In Colombia Arabel visited La Llanada, the small town high up in the mountains where Fairmined Ecological Gold is mined. We caught up with her to get the scoop on this invaluable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Q: When did you decide to go to Colombia?
A: In 2016 we decided we needed to take some time out of the rat race, as a family, and travel a far corner of the world. This is the point when I began to consider the idea of combining work with pleasure. Travelling to Colombia meant that I could visit the Coodmilla mining cooperative in La Llanada, where Fairmined Ecological Gold is mined. The idea of meeting the very people responsible for making Fairmined happen excited me hugely!
Q: What inspired you to go?
A: I’ve always been a traveller. As a child I was fortunate enough to travel a lot with my parents, and in my twenties I’d travel often for work. I definitely have The Bug! Wanting to familiarise myself with the faces and hands behind my jewellery was just another intense motivation. I’d already visited Peru – a place where many Fairmined and Fairtrade mines can be found – but never Colombia. By process of elimination, it seemed the perfect place!
Q: How did you prepare for it?
A: We had to fly through all the usual pre-travelling considerations. Which vaccines would we need? Which paperwork is required? What’s the best flight route? I also needed to complete some health and safety paperwork before visiting the gold mine. We decided that this was to be a backpacking trip, wherein we used public transport as often as possible (Yes! With a four year-old!) so a fair amount of research was required. The gold mines are right up in the mountains, where it’s pretty cold, so we also had to ensure we had some winter clothes packed – which felt strange, given the tropical nature of the holiday as a whole.
Q: What were your first impressions of Colombia when you arrived?
A: It was love at first sight. Colombia is such a beautiful country; packed with flavour, colours and contradictions. As a nation Colombia’s endured years of conflict, and it’s clear that pain remains in people’s hearts – yet there’s also a strong sense of drive; passion for change; a keenness to make the best of every given moment.
Q: Have you ever visited a mine before? What were your first impressions of the mine? Was it what you expected?
A: No! I had no idea of what to expect. Google and the press have provided all of us with some pre-conceptions, but every mine is unique, given that so much is dependent on natural surroundings. I’ve been inside a mountain before, but that was a tourist attraction. This time round, it was a working mine; wet, dusty, noisy and dark. I was shocked - it seemed like a tough environment to work in
Q: How does the gold mining take place? Describe the process as you saw it.
A: Rock is crushed with heavy machinery to break it up. Then, the veins holding the gold are taken off to a safe place whilst the remainder of the rock is disposed of outside the mountain. When enough gold-rich ore has been collected (which usually once every six months), it’s transported to the processing plant. Here, the ore is crushed with machinery until it forms a loose powder, from which the gold is than panned. Not one single chemical is involved in the process; just water and machinery.
Q: Describe the people who work there and what an average working day is for them.
A: It quickly became clear that the miners are people who deeply respect their mountain and value their work. They see Mother Nature as their provider and the mountain as their primary source of income, so they’re keen to feel in tune with it. They start their working day at the crack of dawn and finish at 3pm, just after preparing explosives. After that, no one ventures into the mine until the following morning. Some workers are stationed at the front of the mine, crushing rock with hard machinery. Meanwhile, others remove the rock and dispose of it outside the mine. Family members tend to work together, so the mine-front is where the younger adults are posted, carrying out the work of the heaviest duty – whilst the older workers are stationed towards the back, displacing the rocks.
Q: What safety precautions did you have to take before entering the mine?
A: The do’s and don’ts were firmly explained to me before entering the mine. Of course, protective hard hats were a must! I was also asked if I was with child, because pregnant women aren’t allowed inside the mine. When inside, the rigorous safety systems were explained to me; though it was clear that even with these measures in place, mining is still an inherently dangerous activity.
Q: How big was the mine and how did it feel to be in it?
A: It was difficult to gauge the scale of the mine, because I have nothing to compare it to! My gut feeling, however, is that it’s pretty deep. It was also super claustrophobic. At the beginning we were able to walk straight down a tunnel of comfortable height, but the deeper into the mine we delved the narrower the tunnels became, the ceilings growing increasingly lower. Before long, standing up straight became a challenge! Some tunnels were even built on inclines, whilst others sloped downwards.
Q: What does a piece of gold look like when it comes out of the Earth?
A: To start off with it’s all mixed up with the rest of the rock, so all you can see are tiny particles that glimmer under torchlight. After all that crushing, gold starts its life as, quite simply, as a fine powder.
Q: How do the miners feel about being Fairmined-certified? How does it affect their lives directly and what insights did you gain from them about the way the mine is run?
A: What surprised me the most was that this mining cooperative hasn’t used a single chemical in the gold-mining process for the last three generations. Admittedly, I thought I was innovative by thinking green and wanting to eliminate mercury and cyanide - but these people and their grandfathers have been extracting gold this way since long before I was born! They have been deeply in tune with Mother Nature for decades.
Fairmined has recently approached the cooperative and helped them to develop more rigorous safety measures and efficient processes, and I believe that this recognition has made a huge difference in how the community feel about their trade. With an internationally-recognised certification, there’s another dimension for them to feel proud of. Their style of mining is pioneering, and for that they are awarded a premium.
Their chemical-free approach to gold mining means they don’t need to worry about the safety of their water or the impact that their trade is having on the surrounding environment. Farming isn’t effected, and neither are vital natural habitats. The community exist harmoniously, assured that the way they’re going about things is The Right Way.
In the Coodmilla cooperative, more and more miners are becoming Fairmined-certified. Catching a glimpse of the premiums that they’re entitled to on top of the market price for gold incentivises them to adhere to the standards established by Fairmined – standards which barely build upon the ecological way in which they’re already working.
Q: What (if anything) changed in your head after seeing how Fairmined Gold is mined first hand?
A: I’m in love with this gold and the people that extract it from the ground. There is so much pride and hope projected into the material itself; Jewellery made from this gold mustmean more. Sadly, the miners don’t often get to see the end project of their hard labour. I had the opportunity to show them some of my jewellery and they were in awe. Now they’ve seen a tangible outcome, they’ve got even more of a reason to shout about what they do – their Fairmined Gold is appreciated globally!
Q: What was your key take-away message? What’s stuck in your mind the most?
A: Those people who began showing Mother Nature the respect she deserves, all those generations ago, were pioneers. They understood the connection between the mountain and their livelihood; between sustaining nature and sustaining their own future. Witnessing this harmonious, symbiotic relationship in action was a huge life lesson for me.
Q: What was the best bit – and the worst bit?
A: For me, the highlight was being able to speak Spanish. Being hosted by locals, catching the inside stories and communicating with everybody in such an honest, open manner was just incredible; I felt truly immersed in their world. Of course, seeing the gold first-hand was hugely exciting, too!
One part that wasn’t so quick to steal my heart was the journey to the mine; a four-hour bus journey each way on a deadly, dusty track with 60m drops is not an experience for the faint-hearted!