STRADDLING a muddy streamlet, rainwater dripping off her nose, an old woman looks up from her work. She flashes a grin stained red with betel nut and tips her tin pan for an outsider to see. Flakes of gold glint from the bottom. By her shoeless foot, an old coffee jar is half filled with golden granules worth about 3,500 kina ($4,000).
The scene of one of the richest gold rushes of this century is one of stinking thigh-deep muck, numbing cold, and nearly nonstop rain. But since March, some 5,000 to 8,000 Papua New Guineans have flocked to remote Mt. Kare, a two-day walk from the nearest village in the Enga Province. Concerns are being raised about tribal customs being lost amid instant wealth. Already, about $100 million worth of precious metal has been plucked from these slimy slopes.
``The best run I've seen was 10 ounces in 10 minutes,'' says Colin Price, chief geologist at the CRA Ltd. exploration camp on Mt. Kare. ``That's equivalent to the earning power of Mike Tyson's punches. This guy was just pulling spectacular big nuggets out of a clod of earth - about $4,000 worth of gold for someone who's probably never earned more than $100 in a week.''
Higher prices and new geological theories have ushered in a gold boom along the volcanic Pacific Rim. New mines are opening in Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and through several South Pacific islands. Gold mining has been going on for 100 years in Papua New Guinea, but until recently, it has been mostly large multinational companies that have pocketed the big profits. Now the peasants are getting their turn.
Gold was discovered on Mt. Kare by CRA, an Australian mining firm, but locals soon got wind of it. And under Papuan law, villagers can take the alluvial or surface gold. Exploration rights definitively cover only gold embedded in hard rock. As yet, CRA has not found any minable gold veins. So CRA geologists chafe while the locals cart off one of the richest finds in the world.
``The peasant miner is an emerging phenomenon in the region, says geologist Allen Clark at the East-West Center in Honolulu. ``It's reasonably small and under control. But there are 200,000 [miners] in the Philippines, and nearly half a million in Indonesia.''
``What do you do when the gold runs out? In Costa Rica, 4,000 peasant miners showed up on the steps of the capital. Can you imagine what would happen in Manila if 100,000 showed up? These gold rushes present all sorts of economic, environmental, and social problems,'' Mr. Clark says.
Most Papua New Guineans are subsistence farmers. Walk through Tari, the town nearest Mt. Kare, and you will see nationals wearing leafy skirts and feathered headdresses and toting stone axes. For some, wealth is still counted in the number of pigs owned.
But discovering fields of gold is undoubtedly affecting village life in the region. Whole families have abandoned their gardens for the goldfields. Some schools have closed. Where they remain open, students are abandoning their classes.
Spending sprees on cars and trucks, and binges at the top hotels of Port Moresby, are among the most obvious excesses of new wealth. Academics here and abroad express concerns about the denigration of village society and culture.
But in the shanty huts around Mt. Kari, the people seem to view mining as a short-term proposition. Life on this 9,000-foot-high alpine plateau is not particularly appealing.
On a chilly morning, thinly clad southern highlander James Putia is crouching inside a wood hut covered with palm leaves. The dirt-floor room is no bigger than a small Western-style kitchen, but when temperatures drop below freezing at night, as many as 20 natives cram inside.
Cases of dysentery and typhoid have been reported. Warming his hands over a smoky fire, Putia says in halting English: ``It's too cold and wet this place. At night, it cold more. Very hard life. Very hard to stay here with fever.''
Food is expensive, because it is all brought in by helicopter. Profiteering is rampant. A live chicken sells for more than $60. Miners dig an average $50 to $100 worth of gold a day, so they can usually afford the food. But saving money is difficult. Here in the fields of yellow metal, there are also high-stakes gambling, Walkman tape players, and alcohol to spend it on, too.
Still, Tari trade store owner Chris Rose thinks high food costs are one reason village society isn't about to go under.
``The Huli are fairly conservative people. They will say, this is ridiculous. We'll dig up some gold and then we must get back to our gardens. They're certainly not going to give up their traditions quickly,'' says Mr. Rose, a longtime resident.
Sitting at his desk with gold scales on it, Rose says that in most cases the wealth is fairly well distributed. ``It's a communal society. So if a man sells his gold for 500 kina, that 500 kina's not his. He has to disperse it. Some would go to his relations, some to the people who helped dig it, some to people he had debts with. It's being dispersed. We find little old ladies and children coming into the store with new two kina notes.''
In the goldfields, eye-for-an-eye tribal law tends to rule. A recent dispute resulted in two people from separate clans being killed. More than half the miners have left now, fearing a tribal war. Bows and arrows slung over the shoulder were the dress of the day on a recent visit.
Alcohol is illegal in the area. But nonetheless, ``drinking is the No. 1 problem. If we could ban alcohol effectively, we wouldn't have any problems,'' says CRA's Mr. Price.
Still, Ben Probert, the CRA camp manager and a veteran Papuan ``kiap'' (patrol officer), says, ``Look at the '49ers. Who are we to moralize? This is tame by comparison. Some spend it foolishly. But some now have money for corrugated roofs, good clothes, a wood stove. On balance, it's got to be good for these people.''
As night settles over Mt. Kare, the rain continues to pound on roofs of plastic tarpaulin and palm leaves. The sputtering CRA camp generator is silenced at 10 p.m. But a few hundred feet away, there's laughter and music. A native-owned trade store has set up a makeshift ``Haus Piks'' - the pidgin term for video movie house. Tonight's feature in this remote corner of the globe: ``Star Trek - the Wrath of Kahn.''