BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Rebel forces and criminal gangs fighting for a stake in Colombia's mining boom are forcing growing numbers of people to flee their homes, a leading rights group has said.
Rising silver and gold prices along with increasing coal and oil production in the South American nation, have seen leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and new criminal gangs linked to former far-right paramilitaries expanding into illegal mining in recent years.
Illegal gold and silver mines in central and western Colombia as well as mines of coltan ore - an essential component in mobile phones - in Colombia's Amazon jungle, have become increasingly important sources of revenue for armed groups and criminals.
"Mining, both legal and illegal, brings in and attracts illegal armed groups – paramilitaries and guerrillas - to control mining operations and or extort mining companies," said Marco Romero, head of the Bogota-based rights group, the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES).
"In some areas of Colombia, like in Cauca and in the oil-producing regions of the south, we've seen an increase in human rights abuses and violence against local communities, which in some cases has led to displacement," Romero told AlertNet.
There are few official figures available but local rights groups estimate that thousands of Colombians have been driven from their homes to escape violence between armed groups as they seek to control illegal mining operations since Colombia's mining boom kicked off around five years ago.
Illegal mining in Colombia accounts for roughly half of all mining operations in the country, according to the Colombian authorities.
Nearly 50 years of fighting between government troops, guerrillas and paramilitary groups have uprooted as many as four million Colombians, local rights groups estimate.
Last year, 259,146 Colombians were driven from their homes due to violence, according to CODHES.
Afro-Colombian communities have panned for gold using their hands and shovels for generations on their mineral-rich lands.
Now, some of those small-scale mining communities find themselves caught in the middle of criminals seeking to grab a share of their earnings, armed groups vying for control of illegal mining operations and foreign and national firms extracting minerals with government-issued permits on their lands.
"We've received official complaints from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living in some mining areas where some investors have made alliances with illegal armed groups to put pressure on communities to abandon their land," Romero said.
CHOCO HOT SPOT
Colombia's remote western province of Choco, rich in silver and gold reserves, has become a focal point of illegal mining.
In March, at least 800 Afro-Colombians fled from their jungle riverside villages in Choco along the Pacific coast because of a struggle between armed groups in the mineral-rich area to control illegal mining activities," the United Nations refugee agency said.
They sought shelter in the slum neighbourhoods of Colombia's port city of Buenaventura, a place struggling to cope with the daily arrival of displaced families.
"Illegal armed groups profit from mining operations; their presence and actions have caused forced displacement in all parts of Choco where there is illegal mining," rights group, the Washington office on Latin America (WOLA), said in a statement.
Armed groups are also known to own illegal mining operations, often controlling who is allowed to work in mines.
"Afro-Colombians, who have sustained themselves through artisanal mining for generations, are not allowed to work in the mines unless the armed groups grant them permission to do so," the WOLA report said.
The Colombian government says it is cracking down on illegal mining and is shutting down hundreds of mines operating without a government license every year.
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