The Emeralds of Rio Minero

In the middle of Columbia, on the western slope of the East Corderillas, there is the largest deposit of emeralds in the world. About half of all the emeralds traded world-wide come from this region, among them also the biggest and most precious stones. The most important village in this area is Muzo, and, until just a few years ago, a trip there was not advisable – bloody conflicts between the surrounding villages, attacks by violent gangs, and a hardly drivable network of tracks made a tour here a highly risky adventure for years and years. Meanwhile, peace has been restored. With great financial incentives, the local patron, Victor Carranza, succeeded in persuading villages and mine companies which had been enemies to reach peaceful cooperation. What is left are the bad tracks and the isolation in the mountains of Columbia. Under these conditions and accompanied by the green light of the local police, we set off towards a very special adventure.

In Chiquinquira, everything still seemed very easy – a good street, lots of signs, and helpful policemen who though we would easily reach our goal in three hours. At some point, the asphalt stopped, as expected, and we drove up a promising track through the cloud forest. Then there was the first intersection and the information that the street to Muzo was impassable due to a landslide. In the nearby store, the opinion was divided about which was the best way to go now, and, in the end, the locals suggested that we should take the “best and safest“ way, that it wasn’t so much longer. We were assured that we would arrive there safely, which we also did, but in five instead of three hours and on an incredibly beautiful, but steep, muddy, and challenging mountain track. In any case, the way wasn’t closed off due to a landslide, and the only obstacle along the way was a police car that had got stuck, but could be extricated with the help of our tow rope. In the last rays of daylight, we passed by the big road sign for Muzo, Capital Mundial de las Esmeraldas.

Muzo looks back on an eventful history. The Spaniards already recognized the value of the mineral resources embedded here. However, the almost impassable terrain, renitent locals, and illnesses soon led to a standstill in the extraction of emeralds, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that Muzo experienced its rebirth. In the following years, conflicts of interest led to bloody conflicts. Leftist guerillas fought against conservative mine owners; paramilitary groups and gangs asserted their own rules, and drug money and dealing transformed Muzo into a war arena. Then the mine owners fought among one another over the boundaries of their territories, with their own means and methods. Just as lots of diamonds from Africa are stained with blood nowadays, a lot of blood taints the emeralds from Columbia from that time. It wasn’t until there was a massive increase in police and military presence, intensive efforts by local inhabitants, and then the financial means of the patron Victor Carranza that a peaceful status prevailed. Nowadays, this region is among the safest in Columbia, and, with every year that grass grows over the wounds of the past, this peace settles into the heads and spirits of the inhabitants, too.

We had arrived in a different world. After the long drive through difficult terrain, there was suddenly a big village with a complete infrastructure, curious inhabitants, and lots of children. We realized that we were probably the first European vehicle that had suddenly appeared next to the main square. Countless children surrounded us, adults inspected our vehicle with great interest, and question after question was asked. We hardly had a chance to get close to one another to talk about where we could eat and spend the night because it was immediately clear that it would be impossible for us to cook in the Bremach and spend the night at the main square as planned with this curious crowd all around us. In the end, two nice policemen helped us get a great place for the night at a lovely hotel with a pool and endearing owners. Tourists in Muzo, especially in their own vehicle, that happens rarely or never. Had we really come just to look around and not to buy emeralds? The openness and enthusiasm that followed the amazement at the beginning overwhelmed us. A driver was organized for us quickly. And that’s how we were led through a bewildering labyrinth of tracks and on to the mines along the Rio Minero by Steven. Several companies operate mines – narrow, dark tunnels which lead deep into the mountain. With the help of satellite photos, geological weak spots are analyzed and then opened up underground. The mine operators assume that there are still large reserves which will last for several hundred years. It is not only because a shaft has to be blasted open. In the almost impassable, steep terrain, an infrastructure has to be created for providing care, supplies, and housing for the miners, and the mines have to be made safe. The financial commitment is high, and, in addition to competence and luck, the right spot has to be found and be able to be exploited.

Over ramps, the mine waste is dumped into the riverbed of the Rio Minero, where innumerable autonomous prospectors search for emeralds. In painstaking labor, they often come from far away to seek smaller stones in the waste from the mine, hoping for the great find which will assure their future. The finds are usually small, but the proportion in relation to the total output is still around ten percent.  These workers live in wildly constructed encampments along the steep edges of the riverbed, constantly threatened by landslides and flooding. The hope of “catching the big fish” and the lack of any perspectives elsewhere keep them caught in this narrow valley.

The miners, autonomous prospectors, and emerald traders romp around on the only flat spot in the valley, lovingly called “La Playa“, where they eat, drink, and haggle with one another. Anyone who is well versed in emeralds can bid for and then buy valuable emeralds at a good price, but those with no clue shouldn’t try to play the game because they will consistently be swindled and ripped off. Workers coming out of the mine are covered completely in black from head to foot; those along the river constantly carry their only piece of equipment, a shovel, wherever they go, and the emerald dealers get out of modern SUVs, are articulate and dressed elegantly. Everyone had a smile for us, and Steven never tired of telling our story. We were greeted cordially and openly everywhere. We were surprised that our turning down of all the offers was accepted without further ado and that our acknowledgement of our ignorance of this subject matter was accepted and appreciated. In return, the finds of the day were proudly shown to us and set up effectively for our photos.

On the way back from the mines, a group of miners waved over to us – it was Saturday, and they were looking for a ride to Muzo to get away from the mines for the weekend. There are only a few jeeps that drive as group-taxis, with every free place apportioned and filled. Very quickly, we had the Bremach full, with six adults in the back seat (Tanja and the children withdrew to the cabin), and the atmosphere was great. Among the miners, there was a man named Mauricio, who was absolutely enthusiastic about our visit to Muzo. Mauricio has led a very eventful life – as cook on a cruise ship, he got to know the Caribbean and North America, later he was in charge of caring for the well-being of rare luxury cars in New York. At some point in time, he landed at the mines in Muzo, where he spends most of his time and rarely gets to see his family, which lives near Bogotá. His past as a cook quickly got him a job in the kitchens at the mine, and he was soon cooking for the patrons’ celebrations. Nowadays, he works in the frontline of action and helps to lead the drilling operations along the promising weak spots in the stone to success.

Spontaneously, he offered to spend Sunday with us on a tour to the remote mines of Rio Minero. He had wanted to look by there again for a long time, and we had the suitable vehicle and real interest. A short detour to the still unused airstrip in Muzo made history come to life. The airstrip had barely been finished when it was partially blown up out of fear of drug-trafficking. What a shame; it would have been a spectacular airport, high above the surrounding area. After that, we drove through magnificent landscape all day Sunday, on breath-takingly steep tracks along the Rio Minero to the mines of Kunas and Las Pintas. This is where the biggest and most valuable emeralds are found right now, and it was only thanks to Mauricio’s good connections that we were allowed to drive along some of the tracks and enter to high-security installations. The miners here live in a separate world, with their own restaurants, sports grounds, and swimming pools. It was impressive to see how the mines are everywhere and how arduous the mining of such valuable stones is. After considerable and extensive efforts, the emeralds are mined out far beneath the Rio Minero, with big pumps, lots of energy, and enormous enthusiasm.

The value of emeralds is determined by three factors – color, purity, and size. The darker and purer the precious stone is, the more it is worth. When it has been cut and polished correctly, the deep, gleaming green of the stone is bewitching. In a lot of mines, the workers are directly involved in the profit brought by the stone, which is an additional incentive for good work. The value of the biggest stones is now incalculable: they are exhibited in museums or used for crown jewels. The emeralds are flown to Bogotá, where there are further transactions. Their sale to emerald dealers takes place directly at the mines. Transport by land would be too risky; the bad streets and the remote area would make this a paradise for robbers. The financial value of the emeralds increases over-proportionally with the distance from the site they are found on. The great profit is not made at the source, but at a great distance from it. This is why only a fraction of the big money which whirs around the emeralds makes it to the mountains in Columbia.

At the end of a long day, our Bremach conked out briefly. In a very steep curve, an impact from the track led to a bent steering track rod. With lots of caution, we managed to make it to just in front of the gates of a mine. Well guarded and surrounded by helpful, interested workers, we spent a peaceful night there and were even treated to a delicious dinner and fresh showers. In the middle of the night, Mauricio succeeded in hitchhiking to Muzo and returned in a tractor the next morning, accompanied by a mechanic. With a big sledgehammer, the problem was fixed by the best traditional bush method. We surmounted the track to Muzo with no problems and were amazed that the tractor could have made it there to us.

Mauricio had organized something special for me this afternoon – a visit to his mine while it was in operation. In Muzo, we got into a colectivo, which took us to the mine. Even just the ride there was an experience. With 11 people inside and heavy baggage on the roof, the Landcruiser courageously fought its way through rough terrain and the riverbed of the Rio Minero. The visit to the mine was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. An elevator ride took us deep into the mountain, into the dark, hot world of emerald-mining. Black stone, narrow, dark corridors and dusty air aggravate life underground in the mine. Without elaborate fresh-air systems, survival would be impossible here. In addition, big pumps have to convey the pit water above ground.  We arrived just in time for the final completion of a detonation. The blasting expert filled in the last holes, then the fuse was ignited, and we all hurried to seek a safe place. Shortly after several muffled thuds, we could already see the crack through the dense haze of the explosion. The first steps into the new tunnel are reserved for the blasting expert; no one is allowed to search for emeralds until he has given his o.k. for the terrain. No one wants to risk any accident caused by stone crumbling or lost explosives, so the strict protocol is respected meticulously. The stone is examined calmly, gravel removed, and the tunnel cleared by means of spades. Large fragments are reduced to small pieces with a hammer. The gravel is collected above ground and washed to find the emeralds in it. The miners work one after the other, so that each short, intensive working phase is followed by a break. The high temperatures and the hard work can’t be done any other way. It was impressive to see the difficult conditions for mining emeralds. I was allowed to try my hand, first with the hammer and then with the heavy pneumatic chisel and experience how strenuous mining is. The shining end product has no more signs of the sweat involved; clean and pure, the stones appear to be far removed from any exertion.

Together with the miners, we all left the mine shaft at the end of the shift. After an eight-hour shift, including an extensive break for lunch, you really can’t do much more than recuperate from the exertions of work. But I still had the way back to Muzo, and this time it was already to late for a colectivo, so I rode back through the mine settlements with the fruit and fish vendor, Enser, who had also landed in Muzo on his search for riches. He, however, had looked for an alternative to the hard work down in the mines and started to sell foodstuffs from his pick-up. This unusual possibility gave me an intensive impression of the hard life in the mines of Rio Minero and an additional, very personal experience with the people in Muzo.

At the end of our stay, our host family, who took care of us touchingly, organized a visit to the cultural center. Sooner or later, a museum of the history of Muzo is going to be set up here to show the indigenous past as well as the bloody history of emerald mining. A small group of children was just painting pictures. We learned that the children are permitted to have musical and artistic lessons here for a few hours during the day as an alternative to normal school classes. What a progressive approach; here, far away up in the mountains, modern educational approaches are not only thought about, but also followed through on.

Deeply moved and full of new impressions, we set off on our way back to normal areas. A certain helplessness remains with us – a region which gives the beautiful and rich in the world jewels and splendor gets nothing in return. No streets, the poverty and desperation in the workers’ settlements along the Rio Minero. At the same time, the proud miners who, thanks to a low, but nevertheless, steady income, can afford a better life and find joy in being able to give the world something of beauty. It is a world of its own, a world apart. The trip to Muzo is a trip to the downsides of splendor and glory, an excursion into a different world which otherwise remains hidden from us. And a few small stones connect a narrow, inaccessible valley in Columbia with magnificence and prosperity all around the globe.

One Thought on “The Emeralds of Rio Minero

  1. Liebe Tanja, Max und Kinder,

    eurer Bericht über die Smaragdminen von Muzo hat mich sehr bewegt.
    Dass ihr mit solcher Offenheit empfangen wurdet und das Leben in den Minen und der Menschen so erleben durftet war sicher sehr eindrücklich.
    Ich weiss nicht ob das in dieser Weise überhaupt schon Europäer gesehen haben.

    Wie ihr auch am Schluss bemerkt, die Schattenseiten des Smaragdhandels Gewinner und Verlierer zu sehen, macht doch sehr nachdenklich.

    Noch weitere schöne Erlebnisse wünscht Euch

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