Looking at this landscape you’d wonder what could possibly sustain life here. Well, William and Marcos were two taxi/guides who showed us around the desert areas of southwestern Peru and they both had interesting stories to tell. William’s family was one of countless driven out of the Andean highlands in the vicinity of Ayacucho by Sendero Luminoso activity, and the counter-revolutionary crossfire, a generation ago. The guerrillas have been mostly tamed, but many of the displaced campesinos have made new lives in the desert, and in the cities, where their cobbled-together dwellings rise up the hillsides.
William’s older brothers have gone back to their ancestral village ‘where the air is clean and the vegetables and water are natural’ but William is reasonably pleased with his present life and contagiously enthusiastic about Peru. This despite, to my mind, the rather grimy nature of his hometown, Ica. But what stories are behind the dusty gates and ramshackle doors!
One place William took us to see was a ´gold factory’. We were wary of an awkward tourist stop, wherein the driver presents the ´walking wallet´ (us!) to his friend for evisceration. Well, there was a bit of that, but also, a pretty interesting story about how the small people of this world make their best effort to survive.
Turns out that the mountains behind the desert, indeed the country, are loaded with minerals (fifty percent of the GDP of Peru is from mining). In the vicinity of Ica, there is gold, and silver, copper and other ores too, and there are men willing to dig for it with picks and shovels, carry out out on their backs, and deliver it to people like William´s friend.
We learned that gold is easy enough to separate out from the rest, if you have mercury, and a ‘mixer’. That´s what’s happening here. The miners’ families stand on the board on top of this rock, and see-saw to and fro for hours at a time, chatting and texting as the ore is crushed and mixed with mercury to precipitate the gold. How exactly it happens I can´t quite explain, but at some point some of the liquid in the cesspit is drained, and eventually there is some gold, and some recovered mercury. (Yes they know how dangerous mercury is, and attempt to recuperate it, according to some government regulations posted on the wall.)
It is much harder to recover the other minerals, so the remaining ore is sold to ´the big company’.´Somewhere I read that ten or fifteen percent of the world´s gold production is mined in this or similar ‘artesanal’ fashion.*
Marcos had the rest of the story. He and his brothers and cousins had actually been miners. They went way back into the mountains, with dynamite to make the big holes in the hard rock, and picks and shovels for more delicate work. Weeks later they might have enough product to carry away.
I had a mental image of prospectors in old Western movies, but there is much more to it, How many donkeys might be needed to carry supplies, like water of which there is absolutely none, food, tools. Was there a road or any truck access? Some of the men brought their families; some of their wives worked there too. Their children certainly breathed the dust and didn´t get much schooling. But still, it was an income when there were few other resources. However Marcos had put in three years of study for his tour guide license and hoped he’d never go mining again.
And here´s a picture of my new necklace, the first actual piece of gold jewelry I can ever recall having bought. It´s the monkey copied from the Nasca lines,designed centuries ago and crafted by in the back room of the ‘gold factory.’ Aren’t I a good tourist?!
* Actually this particular form of artesanal mining seems almost harmless compared to what I just read about in the February 2012 Smithsonian magazine.