Dreaming of diamonds
By Jorge Silva
We are just north of the Amazon Basin, riding a boat on the Ikabaru River. The passengers are people who buy gold and diamonds. They stop at each of the illegal mines that appear as craters on the river’s edge. They carry small weighing scales that seem very accurate, magnifying loupes, burners to melt the gold and separate the mercury, and some large spoons to collect it.
They are also carrying bags full of cash.
We are very close to the porous and at times imperceptible triple border between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. The area is remote and hard to access. Getting here takes a day of navigating along the river, or flying in one of the small planes that land on makeshift dirt landing strips. There are no roads.
To get here days before, we flew on a small Cessna over the area where the immense savanna and its table-top mountains meet the jungle.
The first landing was on a strip where a group of people were preparing a robust Antonov An-2 Soviet-era plane to carry supplies to the area of the mines.
There I spent a good portion of the morning talking to the pilot and waiting for the clouds to clear. He talked to me about the perils of having a plane with a carburetor, and the problems brought by constantly needing buckets of oil. His worries include the risks of landing in short, muddy landing strips carrying the 8+ tons weight of the plane when it is loaded with its cargo of gasoline barrels.
In the mining area, roads seem impossible. The dirt road ended on the dry bank of a river, with uneven stone walls, which we crossed in the vehicle.
After several hours driving in our 4X4 vehicle, we spotted a couple of men in the middle of a crater, working waist deep in the mud. They were removing the layers of vegetation with a pressure hose to reach the strata holding the “material,” which they call the rock that holds gold and diamonds.
The appeal of working in illegal mining is enormous. Four grams of gold equal an average monthly wage in Venezuela. An ounce of the metal goes for over $1700. The gold fever is understandable if we consider that an ounce used to sell for $250 ten years ago.
But in these mines, and the towns around them, life is expensive. A bottle of water costs around $12, and a 250-liter tank of gasoline, which would cost just $5 in the rest of the country, here goes for up to US$1,200. Venezuela is known for having the cheapest gasoline in the world.
Justin, 21, arrived on the back of a pickup to spend a season in the mine. He is a former army sergeant who once lost his rifle in the Caura River during a raid against illegal mining. When that happened, he made the decision to become a miner.
He traveled with another one he met that morning. They became friends quickly. “El Chino” is 20 years old, and he was “getting in” to be able to leave before Christmas. He is from Bolivar and said he was born in the mines.
Another miner, Juan Bola, 64, showed in his battered, bruised hands, a small piece of gold.
Those who can, work hard. They don’t know if they will be able to carry on. The government is threatening to clamp down on clandestine mining. Thousands of families and whole towns live off this activity, directly or indirectly.
To get to another mine we had to cross a river that was 196ft (60 meters) wide, with water up to the waist. The clearing made by the miners made it look as if someone had taken a bite out of the jungle. Some people were cutting trees while others, several feet below, were blasting away the jungle floor with a high pressure water hose. They were riding the hose as if trying to tame a wild anaconda.
The hose is very dangerous. Its pressure and its metal nozzle turn it into a lethal weapon for the miners who work barefoot, sunk in the mud. There are no doctors or medical assistance anywhere nearby. In recent weeks two miners died here in the morning and their colleagues were only able to recover their bodies by the next morning. Mudslides, snake bites and tropical diseases are frequent.
As the last stop, we reached Parkupik, from where I took the boat on Ikabaru River. In the plane to get here there were two Brazilians; the wives of two miners. One of them carried her two-month-old baby in her arms, in addition to food and mining tools. This indigenous community of around 100 families belonging to the Adventist Church, is the port where gold and diamonds are marketed in the area.
Kids played in the river next to their fathers, who were preparing their curiaras (canoes) to travel to the mines, while gold buyers spent the hot hours of the afternoon watching satellite TV in a hut that doubles as both warehouse and kitchen.
Days later, in a city nearby, a diamond buyer adjusted the gun on his waist while he greeted a miner who brought some “rocks.” He passionately explained that diamonds are the perfect currency. “You can carry thousands of dollars in the pocket of your pants without setting off any metal detector. There are no borders for them.”
In the mine, Ramón walked exhausted at the end of his workday. His face, ravaged by the sun, was sprinkled with mud. When he smiled, a golden “R” became visible, inlaid in one of his front teeth.