The problem of land ownership in Colombia is the oldest conflict in the country. The struggle for control of wealth and for the right to exploit its resources is an ongoing dispute that, depending on the region, manifests itself in different ways.
For decades Muzo and the municipalities of Western Boyacá have attracted tens of thousands of people from other parts of Colombia. They settle in the region in the hope of finding precious green stones under the Boyacá soil. Most of them work in the mines but others try to subsist “guaqueando” in the “quebrada” (ravine) of the mining river, an activity that consists of searching through the surplus debris –resulting from the mining activity– for small or unnoticed stones. In case of finding an emerald they could buy a house, open a business, travel, or even retire forever.
The control of the emeralds belongs to only a few: the owners and shareholders of the mines. They dominate the business in a region where historically the State hasn’t had a presence. From the end of the 1950s until 1992, a series of bloody confrontations between emerald seekers took place in western Boyacá. The best known was Víctor Carranza, "the tsar of emeralds", alias "El Patrón", who ended up owning thousands of hectares of land in Colombia. In this period private armies of these businessmen stopped the incursion of the FARC in the region, planting the seeds of the future paramilitarism in Colombia.
El embrujo verde
Forty years ago the so-called barequeros (or guaqueros) congregated in the valley on a daily basis and by the thousands with the hope that a gem –that would lift them out of their situation of extreme poverty– would emerge from under the dark soil. However, since environmental laws prohibited the dumping of surplus debris from the mining activity into the river, there are only a dozen of barequeros left.
Ever since mankind began digging the earth to extract its wealth, this practice –which is highly irresponsible with the ecosystems– has taken place without control and has left an indelible mark that destroyed entire mountains in western Boyacá due to the use of heavy machinery.
Under the protection of this unregulated and harmful activity for the environment, the guaqueros arose in perfect symbiosis with the mining industry, the exploitation companies and their owners. The guaqueros, now in danger of extinction, live in settlements with no running water, located on the outskirts of the mountains that surround the ravine. Today in Colombia, many mining companies continue to ignore current legislation for their own benefit, which in turn is in the interest of the people who for decades have been depending exclusively on the remains of the mining excavations.
Photographer and "barequero"
Between the months of June and August 2017, OAK carried out an exhaustive follow-up of the emerald’s journey through Colombia, from deep into the ground to the auction houses in Bogotá, meeting the different actors that deal with it along the way, and being witness of how its value oscillates depending on the hands that buy and sell it. This is the case of José Maecha, photographer and barequero, who shared with Javier Corso one of the few photographic archives on the life in the mining region at the end of the last century.
Carranza, the last of the great emerald leaders, died in April 2013 after which his principal mine, Puerto Arturo (Muzo), was sold to the foreign multinational Minería Texas Colombia (MTC). Being an American company implementing a new way of management, MTC has faced strong opposition by some miners from the region. Also the guaqueros feel their livelihood is being affected due to the improving obedience to environmental laws.
Creadores de Conciencia
A selection of photographs from this project is part of the collective exhibition "Creadores de Conciencia (Creators of Conscience)", curated by Chema Conesa and Juan Manuel Castroprieto, which brings together the work of forty prominent photojournalists. The exhibition, sponsored by DKV Seguros, traveled to some of the most important image centers in Spain, such as the Palau Robert (Barcelona), the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Madrid) or La Lonja (Zaragoza).
The reportage has been published in different national and international media, including its appearance in the German magazine GEO or the digital medium AlJazeera.