Community stories


Rolberto Álvarez


Rolberto Alvarez has been a miner since childhood and is the current legal representative of the Asociación Agrominera de los Andes “Fortaleza”. Here you can read his story, told from the municipality of Los Andes (Nariño, Colombia), where a mining dream began to be projected years ago.

“This is our humble story, just like our humble mining organization, which has had to dig its own destiny over years with the conviction that small-scale mining is worthy, ethical and responsible.”

The start of a mining organization after a displacement.

2006 was a difficult year in Rolberto’s region due to the conflict Colombia. “The illegal armed groups were fighting on the territory in the middle of an economy of illicit crops and the clashes between these actors caused the displacement of our families and the flee of violence towards the municipal capital”, explains Rolberto. However, that same year, the mining organization was founded: the Asociación Agrominera de los Andes “Fortaleza”. From this year as well, Rolberto began leading community processes with associations of displaced people to advocate politically and conduct community projects. Artisanal mining in the region has so far been supplemented by agriculture (cassava, beans, groundnuts, bananas, among others).

“Fortaleza” was created by 12 partners who wanted to conduct mining activities under a title called “Gualconda mine”, all affected by displacement. Despite the economic difficulties, partners and workers began to put an effort into the mining project along with prospecting for a distant future.

Two years passed and they managed to collect enough money to get a mill. “We went to the scrap yards to build a small ball mill using scrap metal and inexpensive materials that operated with water,” says Rolberto. He says they had to extract the material with mercury due to lack of resources, but they built a plan to gradually decrease mercury. “It gives me nostalgia and at times courage to reason why we couldn’t go faster, (…) the economic factor was there like a stone-in-the- shoes.”

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2013: “We began to dream bigger.”

As years elapsed, they succeeded in installing better equipment. “At that point in history, we began to dream bigger, we intended to build a more efficient and profitable processing plant, convinced that we would continue with honest, ethical and eco-friendly mining.

“Our process was strengthened by our own efforts with a Saving Plan model that decided to reinvest 97% of its production in our mining project, particularly in the processing plant”.

In 2014, the cooperative began working with the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), “with which we immediately began a team work and shared a work that gave birth to a holistic improvement plan that includes environmental, social, technical, economic and labor issues, among others”. They inaugurated their first stage of the processing plant and continued to build offices, bathrooms and warehouses, among other facilities that would enable them to continue to improve gradually.

“I realized that we had already started with a responsible mining foundation before, only an ally like ARM was missing to value, support and legitimize our process.”

Convinced by their dream despite the hardships

Rolberto was particularly impressed by the year 2017, when “Fortaleza” finally obtained Fairmined Certification. ” We did not export gold to international markets in our first year of certification due to the production capacity and export requirements. It was a step “to show us how much we have improved and to what extent we could continue to overcome the challenges that certification requires.”

“The last two years have been for us a stage where we defined the complete end of mercury use,” a challenge that was achieved by the end of 2017, ” while, after months of work, both in infrastructure and mining tests, we began to develop and standardize Cyanide processing via agitation tanks as an alternative mechanism to mercury use.


Retrieving the environment and pedagogical approach

The objective is not just to eliminate the use of mercury, since there is an area that needs to be cleaned, decontaminated and restored to return at least some of what has been removed to nature. The environment restoration plan is being implemented with the adaptation of ecological trails, viewing platforms and reforestation, and it is foreseen to gradually continue its implementation.

“Work in this area is part of a comprehensive plan that aims to transform our organization into a reproducible model within small-scale mining with the implementation of affordable educational tools for all mining companies, miners and institutions, in order to share our mining processes from a sustainable and responsible approach. An example of this is the trip made by miners from the community of Macuelizo (Santa Barbara, Honduras) during their visit to various mines in Colombia. One of the mines they visited was “La Fortaleza”, where Rolberto was one of the miners who socialized these processes of constant improvement of mining practice. News here.

Personally, Rolberto also participated in various forums, meetings, debates, interviews and wrote articles related to his collective experience of responsible mining. He is convinced that these opportunities are also essential to the spread of responsible mining projects.

The representative of “Fortaleza” believes that the path of responsible mining is the only one to be aspired to in mining, he comments that the complexity of the work makes it a slow process that “must therefore be assumed with a high degree of awareness and responsibility”.

“Real mining wealth comes when we can know that we are part of a sustainable and responsible economy.”

“We’re proud to be miners”

“Before, we were just an anonymous man, the same man who worked tirelessly in the ravine. Now we are not wealthy, but we are miners who depend on the community and constant work and who are still convinced that mining is not just a life-time to get rich at all cost, no matter how much damage is done to our nature or how many illegal methods are applied. We are proud to be miners who find in small-scale mining a lifestyle that allows us to dream and transcend.”

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