Helping artisanal miners in Colombia face the Covid-19 crisis

Informal, small-scale gold miners extract 20 to 30 percent of all gold worldwide, and in Colombia, they produce 60 percent of all gold extracted nationally. As a rule, small-scale miners in remote communities face myriad challenges: Intermediaries demand low prices, there are few alternative ways to earn an income, and serious health problems related to mercury exposure plague miners.

Now, with the onset of Covid-19, these problems have compounded: The market for gold has ground to a halt, business closures have caused a breakdown in the food supply, and these small mining communities have few defenses against the novel coronavirus, which has arrived in Colombia with more than 12,000 cases recorded to date.

“What will happen to us, the miners and our families, if this ‘corona’ continues?” asks Maria del Carmen Herrera Tamayo, a small-scale gold miner and community organizer in the Antioquia region of Colombia. “The price of food goes up and income goes down. God forbid the time comes when [we don’t have money] even for rice. The situation is difficult.”

Herrera Tamayo was one of 70 Colombian gold miners taking part in an ongoing MIT D-Lab Inclusive Economies program and was interviewed to assess the impact of Covid-19 on this already fragile community.

Since July 2019, D-Lab has collaborated with artisanal and small-scale gold miners working in four Colombian mining communities, along with longtime D-Lab community partner C-Innova, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and Uniminuto (Corporación Universitaria Minuto de Dios). The program, which was designed to spark economic diversification in the region, leverages D-Lab’s Creative Capacity Building methodology to train small-scale gold miners in a collaborative design process. Through these workshops, participants identify everyday challenges — at work and at home — and develop the skills to design technologies and businesses to address them.

So far, the team has trained seven local Creative Capacity Building facilitators and 75 artisanal miners in the Andes and Bajo Cauca, who have developed prototypes ranging from an ergonomic backpack to carry mining materials to a solar dryer for coffee beans.

Just as the team was gearing up to facilitate a fourth Creative Capacity Building workshop, the Colombian government declared a mandatory preventive quarantine due to Covid-19 and closed the commercial sector. Although the virus has been slow to arrive in Andes and Bajo Cauca, the quarantine measures declared by the national government have created severe hardship within these mining communities.

To assess the impact of the mounting crisis on this population and to get a feeling for the priority needs of these communities, a local program team led by mining engineer and local project coordinator Margarita Gamarra and Cleidy Maya Zapata, affiliated with UNIMINUTO, designed and implemented a rapid cellphone survey in three municipalities including Niché´, Zaragoza, and El Bagre.

“With the surveys, we were able to hear from the miners directly about their needs,” says Ta Corrales Sanchez ’16, a D-Lab alumna who has designed and implemented D-Lab programs in Oaxaca, Mexico, and is now working with D-Lab’s Inclusive Economies program in Colombia. “We are leveraging technology like cellphones, WhatsApp, and Facebook to establish conversations with very remote areas of the province of Antioquia.”

Loss of income, disrupted supply chains, and misinformation

Although at the time the interviews were conducted the quarantine had only been in effect for seven days, 96 percent of respondents had experienced income reduction of more than 50 percent. The average income of artisanal miners in the region, which typically hovers around $120 per month, had dipped to $50 per month. Their low daily income, which even in ordinary circumstances is not enough to meet their basic needs, has been further affected by the pandemic in three principal ways: Miners’ movement has been restricted, preventing them from traveling to and from mines; most of the establishments that buy gold are closed, and those that are allowed to open can do so only for two days a week; and there has been a drop in the demand and price of gold.

As families’ incomes decline, their ability to provide for and protect themselves has also decreased, leaving them unprotected and poorly equipped to face the arrival of the pandemic.

As a region that imports 76 percent of its agricultural products, Antioquia has suffered disruptions of food supply and distribution due to transportation restrictions. Because the supply of food products is increasingly scarce, the region has seen an increase in the prices of food and basic consumer goods. In relation to their priority needs in these times of crisis, 94 percent of the small-scale miners surveyed said they urgently needed to be supplied with food. Similarly, 71 percent expressed a need for hand sanitizer and 56 percent expressed a need for face masks, respectively. In addition, 13 percent of respondents mentioned a need for cleaning supplies, such as disinfectants or soaps.

The interviews also revealed that there is a great deal of misinformation about the ways in which a person can become infected with the virus, triggering doubts and confusion about the modes of transmission, prevention measures, and contagion mitigation. One common myth among families is the belief that, as an area with a relatively high average ambient temperature (above 33 degrees Celsius), the virus has a low probability of reaching the population. This assumption may create a false sense of security and hinder measures that should be taken to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in these communities.

Designing a response

The program team had two challenges to tackle: How could the team help to address the challenges expressed by small-scale miners, using elements of D-Lab’s Creative Capacity Building approach? How might this be implemented remotely, in communities with very little internet access?

Alex Freese, co-founder and director of C-Innova, expresses confidence in the approach and the process. “This is a great moment,” he says, “to combine D-Lab’s Creative Capacity Building methodology and the creation of technologies related to the problems that communities identified as essential to fight and minimize the risk of spreading Covid-19 in these remote regions.”

Over the course of two weeks, Freese and the C-Innova team quickly developed virtual design modules to tackle the challenges of disease transmission and food insecurity.

The modules consist of illustrated step-by-step instructions for making personal protection equipment (PPE), including hand sanitizer and masks, and illustrated step-by-step instructions for increasing food production with vertical gardens and small, portable chicken coops.

At the end of May, C-Innova will begin to deliver these modules via WhatsApp and Facebook to local facilitators already trained by D-Lab to facilitate Creative Capacity Building workshops. Each facilitator will, in turn, provide the design modules to five community members, also via WhatsApp and Facebook. Workshop participants will receive a kit including all materials to fabricate PPE and food production items. C-Innova will offer mentorship for each facilitator over the phone and participants will share their designs in a final online showcase.

Libby McDonald, who leads D-Lab’s Inclusive Economies program and teaches two classes, D-Lab: Gender and Development and D-Lab: Inclusive Economies, comments, “We were very lucky in that we had a great team and trained facilitators on the ground in Colombia to quickly conduct a diagnostic to understand the needs of the miners during the Covid crisis and create the virtual design workshops to effectively meet those needs.”

This work is made possible by generous funding from the Rising Tides Foundation.