Article by Christina Miller (October 2018)

The general assistant of Gualconda mine and president of the Asociación Agro Minera de los Andes “Fortaleza”, Rolberto Alvarez, has been on a mission to eliminate mercury from the processes used by the 13 member association to extract gold. In December of 2017 the Colombian association accomplished this goal. Now that “la Fortaleza” has a new ore processing plant, there is only one more mercury issue to tackle. Clean up the original processing site.

In 1975, when Rolberto’s family first started mining, long before the association was convened, the region had no electricity and therefore the ore crushing and concentrating area was established next to a pristine mountain stream. Here a water wheel could harness the energy of the stream and transfer that motion to the ore crushing equipment. Gold ore processing using mercury took place here across four decades, resulting in several kilos of gold likely made into jewelry that carries the burden of mercury contamination with it today. Since 2008, when Rolberto assumed the leadership role of mine manager and as the legal representative of the association, he has led the organization’s commitment to eliminate the use of mercury.

Even through my range of sight was limited by a hood to keep out the rain, I noticed the bright orange liquid contained by a cement wall the base of the hill.  Making note to ask about this area later, I continued to take in my surroundings as the group I was traveling with began our final visit of three Colombian Fairmined mines. I was traveling with the Alliance for Responsible Mining and an international group of jewelers in March, 2018.

Groups of artisanal miners from across Colombia and South America have been making the trip to Gualconda to learn how a responsible artisanal mine operates. Their hope is to be able to replicate the efforts of La Fortaleza on their own mining titles. Our tour, led by Rolberto, was no different, except for the key fact that none of us would return home to develop a responsible mine, but rather to our offices and jewelry studios as advocates for artisanal miners. Rolberto’s unwavering commitment to bring respect to the artisanal mining profession was contagious.

Rolberto Alvarez is a leader driven by conviction, not money. He employs every means possible to realize the association’s conviction that small-scale mining is good respectable work if miners strive to be ethical and operate mines in ways that protect people and the environment. Rolberto’s words inspire jewelers to take his message home, his generous teaching style necessitates learning, his is unconventional ideas, like building nature trails at a mine, serve as a daily reminder why the environment should and can be protected. It was exactly Rolberto’s careful and intentional tour planning, that eventually lead our entire group to the site where the stagnant water matched the orange of the surrounding tropical flowers.

Alvarez sees the challenge of protecting the environment on a mine site as a revolutionary act. He is determined to prove that it is possible to transcend often negative artisanal mining stereotypes and is teaching other miners to do the same.

The Fortaleza Association is not hiding the contaminated site. The area of mercury contamination is flanked on one side by a churning mountain stream and on the other by a steep hill. It includes several recessed cement holding tanks, mounds of life-repelling contaminated tailings, remnants of the equipment used to crush the ore before the new processing plant was built, and is to become the future culminating destination point of the nature trail. The trail’s end will feature the re-creation of the original water powered plant as a historical reminder of the way things had been done in the past.

Today Rolberto and the Fortaleza Association have in hand a mercury clean-up plan, based on the methodology that the regional Colombian Ministry of Mines offered, based on a report generated by them. The plan includes the complete remediation of the original processing site, with contaminated soil being removed from water sources. It will be stored in a secure holding area, covered with soil and seeded with native plants. The cost of this clean-up effort is estimated at $65,000.00 USD.

Standing on a mound of dead, contaminated soil after a mine tour that showed such commitment to responsible practice, I was shocked to learn that the funds had not yet been secured for this final clean-up project. The desire to help was overwhelming. Now, with clean-up plans in hand, a clear fundraising goal, and the trust that la Fortaleza will use funds to finish its mercury elimination project, we offer you an invitation to chip in.




As of the publication of this post, the following companies have already committed to raising funds to eliminate mercury:

Hoover & Strong – US, Linhaus – US, Ethical Jewels – IT, Susan Wheeler Design – US, Vipaka – US, Elena Elovainio – FI, TRAID Gold – DE, Moda Elan – CO, Made Line Jewelry – US, This is Ian – Scotland, UK, and The Precious Metals Workshop SC, Alloy – CO, Paulette à Bicyclette – FR, WWAKE – US.


Join us!

To support this mercury remediation and site restoration effort, please contact:

Christina Tatiana Miller sustainable jewelry consulting: moc.r1717801146ellim1717801146tanit1717801146sirhc1717801146@anit1717801146sirhc1717801146


Special opportunity:

Rolberto Alvarez is speaking at the upcoming Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference (Oct. 19-20). (LINK TO REGISTER)



La Fortaleza Association

Rolberto Alvarez

Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference

Mercury Free Mining Challenge

Project’s Fiscal Sponsor: Ethical Metalsmiths


What is the Colombian government doing to support miners to eliminate mercury? LEAN MORE 

What makes mercury toxic? LEARN MORE


Christina Tatiana Miller, an independent sustainable jewelry consultant, provides strategy, guidance, and impact measurement to help jewelers make lives better around the world. Miller is co-founder and former executive director of Ethical Metalsmiths (EM), a not-for-profit organization founded in 2004 that strives to increase responsible practices in the jewelry industry through education. In 2013 EM successfully introduced FAIRMINED gold to the US in collaboration with 23 independent jewelers and refiner, Hoover & Strong. From 2006 – 2010 Miller was the assistant professor of jewelry and metalsmithing at Millersville University. She holds a BFA from Millersville University and an MFA from East Carolina University.

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