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Story Publication logo August 3, 2022

Mercury Free Mining in the Depths of Colombia (Spanish)


An aerial overview of a deforested area contaminated with mercury in Brazil.

Uncovering the origin and the traffic of the mercury used for gold mining in the Amazon Forest.

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Multiple Authors
A man sits by the river where he pans for gold.
Don Polo Panameño with his batea and his gold guides in Cisneros, Colombia. Image by Dahian Cifuentes.

This story excerpt was translated from Spanish. To read the original story in full, visit El País. You may also view the original story on the Rainforest Journalism Fund website here. Our website is available in English, Spanish, bahasa Indonesia, French, and Portuguese.

In one of the countries with the highest 'per capita' emissions of this substance in the world, a family refuses to use it to extract gold.

The mining practiced by the Hurtado Rodríguez family in a small town in southeastern Colombia, in the department of Valle del Cauca, does not require mercury.

Yonan Hurtado, 39, explains that he once heard that, deep in the jungle, the big extractors who use backhoes and huge dredges to remove gold are the ones who use mercury. "What is mercury like?" he asks. At the description of that heavy, silvery, shiny and viscous metal, the man concludes: "To tell the truth, I imagined it differently."

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Overhearing the conversation, Mélida Hurtado, 38 years old, with a toned body like an Olympic athlete, holds in her hands a bark similar to that of the coconut when it is peeled. She refers to it as "cáscara," fills her pan with water and rubs her hands with the husk. After a couple of minutes, a thick, heavy, egg-white-like liquid begins to form: "With this we cut the gold, or rather, we separate it from the jagua [grit] until it is very fine. We use other plants such as escobilla or babosa, but, as there are so many in the bush, it varies according to what we find."

This family is an exception in Colombia. In hundreds of children living in villages in the Colombian Amazon, along the Caquetá, Cotuhe and Apaporis rivers, mercury was detected in their hair at levels double those considered high and worrying by global health agencies. Something similar happens throughout the country: this is one of the countries with the highest per capita mercury emissions in the world.