By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA, July 27 (Reuters) - The number of hectares being used for alluvial gold production in Colombia increased 3% last year, while the share of illegal output rose an equal percentage to 69%, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Tuesday.
Large-scale illegal gold production by crime gangs, leftist rebels and others - whether along waterways or underground - causes grave environmental damage in one of the world's most biodiverse countries and negatively affects output by licensed companies.
Alluvial gold mining was detected remotely on 100,752 hectares (250,000 acres) in 2020, up from the 98,028 hectares the year before, the UNODC said in a report.
Meanwhile, the share of illegal output rose to 69%, up from 66% in 2019.
In 2020, just 24% of alluvial production had technical or environmental permissions and 7% was in the process of legalizing, the report said.
"Without legality in this mining activity, we cannot move forward to create development and economic and social wellbeing," energy minister Diego Mesa said in a virtual press event with the UNODC and other officials.
Many miners want to formalize, Mesa added, and 5,000 have done so during the current administration.
The government is strengthening the police unit focused on fighting illegal mining, Mesa said, as well as stiffening penalties for illicit production.
The report did not monitor subsistence mining by communities, nor gold produced through underground mining.
The provinces of Antioquia, Choco and Bolivar were home to 87% of alluvial production, essentially holding steady from the year before. Also steady was the portion of production taking place in areas where mining is banned for environmental reasons - 52%.
The government identified 970 locations with illegal alluvial production during 2020 and 2021 so far, said Alvaro Chaves, director of public security and infrastructure for the defense ministry, carrying out 422 operations, making more than 700 arrests and seizing 205 kilograms of mercury. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb Editing by Marguerita Choy)