Gold Mining in El Chocó, Colombia

a project of Steve Cagan and Mary Kelsey


The Project:

In rivers and streams of Colombia’s El Chocó region, traditional artisanal panning for
gold is being replaced by mechanized mining. This new practice represents a threat to traditional economic and social structures, as well as to Chocó’s rich rain forest environment. And there looms the even greater threat of large-scale mining by transnational corporations.The El Chocó Mining project documents the work and lives of


grassroots miners through photography and drawing.We work in solidarity and active collaboration with affected communities to lend assistance to those confronting these changes and to publicize the threats and dangers they face.


A multimedia project:

For this work we are combining photography, line drawings and texts. One quality of photography is that it stops action, invites us to look more carefully and deliberately, and constructs meaning from details in a still image. Drawing, on the pother hand, makes meaning using line and shape. Our intent in combining the two media is to promote understanding in a way that requires more contemplation, and to encourage deeper engagement and thoughtfulness about the issues that touch our subjects, their lives, and their humanity. We hope this may help form the basis of a more profoundly experienced solidarity between viewers and subjects.

The Vision:


Large-scale extraction of petroleum, gold, coal, precious industrial metals and other raw materials increasingly threatens habitats throughout the world. Some areas recently in public scrutiny include Central America, Central and West Africa, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Canada, the United States and Colombia.

In Colombia a variety of habitats are under threat from actual or proposed mechanized mining. Our project focuses on the El Chocó region in the Pacific northwest of the country. It’s an area of tropical and sub-tropical rain forest, one of the wettest places on earth, with great diversity of flora and fauna.


Native communities thrived for thousands of years in this environment before the arrival
of the Spanish, who enslaved the locals and also imported African slaves to produce gold. Their Black descendants have been living on the generosity of the forest for hundreds of years, their cultures based on river and swamp habitat.

The subsistence economy of these cultures includes planting, hunting, fishing, and cutting lumber primarily for their own consumption. In addition, panning for gold provides cash for things not locally produced, such as tools, cloth, salt, or utensils. Traditionally, extracting and refining gold has been a part-time activity.

This activity, which still goes on in some villages in its traditional form, has barely any environmental impact. Relatively little earth is turned over from river and streambed. The few holes opened in the forest floor are small and shallow. Artisanal miners do not use mercury or cyanide to refine gold.

In recent years sky-high prices of gold have brought mechanized mining to this area. Scores, if not hundreds, of large backhoes have been brought in to open large pits in search of gold. They push aside and discard the thin forest topsoil to dig large pits. Tons of silt and rocks, oil and chemicals are dumped into the streams and rivers. Mercury is added to refine the metal, and the resulting amalgam is burned in open air, endangering the environment and the health of people in the communities.

After the machines finish with a section, or sometimes even while they are still working, local people come and set up artisanal panning operations. They work full time, which means they’ve abandoned their traditional subsistence economic activities, which have defined them culturally and supported their families.


This newer mechanized mining has provoked divisions within the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that make up most of El Chocó. Some individuals and communities see great economic opportunity, while others see a threat to their forest and their way of life, and question the economic benefits.

Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict also plays a role. Both guerrilla and paramilitary groups, operating in the shadows, extort money from miners. Some armed groups have even begun to invest in mining operations. The violence connected with this has spilled over into village and city life, distorting social relations.

As serious as these problems are, a much greater threat looms just over the horizon. The Colombian government is promoting even larger-scale mining by trans-national corporations. In El Chocó the communities, even those favoring current mechanized practices, are nearly unanimous in opposition to this development.

Who we are:

Mary and Steve are Cleveland-based artists, doing drawing and painting, and photography, respectively. Our work is rooted in our relationships with the communities where we work. This project grows out of our long engagement, as artists and as activists, with the issues we examine.

Steve has been working and taking photographs in Colombia’s El Chocó since 2003. His article on gold mining in El Chocó—accompanied by photographs and drawings from our work in 2013—was published by ReVista, the journal of The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, in January, 2014. (Steve's résumé)

Mary’s art explores relationships between people and their environment, including in Latin American rain forests. (Mary's résumé)

To see how our imagery has been used by the communities we work with, click here




What We Offer:

• Slide talks about issues raised by this project
• Interdisciplinary workshops for students in arts and social and natural sciences
• Exhibition of photos, drawings and materials related to gold mining in El Chocó

Topics and Themes:

• Art that addresses social issues;
• Art engaged in some of the major questions facing our world;
• Art rooted in relationships with communities both here and abroad that confront these issues.
• Environmental, economic, social, human rights and other issues raised by mining practices in El Chocó;
• Implications of those issues here in the U.S. where there are similar issues and practices;
• How activities, practices and problems in less well-known areas of the world may affect us and illuminate issues in our own lives.

2013 and 2014 field work in El Chocó:

During these visits, we worked together in close collaboration with the Catholic Diocese of Quibdó and federations of Afro-Colombian communities. We have produced photographs and drawings of traditional panning for gold, of mechanized mining, and of people panning in abandoned areas of larger pits. We made images of villages, towns and neighborhoods where miners live and work. We interviewed people from traditional mining families, people mining in the pits currently, mechanized miners, and community activists. We collected tools used by artisanal miners and art made by local people concerned with the environmental damage from mechanized mining.


Here's an article from the Winter, 2014 issue of ReVista, the journal of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, at Harvard University. It was written by Steve and has images from both of us. To see the entire issue, go here. To see previous issues, go here.

Interview on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio: