The subject matter, like the stone, is brittle, chipped at the edges and green with envy. As the rocks are cleared by hand, these men and women of the river suspiciously turn away from my camera, many afraid that with one frame, I might rob them of something more precious than the emeralds in their hands: their souls.
They are the known as guaqueros – scavengers who flock to the steep ravines and lush river valleys of Colombia’s emerald zone, freelancers in search of the promise to make money from a good find, to sell it and when times are hard, return to the zona esmeraldifera.
The black sand banks of the Río Minero are overrun with wooden huts, some perched perilously on hillsides, their timber balconies serving as canteens and makeshift bars. Despite the suspicion that reigns among the informal miners, there is a family atmosphere here and one that in many ways could be compared to an outdoor barbecue, where everyone knows everyone, and shares stories as beer flows freely.
As an outsider I feel protected, as I have gained the trust of the men. Between taking photographs, when the river seems too muddy and difficult to cross, the miners tell me where they are from. It is evident that this zona minera represents much of the regional diversity of modern day Colombia. There are Costeños from the north of the country, who with their wives and children, settled along the banks of the Río Minero to escape the paramilitary advance. Then there are Paisas from Medellín who pass through the region, for months at a time, blazing their Toyota 4x4s and buying up stones at the lowest price. There are Bogotanos and miners from Cali, and the locals – Boyacos – those who come from the interior of Boyacá, the department where three of Colombia’s main emerald mines are located: Muzo, Chivor and Coscúez.
The guaqueros work on a basis of trust. The stones that are found in the river are weighed and handed over to esmeralderos, who drive eight hours to Bogotá. In the capital city, the stones are then placed in the hands of potential wholesalers, who – depending on the needs of their clients – buy them. As the money is concentrated in Bogotá, among the many dealers and buyers, not much currency circulates in the zona esmeraldifera. Flat screen televisions and Mp3 players are negotiated in terms of carats rather than cash.
The Río Minero is a narrow and steep affluence of water that flows during the rainy season from the high Andean wetlands of Boyacá and dries up during the summer months. When the dry season arrives – from June to the end of September – mine operators release water from wells to create an artificial mudslide, in which small emeralds, usually those naturally discarded by drilling or rock explosions, work their way into the sludge and end up in the river. Occasionally a large stone gets away, but more often than not, the stones of the guaqueros are small in size and with imperfections.
During the winter months, the Río Minero swells and emeralds become harder to find. Gas powered water pumps replace shovels and the cost of living swells for the guaqueros. Many decide to leave the region, packing up their belongings and abandoning their makeshift huts. The Muzo to Chiquinquirá road shuts down for weeks as mudslides wash away bridges and cracked pavement. For many miners, the winter means a return underground. As emeralds are not naturally found in rivers, they work the rock face, picking away at quartz veins in abandoned shafts and stamp mills. With elemental tools and lanterns this work is dangerous and hard. Every year many guaqueros lose their lives in unsafe mines.
Colombian emeralds are prized the world over for their beauty and the “green fire” that glows within. For centuries, long before the Spanish conquest of the New World, emeralds from Muzo were traded as far north as Mexico for obsidian and as far south as Peru with the Incas, for silver. Today, Colombian emeralds continue to dominate the global market in precious stones, and their price per carat in New York, Tel Aviv or Dubai can be as much as three times higher per carat than a diamond. The street price a Colombian emerald can fetch internationally far outshines that which miners earn.
As one of Colombia’s most lucrative businesses, mine owners earn a concession from the government and pay their share in royalties, social security and taxes. While the official mining business is subject to government regulation and controls, emeralds continue to be associated with freelance mine owners and guaqueros. For Hollywood producers, Colombian emeralds work their way into movies with drug lords, mercenaries and guerrillas.
During much of the 1980s, Colombia’s emeralds mines were a haven for outlaws and those who ruled with force. With less than 10 percent of all Colombian emeralds mined, Muzo and Coscúez emerged as the Colombian Klondike, awash in green stones and greenbacks. Muzo went from being a humid hamlet in the foothills of the central Magdalena region to being a “hot” hamlet with the thrills of the big city: a bullring, a municipal airport and migrant workers arriving by bus from major urban centers such as Barranquilla, Medellín and Cali.
As Escobar looked to diversify his monopoly on cocaine, the esmeralderos armed themselves to defend their territory. They also fought amongst themselves for control of Colombia’s legendary emerald territory. A tenuous truce forged by rival esmeralderos with the help of the Catholic Church in 1991 brought relative peace to the region. This peace remains largely in effect today.
Emeralds continue to stir our imaginations, whether shopping for pear-shaped stones at Harry Winston or that special keepsake in Cartagena. What makes them so beautiful isn’t a slight variation in color or size, but that each one tells a story of guaqueros.