Day four of this trip. We haven’t really had a moment to ourselves since we started and I hope I can do this entry the justice it deserves as soo much has happened in a short space of time and its not easy to remember the fine details that have occurred since we stared. Today was a 3am start on the back of a very poor and rather chilly sleep. We arrived at out hotel last night around 10pm from another day of around eight hours on the bus. I had to perform a minor surgery on my foot (slight exaduration) as I have managed to accumulate in-between the same two toes and square centimetre on my right foot, athletes foot, a blister and a mozzy bite. While I don’t need an amputation just yet, it is somewhat swollen, painful to touch but combined with the overwhelming desire to scratch it to the bone and provides a mildly amusing shuffle-limp when walking.
We are all a little tired to say the least, but all in very high spirits regardless. That despite sitting in our departures lounge (shed would be more appropriate) having been sitting on our plane for over an hour waiting to fly to Pasto to see our second mine, to then be told it’s too foggy at the other end so that airport is shut and we got off the plane again. And here we sit, for the first time since we all met, with time on our hands that isn’t on the worlds bumpiest roads.
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Day one. We all met in a conference room in the hotel. Nervous hello’s as every one in turn arrived and introduced ourselves to each other. We started with a welcome briefing from Kenneth and Patricia from ARM (Alliance for Responsible Mining) who are also in charge of the Fairmined certification that we have all come to see. Food was served as we were told about the trip and then we had a small exercise to get to know another of the delegates on the trip. I blame the jetlag for forgetting all the important information that Stewart Grice from Hoover and Strong gave me as I failed dismally to mention how important he and his company had been in early establishment of access top Fairmined metals in the USA. Sorry Stewart. . .
We spent the most of that afternoon on the bus travelling to Neiva, excited to speak to each other and find out more about our shared interests in the world of responsible sourcing in the supply chain. We get in late, the first of our almost daily eight-hour bus journey’s. A late dinner on arrival, ideal for waking up just when you want to sleep, on top of trying to readjust to the time difference and the elusive mosquito made for a sleep worse than on the plane flight.
Nevertheless, day two and every one still full of enthusiasm for the day ahead. Two hours in our bumpy coach and we arrive in Iquira, where we are introduced to the cooperative of miners that are Fairmined certified. Patrickia and Kenneth are both fluent in Spanish and English so act as translators during our welcomes. We are told about the mines, miners, community and their cooperative. The atmosphere between the two groups is animated as we drink small coffee shots and begin to break the language barriers. 5 trucks pull up outside ready to take us to the refinery and mine, some of us have to climb into the open boot sections while others get the joy of the back of a motorcycle and we speed off out of the town. This already is a much more excitable form of transport and feels more authentic, less touristy, that we are actually in the place and not just witnessing it.
Arriving at the refinery we are greeted by a huge barbeque beside a rustic collection of buildings with more of the cooperative miners and their family. The food is simple but tasty, well, for most of us meat eaters and way too much to eat. I had no idea what animal or part of it came with the potatoes but wasn’t concerned enough to ask so just tucked in and nearly got through it all too. We split into 2 groups and were shown around the refinery, from top to bottom, start to finish of how the rock from the mine is treated when it arrives until the gold is poured. One of the main importance’s of Fairmined is the reduction of the use of mercury and modernisation of systems to recycle water and reduce wastes. This hasn’t been easy for the cooperative miners but they have managed to do this and then some, even turning their waste rock grindings into being used for cement for new buildings.
After the refinery tour our group were ushered into the truck and driven to the mine and now the adventure began. That road was the first of many that didn’t disappoint for thrills and fears. From comical bouncing around the interior to shrieks of terror when we teetered on the edges with fatal drops below and the odd attempted road (ahem) repair with wooden planks for the 4x4s to drive us over. Glad when the vehicle came to a stop, we jumped out rather quickly, and when the other trucks arrived we gathered at the mine entrance donning our hard hats, lights and signed the disclaimers to take full responsibility for our own deaths.
The mine wasn’t dissimilar to Scotgold’s current pre-production mining mine in Tyndrum, just somewhat smaller and a little less sophisticated. We bounced our helmets off the top of the tunnel most of the way in, the average Colombian being a good few inches smaller than most of us, and went as far as the vein of quartz where they explained about drilling several feet into the rock, filling with explosive and setting off at the end of the day. Allowing the dust to settle over night they start carting the rubble out in sacks that are then rolled down the rock pile to the trucks and taken to the plant for crushing and treating to extract the gold particles.
While familiar with the process, the whole visit and tour of the mine and plant had an extra air of meaning to it. Meeting the miners, mine owners, their families and seeing the gold being extracted from the rock, knowing that this artisanal gold is exploitation free and responsibly mined was deeply satisfying and reaffirming the choice I have made to work with fairly sourced precious metals.
Both groups had their turn and it was really rewarding to see the collective enthusiasm and excitement of everyone. After both groups had their turn we got back in the vehicles for the equally rugged ride down the hillside. Meeting back at the office in Iquira we gathered to thank each other, visitors and cooperative miners, to thank each other for coming to visit and doing the hard work they do.
Now I have only been Fairmined certified for around 6 months and so far only purchased 100 grams of silver for the Elements ethical showcase in last years exhibition. I made a spoon-spade from the wax casting tree, a mine cart 3D printed in castable resin and forged a small spoon with the rest. In conversation with Partickia form Fairmined in the lead up to the visit, she had said it would be wonderful for the miners to see some of the results from their work. I hadn’t initially thought of giving the three items as gifts but Christina imagined that was my idea and on thinking about it, it made perfect sense and really fitting, like that was always going to have been what was going to happen but I just hadn’t realised it.
So at the end of the talks between us all, Kenneth (one of our Fairmined guides) translated for me as I explained that this was laser hallmarked with the Fairmined logo and the silver was highly likely to have come from their very mine, now returned home to be with them. I opted to give them the spoon-spade and it seemed to go down exceptionally well with real gratitude from their group. I couldn’t but help feel a little overwhelmed by the reception they gave it and to all of us for the whole day. By this time we had integrated, bonded, were all laughing and telling jokes. It was difficult to leave on time as we said long goodbyes and took a final group photo before getting back on the bus for the next 5 hour journey to our accommodation. A late dinner at 11 o’clock, exhausted check in and finally got to my room, shared with Kenneth and our other guide Herlien with barely an inch between wall, bed, bed, bed and wall and passed out, to tired to hear or notice the mozzies until waking at 6am the next morning for the next long bus journey through the desert.
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