The price of gold

The main street of Puerto Jiménez, Costa Rica, was packed with shops stocked with everything from large televisions, refrigerators and washing machines to toasters and food processors. There seemed to be more appliances than the town’s population. Whom were these shops trying to entice?

We were making a film about the snakes of Costa Rica and Johnny, a native Costa Rican (or ‘tico’), was our translator. Since gold miners in this area frequently encountered snakes, we relied on a couple of them as our guides.

As we followed the miners into the forest, I bombarded them with questions. Did they find a lot of gold? When was the last time they found some? One of our miner-guides had unearthed a nugget of gold the previous week. Later, I held the chunk of metal; it was the size of my fist and looked like an abstract sculpture. I noticed that another chap wore an attractive gold pendant on a shoelace around his neck. It was gorgeous and unique. “Where could I find more like it?” I asked, thinking it was locally crafted.

Not so easy, Johnny replied. It was of local origin alright, but from another time and civilization. The pendant was thousands of years old and came from an ancient tomb. The wearer was a part-time tomb raider. The movie ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ had just been released and this guy didn’t look anything like Angelina Jolie. “Do you want to see more ancient jewellery?” the miner asked.

Later, at his house, he displayed clay and stone figurines of jaguars and other animals he had unearthed with the beautiful ornaments. These treasures belonged in a museum and to find them in someone’s house was astonishing.

Despite the high prices gold fetched, the miners were mostly broke, living on credit. When they found a nugget of gold, like most jackpot winners, they went on a shopping spree, stocking their houses with every appliance. There were enough miners and gold for them to find for the shops to remain open six days a week. As we drove by, I peered inside looking for anyone trading chunks of metal. The shops were disappointingly empty.

Although the adrenalin rush of finding sudden riches is heady, gold mining is fraught with risks. These men dug deep into forested hillsides looking for the yellow metal. The tunnels were held up by rickety beams of timber and the risk of collapse was high. Some were buried alive before they could be excavated while many others escaped with injuries. After hearing these stories, when we entered the narrow tunnels in search of tree boas, I suffered from severe claustrophobia. Rom, however, bravely entered where sensible women feared to tread.

During their daily toil, miners and tomb raiders also had to brave dangerous snakes, like fer-de-lance. Locally called ‘terciopelo’ (‘velvet’ in Spanish), these gorgeous, lethal snakes are completely camouflaged in forest leaf litter. Even when Rom pointed one out, I just could not see the snake until I got closer. I tried to train my eyes to be sharper. I looked elsewhere at the forest trees and glanced back at the snake. I could have sworn it had disappeared until Rom painstakingly described its location again.

We interviewed a former miner who had a nasty encounter with a terciopelo. A long scar ran from his elbow to the back of his mangled hand. He narrated how doctors had to slice the ballooning arm to relieve pressure. A couple of his fingers were inflexible and the one that took the bite was missing a chunk. He described the intolerable pain he suffered and the many months of recovery. He didn’t mine for gold anymore, he said.

Like the terciopelo, those flashy shops on Puerto Jiménez’s main drag camouflaged some of the price paid by these miners, in broken limbs, lost livelihoods and lives. They also hid the massive scar snaking across the region’s environmental and cultural history caused by mining and tomb-raiding.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 3:54:55 AM |

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