In rural Colombia, some communities are leaving unregulated gold mining for beekeeping and honey production to improve their health, livelihoods, and local ecosystems.
Science shows that honey, rich in antioxidants, can lower a person’s cholesterol and promote healing. As a commodity, it can also transform entire communities. Just ask Zoraida Silgado Escobar, legal representative for the Carbebias Honey Producer Association (Asocabebias), in Northern Colombia.
Before beekeeping helped to change her community, her father and neighbors earned their livelihood from the grueling work of unregulated gold mining. Detrimental to health, local governance, and ecosystems, the lower echelons of artisanal and small gold mining (ASGM) can demand much of rural people and offer little in the way of financial return. Laborers at the bottom of the supply chain spend hours bent over, panning in streams and rivers, sifting through mud and pebbles, in precarious working conditions. Then there are the dangers out of the water — armed criminals who often use violence to protect their own mining investments or extort other mining operations.
“Beekeeping gave us an economic alternative to mining,” Zoraida said. “My father worked for many years in informal mining, which means my family depended on this activity, like most families in this region.” Now Zoraida’s father produces honey, just like his daughter.
The training Zoraida and her father received was a component of the USAID Colombia Artisanal Gold Mining-Environmental Impact Reduction Activity — or Oro Legal. This five-year, $20 million project is financed by USAID and implemented by Chemonics. As part of its work, Oro Legal provides alternatives to unregulated gold mining; a sub-sector that has changed Colombia economically and environmentally.
The Impact of Unregulated Gold Mining
In Colombia, ASGM accounts for more than 80 percent of gold exports, the bulk of which is undertaken by mines operating illegally, some of whom are funded by criminal networks. The reasons for criminal involvement are not hard to find: gold mining generates $2.4 billion per year.
The environmental consequences of uncontrolled gold extraction abound. Mechanized operations cause deforestation and contaminate water sources. At least 10 million ASGM miners in more than 70 countries — including Colombia — use mercury, a deadly neurotoxin, to amalgamate small slivers of gold from soil sediment, a process that is one of the largest sources of pollution worldwide. High levels of mercury in drinking water can damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetuses.
Furthermore, illegal gold mining affects areas of high biodiversity — such as tropical rainforests. For example, during a 20-year period, more than 50,000 hectares have been cut in the areas surrounding the Atrato and Quito rivers in the Chocó region on Colombia’s biodiverse Pacific as a consequence of gold mining in creeks, rivers, and streams. This deforestation affects the flora, fauna, and ultimately water sources used by Colombians.
The Introduction of Oro Legal
USAID´s Oro Legal Activity, implemented by Chemonics International, works with the Colombian government, non-governmental organizations, communities, and the private sector, seeks to reduce the social and environmental impact of unregulated mining in 22 municipalities within the Colombian Departments of Antioquia and Chocó.
First, Oro Legal focuses on the formalization of unregulated mining and governance capacity building. Second, Oro Legal builds partnerships with small and artisanal gold miners, associations, and indigenous communities. Third, Oro Legal brings together communities, the Colombian government, and the private sector to remedy environmental degradation and implement land rehabilitation. And finally, Oro Legal develops alternative livelihoods for families who cannot, or should not, be involved in gold mining. Among these alternative livelihoods, beekeeping has certainly created a great amount of buzz.
A Sweet Solution
Not everyone working in unregulated gold mining wants to remain in it, particularly women gold panners, who eke out a tenuous existence in dangerous conditions. In some areas, people can’t mine due to legal or environmental restrictions. Communities needed alternatives to generate decent incomes; one of these is beekeeping and honey production.
Oro Legal developed a large value chain initiative in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia, Colombia involving the installation of more than 11,000 new, populated beehives to benefit more than 300 families. Each family consolidated a “beekeeping productive unit” made up 45 hives to help build a sustainable monthly income of between 1.5 to 2 times the monthly Colombian minimum wage salary (currently $280).
Through Oro Legal, Asocarbebias, which was already involved in beekeeping, built its administrative and legal capacity while expanding its reach to incorporate twenty new beneficiary families. The project impact encouraged other beneficiaries, including young people, to leave gold mining and become beekeepers, learning important life lessons and professional skills in the process.
“We have learned a lot about what togetherness means,” Zoraida said. “The beekeeping project, in my case, gave me the opportunity to strengthen my accounting knowledge and learn about administration. In general terms, it taught us to value what we had and also to work as a team to achieve a common good.”