Colombian Emeralds

Photographs and Text by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala

This feature was shot in August 2010. A full edit of 65 images available on request. The following text is available with the images.

Colombia is the source of the best emeralds in the world, but like the country’s most recent history, Colombian green emerald jewels are bloodstained.

Few countries have areas as rich in emeralds as Colombia. This makes it is the world’s leading producer, with 55% of global production, followed by Brazil with 15%, Zambia with 12%, and Zimbabwe and Pakistan with 5% each. In terms of quality, Colombian emeralds are the world's finest.

Over the past decade, the market for Colombian emeralds was in decline, but with the recent increase of foreign investment, mostly in the form of US capital, there has been a recovery of this market that was in crisis. In 2008, Colombia’s exports of emeralds reach USD $180m, and that revenue has been growing by 20% per year for the past three years.

The cost of some of the finest Colombian emeralds can reach in excess of USD $10,000 per carat, or even up to USD $50,000 per carat for the ultimate specimen, although that would only for a very rare, flawless, very large one, with an important history or other significance.

Muzo is the heart of emerald country in Colombia. Its emeralds are known worldwide for their highest quality and purity. But behind the beauty of the spell of the emerald is a dark story of violence, war and the systematic violation of human rights that has turned this corner of Colombia into a pit of despair. Muzo is in the department of Boyaca, about a 5-hour drive (300km) from the capital, Bogota. As such, one of the darkest parts of the country is actually not that far from the capital itself.

Hundreds of people come to Muzo every year in search of their own El Dorado, but find a very different situation to their dream of riches. Poverty, violence and hunger usually end up being part of the daily lives of all those that have come to these mountains following their dreams, in search of emeralds.

The guaqueria, which is the traditional form of emerald mining at the surface, often in riverbeds, is in crisis. The concession to exploit the main emerald mine in the region was awarded to an international company, and this has limited access for traditional mining in the most productive areas for emeralds. Now more than ever, the guaqueros (independent surface miners) are subject to the whims of the patrones (bosses) that control the mines in the region. For example, the main mine now only unloads it discarded washed rubble once per day, so this is the only opportunity the guaqueros have to sort through them in the hope of finding emeralds, which has meant that competition is fierce and violence often erupts at the site. Guaqueros work up to 15 hours a day, travel from one dumping site to the next, according to where the mines unload their discarded rubble. They can end up working for years without finding any sellable emeralds this way. Any emeralds that they do find are sold locally to traders, who then take them to Bogota to sell on, and from there they reach the international market.

In many of the local emerald mines, miners are just being given food for work, and even that is just a bowl of soup. They often spend twelve hours underground at a time, with virtually no safety precautions. They use basic tools, and handle TNT explosives, which they are permitted to handle after a 1-week explosives training course provided by the local police. After the first explosion in a mine, the workers are allowed to take a handful of rock for themselves, in the hope of it containing emeralds. They are not permitted to take any more after that. Even then, it is the best status that workers can hope for in Muzo. Those lucky enough to work underground within the mines say their situation is not as bad as that of the guaqueros, who survive on less than €20 Euros per year, as they at least are given food to eat each day.

Daily life in this mining region is ruled by paramilitary groups who are at the service of a very powerful individual known simply as El Patron (the boss). These paramilitaries are known as ‘los Pajaros’ (meaning the birds), and they are the law and prevailing authority in the area. Their abuse of the local population and any looters is constant. The local mines, separate to the one that is operated by the international mining company, are owned by local patrones, who then report upwards to El Patron, who controls the whole region.

Life in the mining village is real example of human survival. The miners have little or no money, no food, and lot of guarapo (local alcoholic drink). There is little for them to do outside work hours, apart from drinking and gambling. One of the images depicts a father and his son. He doesn’t want to see his child end up in the same position as him, and he wants him to study so he can have a better future, but just in case he is teaching him how to differentiate between different types of stones, and how to find emeralds.