Then, in the distance, we hear the roar of engines, powering water cannons and dredge siphons. The stench of forest burned to ash hangs in the air. Towering trees, perhaps 150 feet tall, not yet sacrificed, can be glimpsed in the distance.
Then we reach the enormous pits, lit by strings of lights dangling across their gaping emptiness. Men stand in deep pools of turbid water, manning water cannons; another crew siphons displaced silt, rock and gravel.
My driver tells me that this particular pit is known as Number 23. During the next two hours, the destruction inside is relentless. The men never look up: They are focused on dislodging the soil, suctioning it, then dumping the slurry down a nearby sluice.
Finally, around 6:30, as light filters into the sky, men carrying gigantic chain saws—the cutting bars on each must be four or five feet long—enter the forest, walking around the edges of the holes. They go to work on the biggest trees.
The pit crews have finished digging. At 7 a.m., after giving the mats lining the sluice time to dry, the men fold them up, careful not to allow any muddy residue to ooze away. The laborers lug a dozen or so to an area near the bottom of the sluice. There, a square blue waterproof tarp lies on the ground, its edges enclosed by felled tree trunks, creating a shallow, makeshift pool perhaps 9 by 12 feet.
The men lay the mats, one at a time, in the pool, rinsing each repeatedly until—at last—all the gold-laced silt has been washed into the cache. The process takes close to an hour.
One of the workers who has emerged from the pit, a 20-year-old named Abel, seems approachable, despite his fatigue. He’s perhaps 5-foot-7 and thin, wearing a red-and-white T-shirt, blue double-knit shorts and knee-high plastic boots. “I have been here two years,” he tells me.
“Why do you stay?” I ask.
“We work at least 18 hours a day,” he says. “But you can make a lot of money. In another few years, if nothing happens to me, I can go back to my town, buy a nice house, buy a shop, work simply and relax for my life.”
As we are talking, women from the blue-tarp settlement behind us—back toward the road a half-mile or so—arrive with meals. They hand white plastic containers to the crew. Abel opens his, containing chicken-and-rice broth, yucca, hard-boiled eggs and roast chicken leg. He eats slowly.