On a narrow trail muddied by rain, a slight man in a thin T-shirt emerges from the thick of a remote jungle, down where Colombia ends and Venezuela and Brazil begin. He’s striding quickly, despite nearly 50 pounds of rocks inside a woven basket, anchored to his back by a white cloth wrapped around his forehead.
“Yes, I’m coming from the mine,” the man says, the weight of the basket preventing him from looking up at strangers he’s encountered on the trail, inside Puinawai National Park. He’s part of a local Indian tribe and is moving precious ore in the same palm-frond baskets his ancestors once weaved to bring prey home from a hunt.
The miner has little time to talk; the drop-off point for his ore is still miles away, outside the park.
Closer to the mine, near a stream, men briskly shovel muddy mounds of small rocks onto screens, then pour water over them to expose what they hope are pebbles containing tungsten or coltan. And at the mine itself, men, women and small children dig holes and sift through mud in search of ore.
This is an illegal mine, on a plot of land stripped of trees and surrounded by pristine jungle.
The work here goes on well out of the view of Colombian police patrols looking for traffickers moving contraband ore containing valuable minerals like coltan and tungsten.
“We are seeing the emergence of illegal groups engaged in mining activities, especially in rare-earth [minerals] in the eastern part of Colombia, very distant and remote areas in which mining is illegal,” said Mauricio Cárdenas, chief of Colombia’s Mining Ministry. These groups are “a national security concern for us.”
It’s proof, he said, that a black market for valuable metals and rare-earth minerals is growing in territory the Colombian government has historically found difficult to police. Not only is this mine inside a national preserve, but it’s tucked in a corner of Colombia infamous for drug smugglers and armed paramilitaries.