Photographers' Blog

Manhunt for wildcat gold miners

Jacareacanga, Para (Brazil)

By Lunaé Parracho

“We’re asking you not to go,” one of the Munduruku Indians said to me while standing in a circle of ten other warriors.

They feared that I would slow them down if I accompanied them on another six-hour hike through the forest to a wildcat gold mine operated by intruders in their territory. This was to be the fifth mine dismantled by the Mundurukus, who live in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest in the western state of Para. This region is rich in natural resources and has been called the country’s new frontier of economic expansion.

Another warrior, sensing my reaction at being considered a drag on the group, approached me and tried to allay my disappointment. “We will photograph for you,” he said, pointing to two young Indians holding compact cameras. “If you want you can give them your camera.”

I thought about telling him that my camera is like the bow and arrow he was holding – I could never give it up. Instead I decided not to say anything and I bowed my head to wish them a good trip. At that moment, they could see the lesions on my feet and my appearance didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had just spent the last ten days hiking with them through the jungle, as they went to dismantle other wildcat mines.

The Munduruku traveled to Brazil’s capital last year to ask the government to expel non-indigenous miners from their territory. But rather than waiting for a legal decision that could take years, they are now taking the situation into their own hands by removing all non-Indians engaged in illegal gold mining themselves. The decision was taken during an assembly in the presence of more than 400 warriors and caciques. They have demanded the support of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, and the bureau granted help in the form of boats and fuel.

The lithium triangle

LITHIUM MINING

Argentina, Bolivia and Chile hold the planet’s largest reserves of lithium, a key component in batteries used to power a range of technologies from cell phones to laptops to electric cars.

Industrial production from the so-called “lithium triangle” is already high. Chile is the world’s leading source of the metal, turning out around 40 percent of global supply, and Argentina is another significant producer. Output from the Andes may soon rise after Bolivia – the country that holds an estimated 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves – opened its first lithium pilot plant in January.

Reuters photographers recently traveled to the research and production sites in those three countries, all located in high altitude salt flats at around 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, and wrote about their experiences.

Don’t rush for gold

Tien Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

By Shamil Zhumatov

“Don’t run! Slow down! Just don’t run!” I repeated this non-stop to myself like an incantation. Indeed, it is hard even to pace quickly – let alone run — when you have to breathe in the rarefied air and wear a supplied protective helmet and brand-new rigid boots with steel toes.

I also had to look out for giant trucks the size of three-story houses chugging around. It was difficult to keep my emotions under control during the few hours on this tight assignment. I was at an altitude of over 4,000 meters above sea level near the Chinese border, inside a huge open-pit gold mine at Kumtor, Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold asset, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold. Gigantic trucks and excavators worked non-stop in the snow-clad pit, looking like characters from a fantasy movie. As if playing a computer game, an excavator operator elegantly manipulated small joysticks – just five scoops full of ore, and almost 200 tones were loaded into a truck in about one minute.

In line with Centerra Gold’s tough requirements, I passed two medical checks before I started working at these giddy heights. A day before, we had to stay for the night at a guest house located at about 1,700 meters above sea level to get accustomed to high altitudes before ascending to Kumtor. The gold mine is the world’s second highest-altitude gold deposit after Peru’s Yanacocha mine. Some vehicles never even stop their engines in these ferocious conditions of Arctic tundra and permafrost.

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.

Mining in the middle of nowhere

By Yusuf Ahmad

I can feel the strong sun’s sting when, for the first time, I set foot in Palu, a city on Sulawesi island. The city is growing slowly as it is still recovering from ethnic and religious conflict in the early 2000s. As I stand at the city center I can see the top of Masomba mountain wrapped in clouds with the blue sky in the background. However, traveling to the Masomba area is not easy. I go with a local gold miner on a motorcycle.

There are two ways to get to the area. You can cross several rivers or take a mountainous way. The second way is harder as the road is severely damaged.

I arrived at the mining location in two hours. I didn’t expected to see tens of thousands of people at the feet of the mountain in temporary housing and tents. Not far from the houses and tents, the hill was filled with gold miners.

Money and dreams in Australia’s outback

Shooting the vast Australian outback had been my goal ever since I first arrived in Sydney. After three years I finally had the opportunity — a Special Report (a Reuters’ investigative story) on a worker shortage in the middle of Australia’s mining boom. My destination, Karratha, is a small town in Australia’s northwest.

After a more than 6 hour flight from Sydney, from one corner of Australia to the other, I touched down into a landscape exactly as I had imagined. The land was littered with red iron ore rocks, clear blue skies stretched with an immensity you only feel at sea, and trains, huge trains, hauled iron ore from the mines to be loaded onto ships bound for China.

This remote region called the Pilbara is at the center of Australia’s mining boom. But with more than AUD$400 billion in new resource projects on the drawing board, miners are struggling to find people who want to live and work in this harsh environment, despite offering wages in the six figures for truck drivers and construction workers – more than Australian doctors and lawyers earn.

Made in Chile

The first 17 days in August after the miners disappeared underground are spent in silent vigilance, almost in secrecy. We think this will be just another of so many mine disasters that happen around the world, with some anxious waiting followed by a great deal of mourning. The respect for the pain of the 33 families is felt all across that stretch of desert – dubbed Camp Hope. The pain of that vigilance gives way to an outburst of rage against the mine’s owners, who never appear nor give any credible explanation for the disaster.  Rumors of a rescue plan without details cause more confusion as it all seems improvised. When the collapsed mine tunnel is determined to be impossible to reopen, the rescuers pull back as it seems there is no one alive to rescue. The families sink into uncertainty.

(Top-Bottom) Policemen escort the co-owner (C) of the San Jose copper and gold mine where miners are trapped in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners wait outside of the mine for news of them in Copiapo.

“All 33 of us are fine in the shelter.” My family lunch ends abruptly as we see the slip of torn paper on live television. The miners are alive 17 days after their tunnel collapsed 700 meters underground. Six hours later I’m in Camp Hope far from our lunch table photographing the families celebrating. The families learn to laugh again.

(Top-Bottom) A member of the media looks at a computer screen with the image of a note sent by one of the 33 miners trapped inside the San Jose mine in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners react after learning that the 33 miners were found alive in Copiapo.

A day photographing at Camp Hope soon becomes a routine so natural I feel like part of the neighborhood. I park my car, grab my cameras, and greet the families who are also part of the landscape. I greet Maria and Elizabeth, sisters of trapped miner Dario Segovia, who are conversing and joking with everyone around. Photographers gather in front of their awning to cover reactions to whatever is the news of the day. Together with them is Cristina Nuñez, fiancee of miner Claudio Yañez, who proposed marriage to her through a message sent from the depths of the mine. She accepted immediately. They’ve already been together for a lifetime. Cristina is boisterous and likes to be noticed.