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Miners Comb Colombian Hills for a Gem of a Stone

Some of the world's best emeralds are found in the South American nation, but the value of exports has dropped since 1995. Extracting the stones is strenuous.

November 10, 2002|Margarita Martinez | Associated Press Writer

MUZO, Colombia — Centuries ago, the legends say, a jilted Indian princess cried tears that turned to emeralds, seeding the hidden riches in these lush mountains that still fire the imagination of treasure hunters.

"You go to sleep every night thinking that tomorrow will be the day you will get rich," said Victor Alfonso, 45, a miner since he was 6.

Despite a drop in emerald production in Colombia, "green fever" still burns among miners who yearn to find a stone big or pure enough to answer all their worldly needs.

"We live on hope here," Alfonso said, his body covered with black dirt, but his eyes shining with fervor.

Colombia produces 40% of the world's emeralds, says Jean Claude Michelou, director of the International Colored Gemstone Assn. But the value of its emerald exports has declined dramatically, from $475 million in 1995, one of the best years, to less than $100 million last year.

Uncertainties about the quality of Colombian stones, traditionally some of the best in the world, fueled the drop. Several years ago, some merchants began to bathe gems in resins that made poor-quality stones look better -- for a while. The resin fills small fissures in the stone but changes color over time, making the faults more noticeable and eroding a stone's value.

With emeralds becoming harder to find in the Muzo mine in Colombia's central mountains, many miners have given up and left, but it is still considered the source of some of the world's best emeralds. The miners who remain are working deeper underground in search of a sparkle of green.

"There used to be thousands of people searching in the dirt," Alfonso said. "Now you have to make huge investments to dig tunnels, and you see far fewer people digging. Many left because they got tired of not finding anything."

Coexminas, which operates the Muzo mine, provides the miners with meals and a place to stay, and it gives miners small shares in the revenues from the emeralds they find.

Miners are also allowed to take piles of soil out of the tunnel to search for small emeralds, which they can keep. And miners commonly sneak out emeralds they find inside the mine.

The work is strenuous.

Deep in tunnels, the miners gouge the earth with picks, breathing air pumped in through plastic hoses. If they find a worthy emerald, the money often goes quickly.

"The first thing that someone does when they find a big one is buy a Browning," said miner Gonzalo Rodriguez, referring to a brand of pistol. "Then a car."

Although the Muzo mine is surrounded by fertile land, there are no farms.

"People prefer to look for wealth in the mines with the hope of getting rich than work the land, which would give them a stable income," said Bishop Hector Gutierrez of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Muzo.

Colombia's average per capita income is about $2,000 a year, and farmers often make less. A spectacular emerald can sell for $11,000, so even the small share that goes to a miner can amount to a lot.

The mine companies run the region, largely abandoned by the government, providing money for schools, churches, highways and bridges. Their private security forces keep the peace.

Dozens of women and children wait eagerly outside the mine. When a dusty miner dumps dirt that's already been picked through, the crowd scuffles over handfuls of it, each hoping to sift it again and perhaps find an overlooked gem.

People have been mining in the area -- and fighting over the riches -- for centuries. The native Indians refused to tell the first Spanish conquerors about the mines. The Spanish responded with torture and massacres until they stumbled on the Muzo mine.

Violence has periodically ravaged the area over the centuries, culminating in the "emerald wars" of the 1980s. From 1984 to 1990, 3,500 people died in the struggle for control of the mines.

Intervention by the Catholic Church finally produced a peace accord, which has left this region a rare haven of peace in a country in the throes of a 38-year-old civil war.

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