Distraction Free Reading

Toxicity, Violence, and the Legacies of Mercury and Gold Mining in Colombia

Stubborn substances and toxic legacies

Toxic substances are often portrayed as stubborn molecules that resist being restricted to the places where we would like to contain them in order to free ourselves from the environmental and health damage they cause us [1]. Mercury —a heavy metal used for different products and industrial processes— illustrates how the effects of these substances are mediated not only by their “stubbornness” or physical-chemical persistence but also by histories of power, violence, and domination. In gold mining, once ores are crushed or panned, mercury is added to break gold’s chemical bonds with other non-valuable minerals—in the process, mercury attaches itself to gold particles. The resulting mercury-gold amalgam is then torched, turning mercury into toxic vapor and leaving gold as the final product[2]. Mercury is difficult to control: it does not biodegrade or metabolize, it cannot be destroyed, its liquid form does not dissolve in water, and its vapor form can travel globally through the atmosphere before depositing in oceans and lands again. Instead, quicksilver changes state and continually circulates through the atmosphere, oceans, and human and non-human bodies. In doing so, this substance severely damages health and mainly affects the most vulnerable bodies, particularly those of pregnant or lactating people and children (United Nations Environment Program 2019). In this way, governing mercury and other toxics is not about getting rid of it or running away from them, since it is not possible, but rather deciding in which bodies and landscapes we most tolerate its presence.

In recent years, Colombia has been labeled the largest mercury per capita emitter in the world, as some twenty percent of all global mercury flows in the atmosphere are emitted from the use of the said substance in gold mining (García 2017; United Nations Environment Program 2019). It has also been shown to be the second-largest mercury importer in Latin America in the past decade. But the matter is far from new. In Colombia, the use of mercury dates back at least to the mid-19th century, when underground or vein mining began to boom in the department of Antioquia (Poveda 1985; West 1952). Back then, mercury helped increase the productivity of gold mines and thereby increased rents, later reinvested in boosting agriculture, infrastructure, and the region’s industrial development (Safford 2014; Botero 2007). American and British mining companies—such as Compañía Minera de Segovia and Frontino Gold Mines—played a central role in producing these mining rents given that they dominated Colombia’s gold production from the 1850s until the 1970s and used mercury to do so. Although mercury has been imported and widely used in Antioquia and other mining areas of the country since then and to this day, the toxic legacy of Antioquia’s mining-based industrialization has been overshadowed by the recent international visibility of this metal focused on its contemporary use in informal and semi-mechanized mining.

Toxicity, dispossession, and violence

Environmental toxicity indexes the intimate entanglement of human bodies with structures of power and violence, often in ways that conceal the responsibility of the most powerful actors involved (Agard-Jones 2013). A landscape that instantiates this is Northeast Antioquia. The La Cianurada stream, between the towns of Segovia and Remedios, is one of the most polluted sites in the country and the world. The Frontino Gold Mines Company and its successive corporate heirs dumped the mercury-polluted tailings from their gold mining operations there since 1852. Informal and semi-mechanized mining has also contributed to said discharges, mainly since the 1970s, when this type of mining operations expanded in the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, and other areas of the country, after the departure of Frontino and other foreign companies (Castillo & Rubiano 2019). The material consequences of a century and a half of mercury-intensive gold extraction in the region are inescapable. The waters of La Cianurada far exceed all standards for total cyanide, solid waste, and total mercury (Corantioquia 2014). In turn, mercury concentrations in the air of Segovia have exceeded by almost a thousand times the standard allowed by the World Health Organization (Cordy et al. 2013).

Scientist taking samples of mercury in water

Scientist takes samples of mercury in water and sediments of the La Cianurada stream, in Segovia, Antioquia. Photo by author, 2019

In La Cianurada and its neighboring mining landscapes, violence and socioeconomic and toxic injustices converge in the most vulnerable bodies. In the last two decades, more than one hundred and fifty people –mostly women– who came from other regions looking for a livelihood now work in Segovia manually collecting gold scrap and tailings and digging up the tailings that other mines dump into La Cianurada (a work called chatarreo). This labor involves digging sands that the processing plants do not process because they have little gold or handling tailings that have already been previously amalgamated and cyanided by other miners, which increases their exposure to mercury’s toxicity. In the Northeast of Antioquia, forced displacement, the assassination of leaders, and massacres —more than seventeen between 1982 and 1997, in Segovia alone— have been and are part of everyday life (CNMH 2014). Since then, these same structures have continued to dispute control of the region with guerrillas, drug traffickers, and other armed actors, which has led to the displacement, extortion, and murder of miners and peasants (Bedoya 2010).

Repairing the irreparable

In Antioquia and other mining areas, mercury’s legacies predate the protracted Colombian armed conflict that started in the 1960s but cannot be disentangled from it. The Northeast of Antioquia is a nerve center of the Colombian armed conflict (CNMH 2014), which has restricted the study of contaminated sites—scientists are often unable to work on this type of so-called “red zones.” Furthermore, exposure to mercury disproportionally affects chatarreras, other unlicensed miners, and the population of Northeast Antioquia hit by the violence more broadly. Even with awareness of mercury’s harmful effects on health, small and medium-scale mining operations (mainly those with no mining titles) continue to use it despite recent regulations banning its use. In addition, several armed groups have become involved in the gold production chain, which makes it difficult for miners to join state programs to prevent and remedy mercury contamination. Sidelined by the government’s pro-corporate mining policy and subject to the ups and downs of local violence, many miners do not abandon using mercury, as it is the simplest and cheapest way to extract gold. Meanwhile, they endure crackdowns and criminalization dictated by a government that fails to distinguish between informal and semi-mechanized mining and the armed groups’ capture of certain segments of the gold supply chain (Quiroga 2012).

The toxicity of mercury, cyanide, and mercuric cyanide —the toxic compound that forms the first two substances— embodies a type of violence that has occurred not instantaneously but slowly, silently, and with repercussions for several generations (Nixon 2011). Colombia’s Mercury Law, enacted in 2013 to control the trade and use of the substance, evaded this issue—it did not address the problem of contaminated sites or establish who should repair the mercurial legacies that have existed since at least the mid-19th century and that the country’s armed conflict has perpetuated. But even if the law had acknowledged that accumulated toxic violence, this raises difficult questions, especially in times of peace and reconciliation efforts: how should bodies and landscapes affected by transgenerational and multi-scalar toxic damage be redressed? How to repair accumulated toxic violence that persists and overlaps with other forms of violence and inequality? In other words, what kind of peace, reconciliation, and reparation is possible in these landscapes of socio-environmental injustice and sedimented violence?

Toxic injustices and militarization

In 2013, Colombia signed the UN Convention on Mercury and committed to reducing and, where possible, eliminating mercury in all sectors, including gold mining. Recent governments have interpreted this commitment, ratified in 2019, as a crusade, not only against so-called illegal mining but against mercury itself (El Colombiano 2015).

Consequently, while consultants, officials, scientists, and activists produce data on the problem —via inventories, biomonitoring, training, etc.—, in some parts of the country the fight against mercury is perceived as a pretext to perpetuate the dispossession of informal mining. In the northeast of Antioquia, the Bajo Cauca region, and the south of the department of Bolívar, many miners resent the history of top-down mercury reduction initiatives that do not consider their needs. They argue that the Mercury Law exacerbates the criminalization of their mining activities and does not contribute to solving the underlying problems of the sector —the siege of the armed groups and the concentration of access to gold in large companies (a large part of Segovia’s subsoil is already titled to a company). Miners have expressed these claims, for example, in the mining strikes of 2013 and 2017 in Bajo Cauca and Northeast Antioquia, as well as in the frustration with the dozens of training and technology transfer projects through which state and international agencies, universities, and nonprofits have tried to solve the problem for decades.

Persistent chemicals like mercury resist military action,  moving unevenly but steadily through landscapes and bodies for generations, making their elimination from the inhabited environment an impossible undertaking. This approach has made us lose sight of the fact that toxic violence and armed violence feed off one another; just as armed violence can aggravate the unjust and unequal effects of toxicity, it can also aggravate other forms of violence. As long as this injustice, and the toxic legacies on which it rests, are not addressed, it is utopian to expect those who work and depend on informal gold mining –twenty million and one hundred million, respectively, in the world (United Nations Environment Program 2019)- to find another trade, as they have intended through “alternative livelihoods” projects. Instead of resolving our frustration at the physical-chemical persistence of mercury through the militarization of environmental management and naïve expectations, states should attend to the socio-historical conditions that have made it possible for the most vulnerable bodies to be the ones whose health ends up being most seriously affected by exposure to this substance. That way, we could more effectively challenge why contamination persists and why we have tolerated the unfair and unequal distribution of this and other violence manifesting in La Cianurada and other toxic geographies.

Wall in Segovia, Antioquia with graffiti

Wall in Segovia, Antioquia. Photo by author, 2019. It reads “Llega un aire fresco” (A fresh air arrives) followed by “Mejor sin mercurio” (It’s better without mercury)

*This post is an abridged and edited version of a chapter that will appear in Diana Ojeda & Daniel Ruiz. 2023 (eds.). Belicopedia. Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes


[1] This is one of the reasons why many scholars have used ethnography and other interpretive methods to reveal what Shapiro & Kirksey (2017) call chemosociality –the longstanding relationships and emergent social forms that arise from chemical exposures and dependencies. Using these methods, works in environmental sociology and anthropology have studied how marginalized exposed communities experience chemosociality and contest it in various ways that range from passive waiting to varied forms of activism and contestation. See, among others, Auyero & Swistun (2009); Murphy (2017); Shapiro & Kirksey (2017); Lora-Wainwright (2017); Liboiron (2021); Silva (2021)

[2] Unlike gold, mercury is highly volatile—it can be evaporated at ambient temperature and has a much lower evaporation point than gold.


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