Gold doesn't glitter in this rush for quick wealth

Mining practices in South America leave a legacy of death that could last for centuries

From the depths of an unemployed, snowbound winter in upstate New York, Marc Herman lit out for South America, eager to become the new Hunter Thompson. Herman would walk into the jungle, venture into urban slums, explore lives unimaginable to Americans, skewer the exploiters on sharp thrusts of interrogation, and pin them to the page.

Lord knows the material was there. Guyana in the 1990s was in the throes of a gold rush. Fortunes were being made. Thousands converged on the rain forest carrying little more than hope, staking their lives on the chance of finding gold. Boom towns sprang up. Multinational corporations flew executives in to cut deals.

Yet even as the miners dug millions of dollars worth of gold out of the ground, the people of Guyana grew steadily poorer. The population of the country actually dropped during the gold-rush years as impoverished Guyanese voted with their feet.

This was not your grandfather's gold rush. Some truths known to the forty-niners still hold, like the old saw that the way to get rich during a gold rush is to sell shovels. Guyanese selling mining supplies made more money than miners. The thing is, miners don't use shovels and pans much anymore. They use cyanide and mercury.

Guyanese gold is embedded in rock. There are no nuggets, no shiny flakes lying in the riverbeds, just dull, ocher-colored flecks in the rock. In 1993, a Canadian corporation opened a mine in which men blast apart the bedrock, scoop it up with bucket loaders, and carry it in dump trucks to the pulverizing mill. There wasn't a shovel in sight.

The pulverized rock is mixed with cyanide. Bits of gold far too small to be visible dissolve in a dilute solution of sodium cyanide, forming into easily gathered nuggets.

Native Guyanese miners, however, can't afford bucket loaders or dump trucks. They break up the bedrock with picks and haul burlap sacks full of rock to small pulverizing mills. There, the powdered rock is mixed with mercury, which, like cyanide, bonds with the gold, enabling nuggets to be extracted economically.

Mercury and cyanide are very different. Cyanide kills instantly, but it decomposes when exposed to sunlight. Exposure to mercury, on the other hand, destroys the body slowly, and it lingers in the forest, if not forever, at least for hundreds of years, causing birth defects and slow, ghastly death.

The irony here is that mercury can be efficiently employed by small miners, while cyanide processing requires huge tanks that only large corporations can afford to build. So giant corporations digging holes the size of an entire Guyanese town are causing less ecological damage than independent miners wielding picks and shovels. Irony is the stuff of great journalism.

Unfortunately, Herman is not a great journalist. Witness his attempt to delve into the lives of the prostitutes in a remote boom town. "It was always too much of a public spectacle to learn anything interesting: everyone watched the white boy chatting up the Afro-Guyanese girl and it was a self-conscious situation for everyone. Available statistics told much of the story broadly anyway."

And so they do. "Available statistics" tell a predictable story of poverty and sexually transmitted diseases. But that's not what I opened this book hoping to read.

I wanted Herman to take me there. I wanted to know what it feels like to swing a pick all day long in a muddy trench infested with mosquitoes in the hope of earning a dollar, maybe two on a lucky day. To learn what goes on in the mind of a girl who waits all night in the dingy streets hoping that a miner on a spree will squander one of those dollars on her.

Instead of taking us there, Herman has written a disappointing book in which he tells us that he couldn't get the interview.

Diana Muir is the author of 'Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England' (University Press of New England).

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