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ALMA Reviews Blog: Minería del Platino y el Oro en Chocó: Pobreza, riqueza natural e informalidad

Minería del Platino y el Oro en Chocó: Pobreza, riqueza natural e informalidad [Platinum and Gold Mining in Chocó: Poverty, Natural Wealth and Informality]

Juan Sebastián Lara-Rodríguez; University of Lisbon, Portugal; André Tosi Furtado; State University of Campinas, Brazil; Aleix Altimiras-Martin, State University of Campinas, Brazil 

Published in 2020 in Revista de Economía Institucional, Volume 22, Nº. 42.

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For some years now I have been seeking to understand the different conflicts and problems surrounding artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and why its formalisation (broadly defined as the integration of informal activities into formal regulatory frameworks (Ankenbrand, 2021)) has been so hotly debated in academia. The article by Lara-Rodríguez et al. is a thorough effort that aims to explain why ASM has not translated into sustainable development outcomes, specifically in the Chocó department, a region located in the northwest of Colombia. The authors touch upon a crucial aspect concerning the governance of mining resources, namely the role of mining institutions in generating sustainable development. This is especially relevant in Colombia’s present context, where the mining sector is seen as one of the five development “locomotives” that will support social and economic development, as well as peacebuilding processes. Juan Sebastián Lara-Rodríguez is currently a PhD student in Development Studies at the Lisbon School of Economics and Management. The paper’s co-authors are André Tosi Furtado, a professor, and Aleix Altimiras-Martin, an associate professor, both at the Institute of Geosciences of the State University of Campinas, Brazil. 
Their main argument is that economic and environmental informality, reinforced by the state’s inability to ensure adequate enforcement of the law and environmental regulations, prevents the sustainable development of platinum and gold mining in Chocó. To support their argument, the authors analyse the interactions among the social, economic and environmental dimensions of ASM. Regarding the social dimension, they show how ASM still continues to exacerbate poverty. From the economic dimension, they reveal the region’s high dependence on informal mining and illegal activities. Lastly, the environmental dimension illustrates the harms and risks posed by informal ASM in a megadiverse area. The authors conclude that the reproduction of the negative externalities of the mining sector has to do with the failure to enforce mining and environmental regulations, as well as the lack of more inclusive regulations to allow for the formalisation of ASM in the department of Chocó. This situation creates entry barriers to the formal sector and reinforces informality and illegality. Additionally, the authors claim that the absence of the state in this region, also manifested in the failure to implement public policies that promote sustainable development, hinders local populations from diversifying their economy and pushes them instead to maintain subsistence activities and to become involved in illegal activities. 
While I agree with the authors that the role of the state has been key in perpetuating informality in the ASM sector, approaches to the problem from the perspective of institutional weakness should be made with caution. I would rather claim that in Colombia we are faced with an effort of differentiated state intervention that seeks to guarantee territorial control of rich mining areas to favour certain mining projects of interest to the state, while excluding others. In this context, the state has shown no interest in designing more inclusive mining policies, as also claimed by Lara-Rodríguez et al. This would explain why, in the last 20 to 30 years, substantial progress has been made in building modern institutions to govern the mining sector (see EITI for an overview of the most recent institutional developments, in:, even as numerous mining concessions have been awarded to transnational mining companies. 
The Colombian state simplified processes for the acquisition of mining concessions under the Mining Code of 2001, and state mining companies were transformed into mixed bodies, to facilitate the entry of national and international private capital (Echavarria, 2014; Quiroga, 2019). The granting of mining concessions works on the principle of “first in line, first in law” (Vélez-Torres, 2014, p. 73), whereby the title is granted to the party that has applied for it first. This has had several implications for local communities, both those with and without an ASM tradition. The most notorious aspect is that many ASM communities wishing to formalise find that someone else has already applied for a concession in their territory. The Mining Code offers special dispositions for ASM communities to formalise through the creation of special or ethnic mining areas. While these instruments grant communities the right of “prior entitlement”, they do not offer them the possibility to veto mining activity in their territory (Vélez-Torres, 2017). Even if communities want to formalise using their right to prior allocation, they must comply with high productivity, technical and environmental standards. Consequently, they are not only forced to change their forms of production to more efficient ways, but also to seek external capital to meet these requirements. This way of thinking about mining brings long-term dispossession, not only of land, but also of activities and relationships to the territory. 
I found this paper instructive, as it attempts to study the problem of ASM formalisation from a more comprehensive perspective – that is, to explain from social, economic and environmental perspectives why ASM fails to contribute to sustainable development. This is extremely valuable, as much of the ASM literature still approaches the problem either from a security or a good governance perspective (Ankenbrand et al., 2021). However, rather than merely pointing to institutional weakness, we are faced with a context of ambiguous and differentiated policies that generate dispossession among those communities that should be benefitting from development. In this context, how can we expect mining to contribute to sustainable development?

Reviewed by: Zabrina Welter

Additional works cited:

Ankenbrand, C., Welter, Z., & Engwicht, N. (2021). Formalization as a tool for environmental peacebuilding ? Artisanal and small-scale mining in Liberia and Sierra Leone. International Affairs, 1, 35–55.

Echavarria, C. (2014). “What is legal?” Formalising artisanal and small-scale mining in Colombia.

Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. EITI Colombia. 

Quiroga, C. (2019). Una apuesta local por lo común: entre la ilegalidad y la legalidad de la minería en pequeña escala en Colombia. Las Huellas Del Desarrollo: Intersecciones Entre Conflicto, Reconfiguración Social y Pacificación En Colombia, 65–98.

Vélez-Torres, I. (2014). Governmental extractivism in Colombia: Legislation, securitization and the local settings of mining control. Political Geography, 38, 68–78.

Vélez-Torres, I. (2017). Disputes over gold mining and dispossession of local afrodescendant communities from the Alto Cauca, Colombia. Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal, 1(2), 235–248.


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