With similar geological characteristics to its Andean neighbour Peru, Colombia’s gold potential has long attracted interest from local and international miners. The country’s gold deposits are concentrated in areas with metallogenic belts in the Departments of Antioquia, Santander, Tolima, Huila, Caldas, Nariño, Cauca and Bolívar. Gold was the main export product during the colonial era and Colombia boasts a long tradition of small-scale mining, with over 50% of the country’s total official production coming from largely informal activities. As gold prices regain some of the momentum lost between 2011 and 2015, Colombia’s strong prospects have received more interest from investors, with two new projects coming on-line in recent years, and another two in the development stage.
The latest project to begin production is the underground Cisneros mine, 80 km north-east of Medellín, owned by Canada’s Antioquia Gold. Having begun operations in 2009, it received its environmental licence in November 2016 and began production in 2019. Proven resources at the site indicate the existence of over 25.7bn oz of gold. According to data from the National Mining Agency (Agencia Nacional de Minería, ANM), production from its Guaico and Guayabito deposits should yield 30,000 oz of gold per year, with this set to grow as further capacity becomes available.
Another recent development is the San Ramón mine, controlled by Canada-based Red Eagle Mining. The project, which spans 10,000 ha and is located 70 km north of Medellín, was the first underground gold mining endeavour in more than two decades. The mine began commercial operations in January 2018 and produced 5725 oz of gold during the first quarter of that year. With the aim of producing 50,000 oz of gold per year, the project remains relatively small. However, the speed at which it came on-line and its ability to navigate Colombia’s complicated history with local communities is a prime example of what is possible for the sector given the right conditions and approach. After receiving its exploration licence in 2011, Red Eagle Mining received approval for its public works and labour programme in 2014 and an environmental licence a year later. Construction of the mine, which processes 1000 tonnes of material per day, was completed in just 14 months, with a total investment of $120m.
These projects are dwarfed, however, by two major gold projects expected to begin operations in the years ahead. With an expected capacity of 300,000 oz per year, the Buriticá project developed by Canada-based Continental Gold is set to become the largest of its kind in the country and one of the world’s major underground gold mines. Comprising two major veins, the project has 4.71m oz of measured and inferred gold resources at an average grade of 11.4 grams per tonne, and an additional 4.8m oz of inferred resources at an average grade of 9.5 grams per tonne. The project is estimated to cost $389m and involves tunnelling a 600-metre vertical strike zone. When it enters the production stage, which is expected to begin in 2020, Buriticá will have a low, all-in sustaining cost of $492 per oz and produce around 250,000 oz of gold per year. In 2019 the company announced that it had secured $175m worth of financing from US-based Newmont Mining and Canada’s Triple Flag.
Further east is the Gramalote project developed under a joint venture between South Africa’s AngloGold Ashanti and Canadian company B2Gold. The mine has an estimated production capacity of 400,000-450,000 oz of gold per year. Gramalote recently completed its pre-feasibility studies and is transitioning to the feasibility stage. The mine is classified as a Project of National and Strategic Interest (Proyectos de Interés Nacional Estratégicos, PINE), which enables it to receive government support. In November 2015 the mine also became the first PINE to receive environmental licensing.
The development of Antioquia’s gold potential will be the main growth driver for the industry, which has been in decline in recent years. Production has fallen from 1.99m oz in 2016 to 1.37m oz in 2017 and 1.14m oz in 2018, according to the ANM.
The country’s largest producer of gold is Canada-based Gran Colombia Gold (GCG), which produced 218,001 oz in 2018, up from 173,821 oz in 2017, across its Segovia and Marmato mines. The biggest increase was seen at Segovia, with production growth of 30% compared to 2017. The company expects production to reach between 210,000 and 225,000 oz in 2019.
Prior to the arrival of GCG, formal gold production was dominated by Medellín-based firm Mineros, whose operations have been primarily focused on alluvial production from several sites in Antioquia, including Nechí, La Ye and Los Mangos. The company has reduced its Colombian operations, however, in order to focus on expanding operations in other Latin American countries, with its gold production in Colombia falling from 103,373 oz in 2017 to 97,921 oz in 2018.
Towards the end of 2018, Canada’s Eco Oro announced the sale of its mining titles and lands located in Páramo de Santurbán to Minesa, a Colombian company that the UAE owns a majority stake in. Development in the páramos (highland tropical tundra region) has long been a source of dispute as the area provides water to 70% of the population. In January 2019 Minesa requested environmental licensing to produce gold in an area adjacent to Páramo de Santurbán. However, for the plans to be approved, the boundaries of the area must be reviewed by July 2019. In May 2019 around 50,000 staged a protest against Minesa due to environmental concerns, particularly the proximity of the mine to an aqueduct supplying water to 2m people.
Meanwhile, in April 2019 Australia-based Fortescue Metals Group announced its plans to begin exploration activities by applying to a number of concessions with prospects in copper and gold.
Informal & Illegal Mining
The remainder of Colombia’s official gold production comes from artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). In recent years the ANM has taken steps to regulate the industry, launching the National Formalisation Policy (Política Nacional Para la Formalización de la Minería en Colombia, PNF) in 2013. Prior to this, in 2012 the ANM created the Single Registry for Minerals Commercialisation, which controls the sale of minerals and requires traders to be certified. As a result of these measures, the share of total production attributed to informal mining fell from 83% in 2017 to 60% in 2018, exceeding the PNF’s target of reaching this level by 2019. Consequently, the ANM now aims to reduce this figure to 50% by the end of 2019, through an increase in production from current formal operators. Other efforts to formalise the sector include the signing of subcontracts between small operators and larger companies. For example, in 2018 Continental Gold signed a subcontract with three mining units, which resulted in the first environmental licences granted under the PNF.
Despite increased production in GCG’s mines, its operations in Segovia have been plagued by a series of occupations, with small-scale miners illegally operating in the company’s concessions. As a result, GCG has been working to formalise these miners and integrate them into the company’s projects, with between 2500 and 2800 miners successfully formalised since 2017. These measures have been replicated across numerous sites. The Buriticá project has created 10 mining associations, accounting for 300 miners, while 10 small mining units have been established at the Gramalote project, supporting the formalisation of over 100 miners. Gramalote is also creating a community processing plant for the ore produced by small-scale miners.
Subsistence mining is not to be confused with illegal mining, with the former being permitted and regulated under Colombian law, while the latter remains a source of violence and poverty across many regions. According to the Colombian Mining Association, around 70-80% of exported gold is extracted illegally, and these activities are conducted across 152 municipalities. Some criminal organisations see the gold industry as a replacement for the illegal drug trade and, despite peace negotiations, insurgent groups still resort to these activities to fund their operations. The attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, told local media in April 2019 that illegal gold mining has become more lucrative than cocaine production, with the former product selling for around $42,000 per kg, and the latter around $20,000-25,000 per kg.
The efforts of large companies to integrate small-scale and informal miners into their projects is a step in the right direction towards improving the industry’s image and ensuring its long-term development. Nevertheless, for these efforts to be successful, government involvement is also required in order to create the legal framework needed to support the industry’s growth. While the measures taken as part of the PNF have helped to formalise gold mining, with the proportion of total production attributed to ASM activities falling in recent years, the success of these efforts will be tested by the results of the gold projects currently in progress such as Buriticá and Gramalote.
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