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Buriticá, Challenged by Growth and Informality

Last week, I wrote about a Colombian town (La Jagua de Ibirico) where IRI works that has a largely beneficial relationship with nearby legal extractive industries (coal mines).  Now, I want to share what it can be like in another partner community currently overwhelmed by informality. 

For centuries people had known there was gold in the hills near Buriticá, northwest of Medellín in Colombia’s Antioquia Department.  After all, the town is named after a native chief whom Spanish conquerors burned alive because he wouldn’t reveal the location of the deposits.  In the 1600s, a woman, Doña Maria de Centeno, became one of the early mining pioneers of Antioquia, mining some of its largest deposits using indigenous and African slaves. Centeno ended up as one of the richest women of her time and is known as the “mother of the mining in Antioquia.”

Since those days, the region’s habitants have turned to growing coffee, beans, and raising cattle.  Today, Buriticá’s population is mostly rural; less than 30 percent of its habitants live in town.  The rest dwell in parishes and small villages located in the surrounding mountains where footpaths were once and sometimes still are used by armed bands for smuggling drugs and arms. There is only one dirt road connecting Buriticá to the nearest parish of Tabacal.  To reach to the other villages you go by horseback or mule.

Mining is still big business.  Currently three different types of activities that can be found near the town. One is a large gold project managed by a multinational mining concession. In the second, independent operators representing legal trade associations have signed subcontracts with the multinational and employ about 500 miners to work independent claims. Yet, the biggest activity of all is comprised of informal mining that started about four years ago.  By some accounts there may be as many as 20,000 workers coming into the area every day to labor in makeshift pits.  Some of these operations would qualify as artisanal (less than 165 feet deep, mined with landowner permission), while some would be illegal (much deeper, worked without landowner and state permits). 

An informal mine near Buriticá.

The influx has strained the little town of 2,000 inhabitants. There are no more rooms or beds to rent. Its roads are clogged with trucks loaded with food and goods to feed and entertain transients with money in their pockets. The health center, the schools, the water, the sewers, and the streets were not built for so much traffic.  All must live with the noise of taverns, prostitution, traffic, and the buzzing of hundreds of motorcycles belonging to miners. New restaurants and bars have opened and gold is traded openly in the central plaza.  Meanwhile environmental concerns multiply, especially where informal mining occurs. 

Sadly, all this economic activity does little to benefit the municipality and its citizens. A lot of it is informal and generates no tax revenue.  In fact, the municipality depends largely on funds transferred from the national government and lacks the capacity to properly register and control high volumes of commerce. Departmental or regional authorities have other priorities, and all seem to be struggling beyond capacity.  Many citizens feel no one can help them.  As a result, they tend not to trust institutions, not even the police. 

Trucks bring supplies to restaurants while moto-taxis now crowd the town’s streets.

The mayor must respond to administrative appeals filed by the mining concessionaire when a new illegal pit is discovered in its area of operations. This happens a lot.  The mayor must inspect and, if necessary, close the pit within 48 hours.  One can imagine the incentives and pressure illegal operators might apply to avoid having their mines shut down.  All this significantly reduces the mayor’s capacity to attend other issues related to municipal governance. To say that municipal officials are caught between a rock and a hard place is no exaggeration.  

In less than 20 days, buritiqueños will go to the polls to elect a new mayor.  Among three candidates, two represent Colombia’s traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. The third is running on the Green party ticket. The outgoing Liberal mayor recalls he was elected in 2011 with 2,135 votes, garnering just 132 more votes than his closest rival. “We are not that many in Buriticá, but we fight for every vote” one candidate told me.

So it will probably be close.  And whoever is elected will be challenged trying to enforce laws and deliver services with so much questionable activity permeating the local area. Even so, citizens will still expect solutions to their problems. Water, roads, the environment, safety are among more pressing demands. While staying close to fellow buritiqueños the new mayor will need to press the regional and national authorities to do more to help them recover control over the future of their municipality. 

Campaign workers gather for final instructions before deploying to rural villages reachable by mule.

 

Posted by

Gabriela Serrano

Regional Program Director, Bogotá, Colombia