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Mechanized mining threatens the environment and affects artisanal miners

Steve Cagan | El Chocó, Colombia

The large “retros” (backhoes) that have been brought into the area in recent years create big pits in the rain forest floor, disturbing the forest and threatening the environment. Traditional artisanal mining never had these effects.

In El Chocó, Colombia, mechanized gold mining threatens the rain forest environment and has had profound effects on the work and the lives of traditional artisanal miners in Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The special rights of ethnic communities are being violated, the rivers and forest are being damaged, and the social fabric and human rights of the traditional miners are under threat.

I have been photographing in El Chocó (and to a lesser extent in other areas of Colombia) for ten years. I have made 13 visits, ranging from a week to 5 months in length. Before that, I’ve worked in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba. All this work in Latin America started in 1982.

My work is centered on aspects of the daily lives of people, in what I call their “daily resistance” to the social, political and economic issues that beset them, Although a great deal of my work has been in countries where there is a violent conflict, I am not a war photographer, but rather a photographer of people’s lives as they try to find dignity, justice and peace in the face of these issues.

I have done this work without institutional support, very much on my own—except that the work is always done in close collaboration with the communities whose lives I am documenting, and with their organizations. At times I have also worked with solidarity organizations (and even served on boards and staff), but they do not always exist for the communities where I photograph.

For me the starting point of photography is not the camera, but my relationship with the communities I am photographing. My goal has always been to produce work that is of high technical and esthetic quality, but even more important, that makes a contribution to the struggles of those communities.

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