I was half a mile in the mine shaft and my heart was racing. I leaned under the low ceiling and could barely see. I followed them and listened to the splash of the male steps in front of me. The water that dripped from above came up to my ankles. Then we stopped. We would have reached a dead end, said one of the miners. In order for us to continue, they had to pull out some dynamite.
Within a few minutes, several packs of explosives were drilled into the mountain and ready to detonate. I was told to open my mouth and not close it until the last of the dynamite exploded.
The explosions started and I felt the mountain groan around me. Then: complete silence. Ten seconds later, when the dust began to settle, one of the miners shouted, “Let’s go! It’s time to see what we have. “
Less than a month ago, I had a comfortable life in Dubai. Although I was born in Colombia, I left the country at the age of 18 to go to college in the United States and have followed my work elsewhere since then.
Recently, however, I’ve felt the need to reconnect with my country. Conveniently, a friend in Dubai knew a respected emerald trader and mine owner in Colombia. He invited me to visit and experience some of the country’s mining operations.
The miners I visited live and work in the Boyacá department, which is a six-hour drive north of Bogotá, the country’s capital. Boyacá is located on a branch of the Andes known as the Cordillera Oriental. Here, tucked away in a number of small mining towns – Muzo, Chivor, Otanche, Peñas Blancas, Coscuez – are some of the most valuable emerald mines in the world.
It is no secret that the miners in this region work in difficult and often dangerous conditions – some in sanctioned and regulated areas, others illegally. You work under the risk of mines collapsing, falling rocks and temperatures above 110 degrees.
Despite the risks, many miners speak proudly of their work as if supported by a sense of tradition.
The profitability of trading can vary considerably. Some miners work informally and independently, search debris fields or venture into unregulated mines – and benefit directly from the sale of stones to traders or gem carvers.
Others officially work for mine owners or mining companies. These miners may receive fixed salaries or commissions for the stones they find. (The specifics of the financial arrangements – whether the miners are paid in advance or after a stone has been sold to a dealer, carver, or customer, for example – often depends on the level of trust between the owners and the miners.)
The harsh reality in the mines contrasts with the size outside the mines: the smell of the clean air in the morning, the omnipresent rushing of the rivers, the imposing peaks of the Andes.
During the dry season, miners set up small tents by the river to protect themselves from the intense sun. After long hours of work, they relax in view of the breathtaking beauty that surrounds them.
During the five days I spent with them, the miners told countless stories about how the emeralds and the surrounding mountains had changed their lives.
One miner, an elderly man who lived in a modest house, claimed to have made exorbitant sums of money from several selected stones – just to waste it all, he said, forcing him reluctantly to return to the mines.
Others have seen family members and friends killed during the intense fighting – much of it related to the illegal emerald trade – that took place here in the mountains in the 1980s. And some have just waited patiently for decades, hoping that one day they will find an emerald that will change their lives.
The future of these local miners is largely uncertain. In the past few decades, companies – some of them overseas – have climbed the mountains of Boyacá and taken control of large parts of the hills. Some of the companies offer salaries, health care, and a sense of stability.
Still, many miners choose the rewards and risks of working alone.
Many of the men I met described mining as a gamble and an addiction. The mines, they said, are like casinos in the middle of the Andes: one stone could change everything.
And finding such a stone, they say, is ultimately what they live for – and are ready to die.
Juan Pablo Ramirez is a Colombian photographer from Dubai. You can follow his work on Instagram.