Research has come to a stop for many groups due to COVID-19, but that was not the case for Jose Velasquez and Michelle Schwartz.
The civil engineering graduate students are remotely researching artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Colombia. The mining sector accounts for almost 20% of the world’s gold production, and its current strategies are often rudimentary and environmentally destructive, Schwartz said.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a general term for mining operations with low capital, high labor and simple methods throughout the mining process, according to the World Gold Council.
Associate professor Kathleen Smits is the project’s faculty adviser and guides research direction and acquires funding while completing a variety of other duties.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is one of the most polluting activities in the world, Smits said.
The research group took an interdisciplinary approach to researching the environmental, social, health and technical dynamics of artisanal and small-scale gold mining systems and how they influence each other.
Smits was interested in developing solutions that are socially and economically appropriate while creating organizations and networks of people to make the mining sector sustainable instead of simply developing an improved technology or technique, she said.
“They’re building something for someone, instead of with someone,” Smits said. “Whenever we do something for somebody, as opposed to with them, you get really different outcomes.”
The pandemic has stopped Velasquez and Schwartz from traveling to Colombia, but it did not stop them from continuing their research.
“The fact that [COVID-19] impacted us in several ways, it doesn’t mean that we couldn’t be able to actually develop our research from the United States,” Velasquez said.
Mining operations are developed around communities and can have a direct impact on the people living there. These communities can benefit from the several initiatives of sustainable development, Velasquez said.
He and Schwartz worked with community members and technical experts in mining to find ways to overcome environmental challenges and help develop strategies for a better future.
Through discussion, they found solutions like constructing a fume hood for mining operations to redirect hazardous vapors through a water barrel. The vapors would then condense and remain inside the water barrel, so it would reduce emissions and miners’ exposure to hazardous vapors.
Velasquez developed an educational conference series called Minería desde Casa, or Mining from Home, which provides affected communities an online view to the research conducted in the U.S. that addresses the direct or indirect impact of the mining industry.
One of the biggest reasons Velasquez engaged in this type of research is because he wants to give back to the community.
Velasquez said they were able to make an impact on a political scale. Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development reached out to the research group for policy advice regarding the mining industry.
Though they were able to communicate with remote communities through WhatsApp, there were still struggles. There were issues with connectivity and literacy, but their contacts showed resilience and a passion for change.
The majority of the research says that affected communities are not aware of environmental impacts or interested in addressing these issues, Schwartz said.
“Instead we found cases where the community is interested in making a difference in the environment and is actively working towards coming up with ways to bring these environmental projects into being,” she said.