I was half a mile into the mine shaft, and my heart was racing. Hunched underneath the low ceiling and hardly able to see, I was following along by listening to the splashes of the men’s steps in front of me. The water, dripping from above, was up to my ankles. Then we stopped. We’d come to a dead end, one of the miners said. In order for us to proceed, they needed to set off some dynamite.
In a matter of minutes, several packs of explosives were drilled into the mountain and ready to be detonated. I was told to open my mouth and not close it until the last of the dynamite had exploded.
The blasts began, and I sensed the mountain groaning around me. Then: complete silence. Ten seconds later, as the dust began to settle, one of the miners shouted, “Lets go! It’s time to see what we got.”
Less than a month earlier, I was living a comfortable life in Dubai. Though I was born in Colombia, I left the country at age 18 to attend college in the United States — and, since then, had followed my work elsewhere around the world.
Lately, though, I felt the need to reconnect with my country. Conveniently, an acquaintance in Dubai knew a respected emerald dealer and mine owner in Colombia. He invited me to visit and witness some of the country’s mining operations.
The miners I visited live and work in the department of Boyacá, which is six hours by car north of Bogotá, the country’s capital. Boyacá sits on a branch of the Andes known as the Cordillera Oriental. Here, hidden in a series of small mining towns — Muzo, Chivor, Otanche, Peñas Blancas, Coscuez — are some of the most valuable emerald mines in the world.
It’s no secret that the miners in this region work in difficult and often dangerous conditions — some in sanctioned and regulated areas, some illicitly. They labor under the threat of collapsing mines, falling rocks and temperatures in excess of 110 degrees.
Despite the risks, many of the miners speak to me about their work with pride, as if buoyed by a sense of tradition.
The economics of the trade can vary significantly. Some miners operate informally and independently, scouring debris fields or venturing into unregulated mines — and profiting directly from the sale of stones to merchants or gem carvers.
Others officially work for mine owners or mining companies. These miners might be paid steady salaries or make commissions on the stones they find. (The specific circumstances of the financial arrangements — whether the miners are paid upfront, for example, or only after a stone is sold to a merchant, carver or customer — often depend on the level of trust between the owners and the miners.)
The harsh reality inside the mines is contrasted by the grandeur outside them: the smell of the clean air in the mornings, the ever-present sound of the rivers, the imposing peaks of the Andes.
During the dry season, miners set up small tents by the river to protect themselves from the intense sun. After long hours of work, they relax in view of the breathtaking beauty that surrounds them.
Over the course of the five days I spent with them, the miners shared countless stories of how the emeralds, and the surrounding mountains, had changed their lives.
One miner, an older man who lived in a modest house, claimed to have made exorbitant sums of money on several choice stones — only to have squandered it all, he said, forcing him to return, reluctantly, to the mines.
Others have seen family members and friends killed during the intense fighting — much of it tied to the illicit emerald trade — that took place here in the mountains during the 1980s. And some have just been waiting patiently for decades, hoping that one day they’ll find an emerald that will change their lives.
The future of these local miners is largely uncertain. In recent decades, corporations — some of them foreign — have ascended into Boyacá’s mountains and taken control of large swaths of the hills. Some of the companies offer salaries, health care and a sense of stability.
Still, many miners opt for the rewards, and the risks, of working alone.
Many of the men I met described mining as a gamble and an addiction. The mines, they said, are like casinos in the middle of the Andes: One stone could change it all.
And finding such a stone, they say, is ultimately what they live — and are willing to die — for.
Juan Pablo Ramirez is a Colombian photographer based in Dubai. You can follow his work on Instagram.