In September 2015, the international agenda for Sustainable Development was published. 17 Sustainable Development Goals were defined to guide nations on their path towards eradicating poverty and achieving “sustainable development in its three dimensions — economic, social and environmental— in a balanced and integrated manner” until 2030[i].

In Colombia, the mining and energy sector was designated as one of the engines of Colombia’s development. The National Development Plan claims that the sector will play a key role in driving inclusive and sustained economic growth and will be important for job creation, thereby directly contributing to poverty reduction[ii].

Mining has a long history in Colombia, and especially artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) has been a livelihood opportunity for many Colombians since colonial times. Today, approximately 72% of mining is ASM[iii] and it is often the only livelihood option in rural communities due to the lack of alternative economic opportunities. Therefore ASM is considered as a potential driver of poverty eradication in rural areas. Nevertheless, it has a poor public image as it often causes negative impacts on miners, communities and the environment. A frequently mentioned cause of the issues in ASM is the informality of the sector, which is around 87%. The lack of formalisation hampers social development of miners and their communities as well as environmental protection.

The Colombian government set itself the aim to formalize the sector by publishing the “National Policy to formalize the Colombian Mining Sector” in 2014 and establishing a formalization program for small-scale miners. This shall result in a competitive sector which generates development, social equity and wellbeing, culminating in reduced poverty levels and a fair distribution of resources.

Within the research for the dissertation “The formalization of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Colombia and its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals“ submitted to the University of London, I analysed if the inclusion of artisanal and small-scale miners into the formal economy improves the economic, social and environmental performance of the sector to be able to positively contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in Colombia.

Conducting a document analysis, expert interviews and a focus group I came to the following conclusions:

  • Currently the Colombian ASM sector is a negative contributor to sustainable development with a significant economic, social and environmental impact.
  • The five most important Sustainable Development Goals for ASM in Colombia are clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth, responsible consumption and production, no poverty, and good health and wellbeing.
  • Colombia’s formalization policy in general is perceived as a valuable tool to improve conditions in ASM.
  • The formalization policy seems to be very strong in the economic part, strong in the environmental part and weaker in the social part. The social aspect in formalization is limited to labour conditions and social security. Although the policy mentions that formalization shall result in wellbeing, poverty reduction and equitable distribution of resources, these problems are only indirectly addressed through better economic conditions. An anthropological focus is missing in the formalization discourse.
  • Formalization can’t be the single solution to all the complex issues in the ASM sector. Many challenges, especially those from the social field, need to be addressed on a national level. More development policies, institutions and interinstitutional collaboration are needed to strengthen the mining territories.
  • It is difficult but possible for small-scale miners to formalize, provided there is goodwill, patience, incentives, time, perseverance, information, support, training and financial resources. Miners agree that formalization is good and necessary, but state that the requirements are too demanding for small-scale miners, and normative instability makes it nearly impossible to achieve and maintain a formalization level over time. The main barriers are related to the legal and political system, territorial order and land planning. A pressing issue has been the lack of legal access. More or better solutions are needed for miners to work legally. Different strategies need to be implemented for criminal mining and mining without a mining title, currently they are often treated alike although there are many miners willing to work legally under a mining title.
  • Missing incentives are a major obstacle to formalization. Legal miners need to compete with illegal miners, they have a significant economic disadvantage and no added value of being legal. Real incentives are needed to progress more rapidly, accompanied by awareness raising to break the culture of informality.
  • The barriers to capacity building, credits, information, knowledge, and professionalization need to be lowered so that more miners can advance in formalization.
  • The implementation of the formalization program in Colombia is lacking behind and the policy hasn’t been able to unfold its potential. The performance of the government and its public entities, their inefficiency in handling processes, the lack of infrastructure, the absence of the state in conflict zones, weak progress and support by public entities in formalization matters are great barriers to formalization.
  • Experts as well as miners highlighted the sector’s general potential to drive strong economic and social development in Colombia due to its importance for local economies and rural communities. Regarding the environmental pillar, mining can be done with environmental responsibility, not just correcting negative impacts but compensating them on a bigger scale.

To sum up, Colombia suffers from the typical structural challenges of ASM. A favourable environment and strengthened and conflict-free territories are needed before formalization can unfold its potential and transform the sector. The main challenges are to establish a stable and inclusive legal and political system, solid institutions, an efficient administration of the sector and peace.  These are the necessary preconditions to start formalizing. Only in a favourable environment, formalization activities will have an impact on a large scale and transform the sector from a negative to a positive contributor of sustainable development.

Those interested in consulting the entire dissertation in English can access it here.

[i] United Nations, 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

[ii] Departamento Nacional de Planeación, 2013. Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2014-2018

[iii] Ministerio de Minas y Energía, 2012. Censo Minero Departamental 2010-2011, Bogotá: Ministerio de Minas y Energìa.

Conny Havel is a consultant and currently Head of Communications at the Alliance for Responsible Mining, after 4 years of supporting the organization in Fairmined Business Development, Marketing and Communications. A Magister in Marketing and Sales and a MSc in Sustainable Development, Conny has been working in ethical supply chains and fair trade initiatives for more than 8 years.

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