cacao.
Our first stop is the Cunas mine in the Maripí district, near Muzo. Owned by Esmeraldas Santa Rosa SA, the Cunas mine is one of the nation's largest emerald producers. Outfitted again in mine attire, the group descends a long stairway to begin an 800-meter walk through the tunnel. Large ventilation tubes are overhead, with water dripping from the ceiling, and black powdery shale on the walls. As we trudge through the water, we come to a section with no ventilation.
“Hurry through this area,” we are told, in order to avoid breathing too much of the carbon dioxide buildup. It gives pause for thought about the early miners who did not have the “luxury” of mechanical ventilation.
Finally, we reach a “lift” that takes us down to another level with a tunnel leading to an active face. Soon, in a side tunnel, we are surprised with a deluge of rushing water, 30 centimeters deep, covering the tunnel floor, making it hard to move. Again, it brings home the danger that miners face if the pumps were to stop working. Despite the cool water at our feet and dripping on our heads, the mineshaft is like a sauna, with temperatures reaching 40°C and higher.
The active face in the Cunas mine is worked by a small crew under the watchful eye of a closed circuit TV camera and a supervisor. Once the emeralds are removed from the vein, they are placed in a special plastic bag and then locked in a special pouch. At the end of the shift, the supervisor takes the bag to the surface where it is locked in a vault before being examined and sorted.
Back at the Esmeraldas Santorrosa headquarters, we enjoy lunch with the miners and get a quick tour of the facility. Safety and emergency oxygen equipment is housed in one of the rooms. Many of the miners live and eat at the compound, and the entire area is secured by heavily-armed guards.
And then the Famed Muzo Mine
The next morning we head for the famed Muzo mine, elevation 800 meters, the most technically advanced of the mines we visit. A lot of ink has been used writing about the storied past of this mine and its former owner, Victor Carranza.
In a way, the story of Muzo is representative of the changes that are occurring in Colombia. As mentioned earlier, Carranza rose from an impoverished childhood to become the undisputed and powerful Emerald Czar. At one point, he reportedly controlled more than 40 percent of Colombia’s emerald production. One of his mines was the 500-year-old Muzo, which passed into the control of his company Tecminas in 1977.
As we drive into this area, we see the remnants of entire mountains that have been sliced away by bulldozers and the miners who sought the elusive green gems in open-pit mines. In the past, many tons of shale and emerald-bearing material were dumped into the valleys and into the Rio Itoco, where thousands of expectant guaqueros would search for any stones missed by the miners. Today, to protect the environment, open-pits are no longer allowed; all mining has moved underground.
In 2009, with emerald production falling, Carranza realized the need to modernize his mine. He sold half to a U.S.-based investment company, which formed the company, Minería Texas Colombia (MTC), to exploit the mine. As Carranza neared death in 2013 from cancer—the one enemy he was not able to defeat—he believed that without his presence and power to protect the interests of his family and the other owners of their share of the mine from outsiders, they would be in danger. So, he sold the remaining 50 percent of Muzo to MTC.
Thanks to MTC’s injection of capital and technology, mine production began to modernize. Workers were given fair wages and social benefits. Safety and security measures were strengthened. MTC also began social initiatives to help the local communities, including assistance to schools and a clinic that provides care to some 1200 people.
The company also set up a cutting and grading facility in Bogotá, thus ensuring transparency of its emeralds from mine to market. MTC has big plans for the mine, and is doing a major launch in March 2016 at BaselWorld to introduce its new MUZO brand.
About the time of MTC's entry into Colombia, the nation's government was transforming its mining sector, which had been made up mostly of small, non-regulated and non-tax-paying companies. It began a program of certification and let it be known to large foreign players that they were welcome. “Colombia is open for business,” declared Dr. Santiago Ángel, president of the Asociación Colombiana de Minería recently. The government’s actions have reduced illegal mining, improved living conditions, provided better environmental safeguards, and have helped ensure stable supply and regular pricing. In addition to MTC, UK-based Gemfields is also entering the Colombian emerald scene with its recent purchase of 70 percent of the productive Cosquez mine as well as mining titles covering 20,000 hectares in the general Muzo and Quípama districts.
The face of MTC is director Charles Burgess, who is the liaison between the mine and the investment group in Texas. But his task is far from an easy one. “It is no secret that robbery and theft are common along the supply chain,” he stated recently. “I am not talking about poor miners, but well organized criminals in large-scale operations.” He was referring to two deadly attacks on tunnels in the Muzo mine complex by well-armed elements, requiring the help of the police and army to quell the situation. The latest attack was in May 2015, when anywhere from 1000 to 3000 people, according to different estimates, stormed the mine for at least two days, until the police finally gained control. Industry watchers speculate that losses were in the millions, with numbers ranging from US$12M to US$42M.
As our caravan of 4x4s enters the Muzo mine area (MTC controls some 46,000 hectares), the armed guards are quite apparent. Rows of curled barbed wire surround the immediate entrances to the mines. Security is taken so seriously that we are not allowed to take our cameras or phones into the mine. Divided again into three groups, we suit up and follow our guide through long, lit and ventilated tunnels to an impressive large round central shaft called Clavada that descends into the Earth some 286 meters. We take the Clavada “lift” down 140 meter to another tunnel. The white calcite veins along the black shale walls are much like those in the other two mines. At one point we come to a steep 10-meter shaft that we climb straight down—with difficulty—on a ladder fashioned from rebar that hugs the steep wall. In the gallery below are many more veins, culminating in a face that seemed to be mined out. Even though we entered the Muzo mine from the Puerto Arturo entrance, we left from the Catedral shaft.
These two sections, when combined with the Tequendama section, make up several kilometers of tunnels that ostensibly contain the richest emeralds in Muzo. Upon our return to the surface, we were kindly invited by our hosts to have lunch with the miners. This gave us the opportunity to ask some of the Colombians about a construction site that we passed along the way. They explained that it is going to be a military base, created to provide protection to Muzo and the other mines in the area. This is further confirmation that the government is serious about bringing change to its mining industry and protecting companies that bring not only revenue to its coffers, but a better life for many of its citizens.
The distance back to Bogotá is only around 100 kilometers—about 45 minutes as the crow flies or should I say as the helicopter flies, which seems to be the favored form of transportation for mine owners. For us, however, it took more than five hours, most of it on narrow rutted dirt roads, shaken to the core. Back in Bogotá, we bid farewell to our friends, all of whom enjoyed going underground in Colombia to learn more about its elusive emeralds.