The Devastating Costs of the Amazon Gold Rush- page 9 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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To find flecks of gold, workers devour the rainforest floor with water cannons. "There are a lot of accidents," says one. "The sides of the hole can fall away, can crush you." (Ron Haviv / VII)

The Devastating Costs of the Amazon Gold Rush

Spurred by rising global demand for the metal, miners are destroying invaluable rainforest in Peru's Amazon basin

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Alipio is friendly yet serious. Like all the men here, his face is chiseled by a life of hard labor. As the men collect the sludge inside the pool, using a stainless-steel bowl about 12 inches in diameter, he watches them closely.

Meanwhile, 150 yards away, the chain-saw-wielding crew fells trees with professional ferocity. Every few minutes, another jungle hardwood topples. The earth shakes.

After the workers empty the first loads of sludge into an open 55-gallon drum, they pour in a little water and two ounces or so of liquid mercury, a highly toxic substance known to cause a host of ill effects, notably neurological disorders. Another miner from the pit, who gives his name only as Hernan, steps into the drum. Now exposed directly to the poison, he works the mixture with his bare feet for five minutes, then climbs out. He grabs an empty stainless-steel bowl and dips it into the barrel, panning for gold. A few minutes later, a gleaming, gelatinous alloy, or amalgam, has formed. It is seductively striated, gold and mercury. He places it in a zip-lock bag and goes back for another load of silt.

After another hour, once that day’s sludge has been processed, the amalgam fills half the plastic pouch. Alipio, Haviv, Ortiz and I walk to the makeshift settlement of Lamal. There are bars here and, in one tent, a brothel. An abandoned hamlet we passed during the motorcycle ride also was called Lamal. The word, says Alipio, pointing at the barren soil, is based on the Portuguese for “the mud.”

Near a cantina and a few bunkhouses, we enter a blue-nylon tent containing only a propane-gas canister and a strange metallic contraption resembling a covered wok, set on a propane burner. Alipio removes the lid, dumps in about one-third the contents of the zip-lock bag, screws down the lid, turns on the gas and lights the burner under his gold cooker.

A few minutes later, Alipio turns off the propane and unscrews the lid. Inside sits a rounded chunk of 24-karat gold. It looks like a hard golden puddle. Using tongs, he lifts out the gold, examining it with a practiced air. “That’s about three ounces,” he announces. He sets it on the packed-earth floor in the tent, then begins the process again.

“How much will you earn for the three ounces of gold?” I ask.

“Well, I must pay everyone. Pay for fuel, food for the men, pay for the engine and dredge siphon...upkeep on the engine, the mercury...other things.”

“But how much?”

“We don’t get the same price for gold here as they pay on Wall Street. Or even in cities.”

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