An initiative to protect a heritage at risk

In June 2012 an application was filed to the Colombian Ministry of Culture for the traditional barequeo[1], a panning technique used to obtain gold with manual tools on the riverbed and shores of the Cauca river and its tributaries, to be included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the nation (ICH)[2].

The application, supported by the signature of over five hundred residents of the Cauca Valley in Antioquia, Colombia, was filed to protect the cultural rights violated by the hydroelectric megaproject Ituango. The project started in 2009 and very soon the residents of the Valley started expressing their unrest, as the majority of people who lived on barequeo (permanently or temporarily) were not included in the census with which EPM (Empresas Publicas de Medellín), the society that runs and builds the project, defined who could not continue with said activity[3].

The census’ flaws and the sub-representation of barequeros (gold-panners, the people who practice barequeo) were attributed to the type of record that took place: the people responsible for the census would visit the areas of the river they could reach by car, and from there they would walk for a few meters up and down to register whoever worked in that small area; people who were not present were not regarded as affected, even if family members, friends and neighbors attested to their links with barequeo. According to the communities, the census did not take into consideration that the activity of barequeo is not carried out in a fixed place, but along the shores of the river, which entails the mobility of those who practice it and explains the absence of the majority of gold-panners in the area where the census took place.

In addition to not being included in the census of the affected, locals were also denied recognition as ancestral inhabitants of the geographic area covered by the project; men and women of all ages, who were aware that the territories they lived in were inherited from their ancestors felt that, besides simply being ignored, they would be stripped of all that had a meaning in their life: the river and shores where they spent most of their time; baraqueo, which gave them a livelihood; a job that made them feel free and not dependent on others for their material needs; a job they learned from their parents and were hoping to pass on to their children and grand-children to guarantee them with a good life.


The recognition of barequeo as heritage, as a legacy of our ancestors by the communities of the valley goes without saying, so that the idea of filing the application for this activity they practice to be recognized and preserved as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the nation seemed the most sensible initiative to protect their rights. We are talking about a cultural expression that, as a traditional working technique, met all the requirements of the law to be included in the nation’s ICH[4].

The Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage

The inclusion of a cultural manifestation in any of the representative lists of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of the Colombian territorial areas is an instrument for protecting the Intangible Cultural Heritage that stems from the Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which took place in Paris on October 17, 2003[5]. The value given by the Convention to cultural practices and expressions, which nowadays are usually discredited as archaic, exotic, backwards and unproductive, constituted a very important step in the recognition of cultural rights by the signatory countries.

This legitimized the communities’ right to protect as heritage the knowledge, techniques, festivities and practices of their own cultures. As a member of the UNESCO, Colombia signed and ratified the convention, accepting its principles, objectives and suggestions by issuing Law 1037 in 2006, Law 1185 in 2008, and Act 2941 in 2009, which regulated the procedure for the inclusion of intangible cultural manifestations in the ICH’s representative lists. A policy for the safeguarding of the nation’s Intangible Cultural Heritage was also created in 2009, which articulates the legislation on the topic, whose principles are found in the 1991 constitution, in which it is established that it is “the obligation of the State and of the people to protect the nation’s cultural and natural wealth as one of its foundations, and to uphold the respect and knowledge of Colombian cultural and ethnical differences”[6].

Covered by this juridical context and with the certainty that barequeo met all the conditions and requirements of Act 2941 for being included in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of the nation, the application was filed to the Ministry of Culture. It was expected that, for being an endangered heritage in the Cauca Valley, its safekeeping would be a priority and, therefore, alternatives would be needed to be put into place against the implementation of the development projects that were being brought forward in the region.

The main alternative was the elaboration of a Special Safeguarding Plan (Plan Especial de Salvaguardia, PES), as required by Act 2941 as a condition to accept the inclusion of the manifestation in the ICH list. This is a “social and administrative agreement conceived as an instrument for managing the nation’s cultural heritage, through which it is possible to establish actions and guidelines that guarantee the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage”.

According to the kind of measures required by the PES[7], its value as an instrument for protecting cultural rights is unquestionable, so it represents the only legal means that communities can rely on for protecting, preserving and strengthening of their endangered cultural manifestations. The elaboration of a PES for barequeo in the Cauca Valley intrinsically meant that the communities would be recognized as social subjects who could participate with juridical equality in the decisions that threatened their way of life, autonomy and independency; they would be able to manage the material and institutional resources to protect and strengthen the practice that supported them. It represented their right to preserve their way of life, their habits and traditions; to have a decent job; to enjoy their territory and preserve the natural resources they used.

Barequeo, more than just subsistence mining

The application that defined barequeo as a cultural manifestation was supported by the contributions of archeological, historical and ethnographical research carried out, until then, by professors and students of the Anthropology Department of the Universidad de Antioquia[8]. All together, these allowed to understand barequeo in its entirety and to comprehend its scope as a cultural practice. On one hand, the innumerable remains of mining found on the shores and terraces of the Cauca River speak of an activity that has been practiced for centuries, much earlier than the Spanish conquest of the region. On the other hand, the historical studies allow to track the social transformations produced by a mining colonization that was made possible by the employment of the indigenous workforce, their techniques and knowledge to exploit the gold resources; the information extracted from colonial and republican archives also documented the genealogic and cultural continuity of the native communities in the contemporary descendants.

The ethnographic approach to some communities’ daily life was essential to understand that barequeo in the Cauca Valley, as well as in many other areas of Colombia and of the world where it is practiced, is much more than just subsistence mining carried out with artisanal tools. The representation of barequeo as ‘survival mining’ appeared in the 18th century, when the Spanish Crown, which sought to intensify the exploitation of the gold resources that could not be extracted with gold-panners’ techniques, managed to hide a social and cultural order and the value system linked to the barequeo gold. This value system was completely different from the western one that prevailed in the country since the Colonization. The difference lies in the distinction made by a gold-panner: “We are not miners, I’d rather say we are barequeros”, which is based on the recognition that barequeo involves a thought system with principles that are alien to the western values and economical rationality, which support a type of intensive mining in which gold represents a wealth to be extracted, accumulated and used for economical power. For the barequeros, miners are those people who, legally or illegally, take hold of the shores and mines, use machinery to extract gold, and try to get the maximum benefit in the minimum time possible, without caring for the huge impact generated on the environment. The gold-panners, on the other hand, live surrounded by the metal and with the permanent possibility of accessing it; they consider it a present from the river, so they extract quantities that are just enough, once sold, for acquiring the goods they do not produce, and for their material and social growth. Taking hold of the shores, extracting more than what is necessary, accumulating or using gold to communicate social status and economical power are behaviors that contravene the cultural prescriptions for the good use of the mineral, against which exist social sanctions as well as supernatural ones, set by the entities that own and protect it.

Therefore, as well as being a technique that requires skill and knowledge, the barequeo is also the quintessential enculturation space; practicing it since childhood with the mother, father or relatives, children learn a way of seeing, perceiving, making sense of and relating to the world they live in; they learn the moral values and appropriate behaviors to live in a world populated by other beings, like plants and animals, that have the same rights as humans. They also learn about the sanctions and the behaviors that threaten collective wellbeing and social cohesion.

This gold panning technique defines the rhythms and social times, it marks out life stages as well as defining relationships; it structures social relations on different levels, from the basic family units and local communities to the relations with mountain communities of non-barequeros (montañeros) and the urban areas, all under the principles of mutuality and complementarity. In its practice, one finds ideas of independency, freedom, security, scarcity and abundance. The routine of barequeo culturally transforms the shores, the terraces, the hills and paths, leaving traces of history that overlap with the ones left by our ancestors. In the space they perceive, live in and transform, the barequeros reproduce and create the social order and its memory.

The barequeo is a live tradition through which is transmitted a legacy of skills, knowledge and social representations, which a generation leaves for the next as a guarantee for material growth. This activity possesses a vital significance that can be understood by looking at the metaphorical meaning of the precious metal as food; even though it can certainly not be eaten, the gold extracted is transformed into food when exchanged for the money used to buy rice, salt, meat, panela, and all the goods they do not own or produce. Barequeo is also an essential reference point for the identity of cañoneros[9] (those who live in the valley) for the people who practice it; it is regulated by a system of cultural prescriptions and customary laws that, as a collective code, regulate the access to gold and its use. It is a real model for sustainable mining that does not produce damaging effects on the environment, nor does it threaten the sustainability of the gold resources, for the use and wellbeing of the present and future generations.

The gold-panners of the Cuaca Valley do not use mercury to separate the gold; the operation is carried out by adding to the pan a mash of leaves, stems or roots of trees that grow on the river shores. Moreover, this technique does not input any additional material to the riverbed, as it is usually carried out on the shores that are inundated by the river periodically, where the sand and other necessary materials are deposited during the rainy season.

Yes, but no: an uncomfortable cultural heritage

What followed the filing of the application meant finding out the power of interference of the agents of the Ituango Hydroelectric project, who over more than three years intervened in various instances with the Ministry of Culture, the Gobernación de Antioquia, the Heritage and Culture Institute of Antioquia, and the National Councils to stop the application from being successful. For the first time in two hundred years of republican life, the communities of the Cauca Valley came out of their world to present an application to the State, which would recognize and protect their main activity as part of the nation’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Just over three years of silences, waiting and rights to petition went by, just to receive a no as an answer. The application was not accepted. Those who sought to hinder its success always managed, against all evidence, to ensure the negative votes were the majority in the respective Heritage Councils. The negative vote resulted from ignoring the research of the specialists, advisors and technical committees of each unit, including the opinion of the very Commission of experts put together by the National Heritage Council to verify the content of the application, of the identity of whose who signed it, and if it was an application known and supported by the communities.

 All results admit that barequeo in the Cauca Valley is a cultural manifestation that meets all the requirements needed by law to be included in the lists of the ICH, and that it must be protected. The Verification Commettee recommends[10] “that the Ministry of Culture put into place concrete actions aimed at safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Cauca Valley, Antioquia, which finds itself in a situation of uncertainty, as we could discern”. The situation of uncertainty is caused by the Hidroituango project.

To address the concern for the effects of the project and the risk of uprooting faced by the communities, the Committee states that “it is fundamental that the Ministry of Culture start an extensive discussion with the communities on the appropriate and relevant modality of the actions needed to start an urgent process for the safekeeping of this Intangible Cultural Heritage”. With regards to the position of the communities on the application, the Committee recognizes that “the interest for the application process to include barequeo in the Cauca Valley in the Representative Lists of the ICH is also interpreted by the communities as a way of protecting their cultural fabric”.

Moving away from the experts’ opinions required by Act 2941 and from the recommendations provided by various authorities related to the process[11],, including by the minister of Culture, who was head of the Council, and by some of its members, who recognized the value of the practice, in the Ruling 2630 of 2015 of the Ministry of Culture the following criteria were considered to make a negative decision, which were different from the criteria listed in the Act:

  • First of all, the fear that the Ministry of Culture would be used “to force a political decision with regards to the building of the hydroelectric plant” (Record of February 17, 2014), decision that according to the Ruling 2630 could be interpreted “as an action that defies government politics”;
  • Secondly, that the “inclusion in the Representative Lists of the ICH does not in any case operate as a tool for defending and protecting fundamental rights”;
  • And lastly, that “inclusion in the national Representative Lists of the ICH is inadequate to safeguard the manifestation in question” (Ruling 2630 of 2015).

According to these, the decisions of the Ministry were subordinated to the government’s mining and energy policy, and not to the national policy on the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and rejected the spirit of the legislation developed from the ratification and signing of the Unesco Convention of 2003, as well as the responsibility of Colombia as a signatory country of the Akwe:Kon voluntary Guidelines of the Convention on Biological Diversity[11],, which sought to involve countries in the implementation of effective actions to protect resources, ecosystems, techniques, knowledge and ancestral wisdom of indigenous and local communities threatened by development projects.

Based on the above considerations, the National Heritage Council decided “the manifestation of barequeo as a means for traditional production in the Cauca Valley should not be included in the national Representative Lists of the ICH”.

The ruling is shocking for the contradiction between the decision to reject the inclusion of  barequeo in the Cauca Valley in the Representative Lists of the ICH and the recommendation of the Council toconsider a nationwide declaration on barequeo” and to “address and analyze barequeo from a more global point of view, and not just as linked to a particular territory”; recommendations that reflect the statements of the Ministry in the National Heritage Council, on “the importance, for the Council, of the cultural manifestation of barequeo viewed from a national perspective” which would entail “a plan for its protection that covers the whole national territory, and not just the region of Antioquia” (Record of February 17, 2014).

Evidently, the negative answer to the application, which contravenes its content, experts’ opinions on the manifestation, national legislation and international agreements on the Intangible Cultural Heritage, was caused by the Ituango Hydroelectic plans, under the assumption that its success would constitute a threat to the development of the project. Thus, barequeo went from being an endangered cultural heritage to being a threat to the viability of the hydroelectric project. This created the false dichotomy between the project and the manifestation, which was finally resolved in favor of the project, depriving the communities of a tool to defend their culture.

The application process highlighted the difficulties and tensions that appear for the implementation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage policy when a development perspective based on the intensive exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of private individuals clashes with the communities’ vision on the preservation of their way of life, and their development based on a cultural rationale that chooses to respect nature and prioritize the collective benefit over the private.

Barequeo as a national Intangible Cultural Heritage

Notwithstanding the incompatibilities, and its effects on the future of the communities involved, the request allowed barequeo to be known as a practice that gave structure to an ancestral cultural tradition that has been historically concealed, whose experience is a true heritage that the country should consider with when developing ecological alternatives to the use of mineral resources. The nation proudly exhibits pre-Columbian indigenous metal products as a tangible cultural heritage, but there is no knowledge regarding how the metal used for the production of hundreds of thousands of pieces kept in museums was extracted, or even a recognition of the practices and skills that made it possible.

Historians agree that barequeo, known as mazamorreo in colonial times, constituted the basis of colonial mining in New Granada (now Colombia) and that the extraction of gold was performed using skills and techniques known and developed by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples that inhabited the mining regions, which were forced by the Spanish to extract the gold for their benefit – an obligation that allowed for the transfer of their knowledge of metal to Spanish slaves and miners[13]. With the introduction of machinery to increase production and process minerals that could not be obtained through barequeo, this technique fell into disuse in large mines and was regarded as a legacy, inefficient and backwards technique. However, by the mid-20th century, the relevance of the technique in mining regions was evidenced by a production that amounted to a third of the gold extracted in Colombia.

The relevance of barequeo among the mining techniques in use in Colombia is evidenced in that it has been recognized in mining regulations created since colonial times up to this day. Regardless of its legal status, an image of barequeo or mazamorreo as a practice of populations living in extreme poverty – extracting gold from the minerals discarded by dredges and backhoes of legal or illegal mining operations – has concurrently been created and projected through various means; an association that further shows barequeo as an informal and illegal mining practice that destroys the environment. These stigmas have impeded the acknowledgement of the value of a technique whose effectiveness in extracting metal for thousands of years – without depleting the resource or destroying the environment – has been proven, in addition to the uniqueness and cultural richness of those who have transmitted the technique practiced by their ancestors, whether as members of enslaved populations, as slaves in workforces, or as independent mazamorreros after having escaped or bought their freedom with the gold that they extracted. In the multi-ethnical and cultural country that is recognized by the National Constitution, the barequeo culture has not been given the importance it deserves as a component of the nation’s multiculturalism.

The recommendations of the Consejo Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural (National Council of Cultural Heritage) opened up the possibility of seeking the national recognition of barequeo as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, and its inclusion in the nation’s LRPCI (in Spanish, Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative List), and therefore, the Plan Especial de Salvaguarda (Special Protection Plan) that the Minister of Culture imagined when its induction was considered. Barequero communities maintain their way of life in the ancient colonial mining regions in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Antioquia, Bolívar, Chocó, Tolima and Santander – many of them at a clear disadvantage in the face of legal and illegal mining companies. Even though mining policies encourage the formalization of barequeros, the recognition of barequeo as a culture constitutes a challenge that demands processes to revalue a mining model that the country needs to give it the place it deserves in the current landscape and the history of the country, but also in other places of the world in which this millennia-old practice is still relevant.

Neyla Castillo Espitia, is Anthropologist of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, professor at the Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia, lecturer and researcher of the Anthropology department of the Universidad de Antioquia for 33 years and researcher in the fields of Archaeology and Ethnography. Author of articles and books; mind and coauthor of the application for the barequeo of the Cauca valley to be included in the RLICH of the nation and that of the Antioquia department.


[1] The same technique is also known in Colombia as mazamorreo.

[2] According to law 1185, the Intangible Cultural Heritage includes the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. (Convention 2003, 17).

[3]  The area of the project includes 12 municipalities with an estimated population of 167.873 (DANE, 2007), of which about 70% is rural population. Of this percentage, about 17% (28.400 people) who live in 130 villages and in the municipal capital live on barequeo. This percentage does not include those who offer services to the barequeros – farmers, merchants, transporters, muleteers – and who indirectly depend on the gold the barequeros sell to be part of the local and regional economy.

[4]  Salazar, F. L; Chavarría, G.; Builes, G.; Castillo Espitia,  N. (2013). “Postulation for the inclusion of the Barequeo technique as a traditional form of production in the Cauca Valley, Antioquia, in the Representative List of the nation’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Medellín.


[6] Ministry of Culture. Policy for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2009.

[7]  According to the Act, the PES must contain: “1) The identification of the benefits and impacts of the manifestation and its safeguarding related to the processes of identity, belonging, wellbeing and improvement of the quality of life of the communities that identify with the manifestation. 2) Preservation measures for the manifestation against internal and external factors that threaten to harm or eliminate it. The adoption of preventive and corrective measures against the risk factors must be accompanied by a financial annex and a certification of the involvement of the different public and private entities in the Special Safeguarding Plan. 3) Measures oriented towards guaranteeing the viability and sustainability of the community, organizational, institutional and support structures related to the manifestation. 4) Measures oriented towards the promotion of cultural appropriation of the manifestation’s values among the community, as well as disseminating it and making it visible. 5) Measures that encourage the creation of knowledge, research and documentation of the manifestation and the social processes related to it, with the participation and consulting of the community. 6) Measures to evaluate, control and follow the Special Safeguarding Plan. 7) Integration of the Special Safeguarding Plans to the development plans of the sector in question”.

[8] Among this research we find: Montoya Guzmán, J. D.; González Jaramillo, J. M.l. (2002). Indios, poblamiento y trabajo en la provincia de Antioquia, siglos XVI y XVII. Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Medellín branch, Faculty of Human and Economic Sciences. Córdoba, E. L. (1991). El Rostro que me Habita: Ciclo de vida y Cultura en Barbacoas y Membrillal. Dissertation, Universidad de Antioquia. Duque, M.  I. Espinosa (1995). Historia y cultura de la población Nutabe en Antioquia. Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia. S.P. Castillo N. (2007) “Minería Aurífera en el noroeste andino de Colombia” Published in: Metalurgia en la América Antigua. 2007. Roberto Lleras (Editor). Foundation for National Archeological Research (Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales.) Banco de la República – French Institute of Andean Studies.

[9]  The barequeros of the Cauca Vally inhabit the territory closest to the river, the warm area of the Valley, from the shores of the Cauca River to about 1500 above sea level; this location leads to their endogenous identification as Cañoneros (people of the valley), as opposed to the montañeros (people of the mountains), who live in the higher mountain areas. The Valley social system articulates the cañoneros-barequeros with the montañeros-farmers through a permanent exchange that includes cultivated and mountain products, and products obtained from the river, like fish, wild fruit and gold. In this case, the montañeros, unexperienced in the panning technique, offer their workforce to extract gold in times of shortage of crops.

[10]  The following references (in italics) are part of thedocument elaborated by Aida Cecilia Gálvez Abadía, Andrea Marcela Pinilla Baham, César Alejandro Cardona Duque. Juan Pablo Henao, adviser for the group of Intangible Heritage. Informe de verificación Solicitud de inclusión a la Lista Representativa de Patrimonio Cultural Inmaterial del ámbito nacional de la manifestación “Barequeo como forma tradicional de producción en el cañón del río Cauca”, in Antioquia. Direcciones de Patrimonio, Ministerio de Cultura, Bogotá, December de 2014.

[11]  In addition to the Verification Commission of the Ministry of Culture, the Social Anthropology Group of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology, May 2014; the Technical Committee of the Heritage Directorate of the Ministry of Culture; Edgar Bolívar is an expert in Heritage and a member of the Cultural Heritage Council of Antioquia, February 2014.


[13]  There is significant material related to the history of colonial mining in Antioquia and New Granada. Among the classic works we can find Trimborn, H. 1943. “Tres estudios para la etnografía y arqueología de Colombia. Las minas de Buriticá”. Revista de Indias, Bogota.

  • Restrepo, V. (1979), A Study Of The Gold & Silver Mines Of Colombia. Fondo Rotatorio de Publicaciones FAES, Medellin; West, R. (1972), La minería aluvial en Colombia durante el período colonial. Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional.

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