The New Gold Rush / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Panning for gold (14ymedio)
Panning for gold

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 August 2014 – Evening falls and the sound of the sieves in the rolling hills trails off. The three men collect their belongings. They’ve finished the first day in their arduous search for gold. Tomorrow they will wake up early and with the first light of day return to dig, wash, sift and find the little nuggets among the mud and sandstone. “If I find at least one gram, I’m going to finish the roof of my house,” says the most experienced of the stealth miners.

The Rafael Freyre area in Holguin province attracts hundreds of people every year who dream that a mine will help them out of their economic difficulties. Is it need? A hobby? Or a real gold rush? Everyone experiences it in their own way, but the oldest people in the area say that when “people have gold in their eyes it’s like a demon that will never leave.”

The stealth miners have created their own working tools from few resources. Among the most important is the “car,” a sieve with a piece of rubber where the mud is deposited, that then falls through the screen. It is a team effort, requiring at least three strong men. While two shake the sieve, the other pours water over the mud collected in the excavations. “Then the gold dust is left, in particles like a kind of pea hull, although there can also be nuggets,” says Fernando Ramón Rodríguez Vargas who lives in Levisa, Mayari municipality, and for years has dedicated himself to the pursuit of the precious metal.

Those who spend a lot of time in these tasks have developed and eye for finding where the gold is, they don’t believe in metal detectors. “They aren’t very effective because they go off everywhere, in this area there can be a little piece anywhere. The most commonly used method is the same as it is used by industries. I take a sample of the dirt and I wash it to check how much gold it contains just so I will know if it’s worth the trouble,” Veredia Elcok says, revealing his secrets. He has participated in numerous fortune hunting expeditions. He claims that the Cuatro Palmas area in Holguin is the most famous for the size of the pieces found, and because the gold “is at ground level.”

The second day of work is when your bones ache more. So the three men bathe in a creek early in the day to relieve the little punctures all over their bodies, and resume their excavations. The main symptom of “gold fever” is working and working almost to the last light, without eating. They go along making holes, because they aren’t in an area of surface tailings, the layer is deeper. The gold itself marks the path to follow, from the amounts they come across.

At one point they detect another group of searchers. That can cause problems, quarrels and strong competition. 

Everybody wants to take your seam, then they start to dig deeper around the hole and come in from underneath,” says Verdecia Elcok, who has dug with several friends and neighbors working together. You have to go faster, the hands sinking full speed into the earth and the sieve never stopping its “swish swish swish.”

The technique for finding a seam is to test and test. Consistency is key to this work, and perhaps because of this the stealth miners take on an obsessive look, incapable to letting themselves be deterred by defeat. Normally they look for the tracks of rivers that no longer exist. They’re like scars in the hills where water would have once swept along the mineral. There are also muddy areas on the banks of still running rivers that are good places for findings.

The third working day. The bread they brought is full of mold because of the humidity. On getting up, the three men have numb hands, and the skin on their fingers is cracked. Every muscle aches, but they have to keep going. Perhaps today will be their lucky day. The first hours on the site they work with more energy, but exhaustion returns and slows the pace as noon approaches. The whole time their feet are damp with the water flowing through the “car.” One hurt his hand another coughed all night. Around lunch time a 0.8 gram nugget restores their hope and they decide to continue.

They’re picking up tiny pieces, or “lice” as they call them. They hope to have a breeze to start the melting. One brings a little mercury. They put it in a pot and apply heat. It gives off a poisonous gas and the men stand upwind to avoid breathing the smoke. It’s a dangerous process, but almost magical. In the bottom of the vessel the gold gleams. Every 24 carat gram they sell will bring a price of between 25 and 27 convertible pesos, a little more than a dollar.

Gold fever can also become gold death. Verdecia Elcok knows this well. “Over in the La Canela area a lady—they call her Mimi—found the largest piece of the mineral ever found in that area, four-and-a-half-ounces. Now the woman has developed cancer from using so much quicksilver.” The mercury is taken from state industries, diverted from laboratories and chemical plants. It is a product that should be controlled, but it hits the streets and gets into the hands of miners and jewelers.

A lady found a four-and-a-half ounce piece. Now, she has developed cancer from using so much quicksilver

If they get lucky, the three “seekers” will have to be cautious. If they’re seen to be spending a lot of money in town, people will start to investigate where it came from. Someone could follow them to their place and find the exact site of the mine they’ve found. Everything has to be handled with a lot of discretion. There is also the danger of the Forest Guard, which imposes fines of up to 1,700 pesos. According to the Mining Act “the subsoil is the property of the State, the only entity authorized to extract minerals and to exploit it for research purposes.”

However, the State isn’t interested in many of the small deposits. The costs of exploitation would be greater than the earnings, so it isn’t done.

Sometimes it is not gold that glitters. “I have found old coins and indigenous remains,” says Rodríguez Vargas. The biggest frustration for those who pick through these hills is having to leave the area with no results.

Gold fever infects everyone equally, regardless of age, gender or education. “You can find a doctor who, in his spare time, is on the bank of the river, a teacher, a young student, a pregnant woman or one with a kid,” says Verdecia Elcok. “Because in the end it’s just like the fisherman, who always has to return to the sea.

The official institutions categorize these miners as a real “invasion of prospectors.” They accuse them of harming the environment, especially the topsoil because they remove and wash it. The streams and water reservoirs of the area are also affected by turning over and carrying the sediments. Verderia Elcok admits that “the waters are polluted and the farmers’ animals have fallen in the holes that are dug. There have also been accidents in the area, but this is a question of necessity, not avarice.”

A study by researchers at the Institute of Geology and Paleontology concludes that the “organization of this activity under business structures including State, cooperative and self-employed,” should be encouraged. The report suggests “local governments should provide the knowledge and power necessary to enhance the usefulness of the rocks and minerals present in their regions.” However, for now, the decision whether or not to exploit a site depends exclusively on the highest levels of government.

The days of searching are over. The stealth miners return home. They will return to the hills in a couple of weeks. The youngest of them sold his refrigerator to buy a half liter of mercury. “You’ll see, the next time we’ll find more gold and even a pirate’s treasure,” he says with the golden glint in his eyes that everyone in the area knows very well.