“Fortaleza”, the Agromining Association of Los Andes, is located in the department of Nariño in the southwest of Colombia.

Mining is the second largest industry in the economy of the municipality of Los Andes Sotomayor, whose mines have been exploited since pre-Columbian times. The members of the local mining organization maintain a close relationship with this town, since they are actively involved in community activities with shared goals of well-being and development.

The Gualconda Mine was first explored at the beginning of the twentieth century. The current owners, the Alvares family, have been working the mine since 1974.

From 2002 to 2006, Los Andes was battered by the violence provoked by the confrontation between paramilitaries and guerrillas in the zone, causing massive displacements of resident families. From that context of territorial disputes, homicides, and combat, Mr. Rolberto Alvares convened an initial group of ten people, all in condition of forced displacement, and formed the Agromining Association of Los Andes called “Fortaleza” (meaning ‘strength’) to run the mining operations at the Gualconda mine.


In the mine, the miners extract the mineral with the use of basic tools such as mallets, wedges, and jackhammers for drilling and subsequent blasting. The extraction sites are connected by tunnels to the processing facility, on average about 40 meters away. Once in the plant, the mineral is crushed and then sent to the ball mill that grinds the ore. The extracted concentrate is carried directly to the amalgamation barrel where mercury is used to capture the gold as an amalgam. The extracted amalgam is distilled in a retort to separate the mercury, and finally the pure gold is melted and molded into ingots.

Each month 300 to 400 grams of gold are extracted in the plant, with a higher target for 2018. After eight years of work, the cooperative managed to reduce mercury use by 70% in the gold mining process. Their goal is to completely eliminate its use by the end of the first half of 2017, following designs and protocols based on metallurgical tests and environmental studies.

“We always seek to reduce the environmental damage mining causes to the soil and nature. We orient the work in a way that minimizes harming the environmental conditions. A mining certification is very important for us, as it allows us to technify and improve the extraction and thus obtain better results and benefits from the material extracted.” Testimony of a miner from the Gualconda cooperative.


Development of a model that respects an environmental commitment

In 2008, the cooperative was awarded a bank loan of 4 million Colombian pesos to improve their gold extraction process. When Gualconda sought out ARM in 2013, with the aim of obtaining Fairmined certification, the technical, social and environmental transformations continued. Achieving certification is not the end result, but rather the beginning of a long-term improvement plan that has become a model for other cooperatives.

“We did not stop there. Our process of transformation continues, because there remain even more ambitious environmental plans. We want to execute a plan to seal off the mercury use zone, to have some ecological trails. We have goals through to 2018, planned and scheduled to be implemented; it’s an ongoing process. The objective of this certification is to be an example, for people to be able to access our technology and replicate it. The models are adapted so that people, can access, observe, copy.” Rolberto Alvares, member of the cooperative.

In fact, the cooperative aims to develop a model of environmental conservation focused on two areas of work:

Conservation of fauna and flora, by respecting their habitat and not intervening in specific sites. It also involves landscape restitution and reforestation in the areas surrounding the mining operation.

Water conservation, by strictly avoiding water contamination and using the resource appropriately.

Rehabilitation of artisanal and small-scale mining

Finally, the last objective of Fairmined Certification culminates in the rehabilitation of artisanal and small-scale mining. After so many years of criminalization in the territory, the miners continue to be victims of the negative image of the conflict.

 “We want to restore dignity to artisanal and small-scale miners. What’s more important is the brand, the franchise. In other words, this label is ours, we earned it, we can use the Fairmined brand, and that is our source of pride.”  Rolberto Alvares, partner of the Gualconda mine.


Fortaleza is a non-profit organization, made up of families that have been displaced from the Colombian armed conflict, that is dedicated to gold mining activities in the Gualconda mine and functions under a purely communitarian and collaborative organizational model. Twelve families are directly dependent on its activity, and they conduct consultancy work and assist in the formulation of ecological projects. The organization gives hiring preference to senior citizens, victims of armed conflict, women, and handicapped individuals.


The association has 13 members, of whom 11 are men and 2 are women. Of these, 8 contribute directly or indirectly to the mining activity. The two women are responsible for providing support services. Six men work in the mine, at the processing plant, or in administrative and technical functions. One person has been hired to supplement the work of the members.

Type of mine: Hard rock underground mine

Notable information: The topographical conditions in the municipality of Los Andes are suitable for agricultural activities, and the most common crops grown are plantain, coffee, sugar cane, and fruit trees.