By Bram Ebus

Muzo, Colombia – It is here where clouded forests overgrow the mountain slopes in which world’s most valuable emeralds are hidden. For much of history, Colombia has been the global provider of emeralds, though in the last decade it has given way to Zimbabwe and Brazil. In an attempt to organize mining and to not miss out on the profits of emeralds that often are smuggled out of the country, the government decided to formalize the sector in 2001.

As often is the case, the presence of precious resources like emeralds are a catalyst to conflict. The shiny green gemstone brought many lawless barons to the region and the heavily fought-over emeralds caused one of Colombia’s most bloody eras. One of these barons, the (late) emerald czar Victor Carranza, formed an army of mercenaries in the region during the 1970s and 1980s and can be seen as the creator of one of Colombia’s most lethal paramilitary forces. His private army originally functioned to protect his business against emerging guerrilla threats in the region, but as more families in the emerald sector started to surround themselves with men with guns, a war was at hand. Nobody was able to compete with Carranza, who despite the many attempts on his life died of cancer at the age of 77 in 2013.

In the current day and age, the mining panorama underwent some changes due to the governments efforts to regain control over the mining industry and its profits, and to end the ´wild west´ times in the western Boyacá region, where thousands occupied the rivers. Colombia hoped that mining could be one of the new ‘motors of the economy’ and a new mining legislation was approved in 2001, forcing the sector to formalize. Carranza, still alive at that time, agreed and ‘legalized’ his operations, but not everybody had his connections or means to legalize. New national and foreign companies now operate the largest mines around Muzo, some of them have been bought from the Carranza family. The upside is that official work, fixed wages and social securities are generated, but many of the 10,000 inhabitants that depend on informal mining – the barequeros – are being pushed out of the sector. As Mayor Bohórquez says: “Everybody wants to work the mines, but I will tell you, there are not enough beds for so many people.”

This photo essay shows a glimpse of Muzo’s transition process and documents the remains of a rough mining culture (enter full screen for optimal viewing).