Tierra verde

Javier Corso



The struggle over land is Colombia's oldest conflict.

For decades the mines of Muzo - widely known as the "emerald capital of the world" - have produced great fortunes for their owners.

In the so-called "Green Wars" during the 1980s, territorial disputes escalated into full-blown conflict as the country's leading mining families fought over territory.

In those days, the "barequeros" - emerald seekers who dig through debris - gathered by the thousands around the Muzo Valley, hoping that emeralds would arise from the dark soil to rescue them from extreme poverty.

While the Green Wars are over, there is still a low-level conflict of assassinations and murders as rival groups vie for access to the gemstones.

Although Colombian environmental laws now prohibit the dumping of leftover grit and rocks from mining excavation, some surplus debris continues to be dumped on land and rivers around the mines. A few dozen emerald seekers scour this debris, often using their bare hands. Others mine the area informally.

The barequeros tend to live a tough existence in slums on the hillsides of surrounding mountains, without running water or services.

When a barequero finds an emerald, they can either try to pay a carver to re-work and increase the value of the gemstone or, if the emerald already has a notable value, they will sell it to a merchant who trades the gems directly on the streets of the capital Bogota.

In this system of both legal and informal activities, the wealth extracted from Colombian mines is very difficult to calculate. This also applies to the value of the emerald itself; its price is based on a series of characteristics - such as colour, size, carve, and transparency - and varies depending on whose hands hold them.

It is easier to sell the emeralds on the market if they are already carved, but some buyers prefer the raw, uncut emeralds to oversee this delicate process themselves, before selling it on international markets. Around 95 percent of Colombian emeralds are destined for export.

Colombia is a country with a largely poor population living on an incredibly rich soil. The right to exploit its resources is an ongoing struggle in which the weakest have to fight for survival.

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  • A miner turns on the headlamp at the entrance of an unregulated emerald mine in Pauna, West of Boyacá. The use of lanterns is mandatory in this type of tunnels, where the lighting and ventilation is scarce.

  • A miner from Pauna (Boyacá) examines one of the mine galleries looking for signs of emeralds in the light of a light bulb, the only illumination in several meters along the passage.

  • A group of workers from Mina Real (Muzo), a mine owned by a Colombian company, explores one of the tunnels previously secured. The uniforms are exclusive of regulated companies. The green helmets identify them as excavators.

  • A miner from La Pita (Maripí) shows an emerald rock. Its commercial value is low because the gems that can be extracted after carving are very small.

  • Jorge Gutiérrez works at the mine called La Pita (Maripí). Green eyes identify him as a descendant of Santandereños, a rare origin in a region that descends from the warlike Muzo indigenous people.

  • The surplus land of the mining excavations are deposited in the surroundings of the tunnels or thrown into the river. This very common practice is prohibited by Colombia’s environmental laws, which have been hardened recently.

  • The mining river crosses the West of Boyacá. Different companies extract emeralds from the nearby mountains, and the miners and barequeros are established in their outskirts.

  • José Elias Vallejo has been “guaqueando” in the ravine of the mining river for more than forty years. He lives in Matadecafé, an illegal settlement of shanty towns in the vicinity of the Muzo mines.

  • Jaime Vargas lost his leg in an accident working in a mine, since then he dedicates himself to the guaquería with Luis Gómez and Marcos Errada.

  • A group of barequeros stir up the land of the mining river with the aid of their shovels and their bare hands. Carlos Salamanca (hat) is one of the elders in the region.

  • Screening the earth is a fully manual work and requires the habit of detecting the green glow of small emerald “sparkles” that may appear mixed with the black rock.

  • The stones that they can find today in the ravine are small and of a low value. When finally they find something, the barequero usually hides the “sparkles” of emerald in the mouth to preserve it and don’t raise envy among their companions.

  • A female barequera rests after having traveled several miles from her house in search of emeralds.

  • There are only a few women among the barequeros and miners. Many of them work in bars (cantinas), food and alcohol stores in the suburbs, and also washing the clothes of guaqueros and miners.

  • Shanty settlements such as Matacafé have some bars, churches and play areas with billiards. These places are usually frequented by men.

  • Fredy Mantilla, a carver of Muzo, polishes an emerald in his workshop that is located in his house. When a miner or barequero finds an emerald and manages to keep it to himself, he can try to sell the rough stone directly or to pay a trusted carver to revalue the stone.

  • Miners, barequeros, merchants and tourists make deals everyday in the market of Muzo in search of the best emeralds.

  • Several merchants and buyers examine emeralds in the Plaza del Rosario, a meeting point for the sale of emeralds in the streets of Bogotá. Most of them are intermediaries who come from the mines of Muzo to sell the gems in the capital.

  • The emerald trade is carried out in small scale at the surroundings of the Avenue Jiménez (Bogotá). There are many offices in the neighbouring buildings connected with the business: shops and workshops dedicated to value, carve and market this precious stones.

  • Monsignor Héctor Gutiérrez was the mediator of the peace process between emerald-mine owners during the Green Wars. He exhibits a golden ring with six emeralds embedded forming a cross. The ring is a gift from the deceased Víctor Carranza, a renowned emerald leader and a close friend of the Bishop.