The New Gold Rush / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez
Posted on August 14, 2014
14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 August 2014 – Evening falls and the
sound of the sieves in the rolling hills trails off. The three men
collect their belongings. They’ve finished the first day in their
arduous search for gold. Tomorrow they will wake up early and with the
first light of day return to dig, wash, sift and find the little nuggets
among the mud and sandstone. “If I find at least one gram, I’m going to
finish the roof of my house,” says the most experienced of the stealth
The Rafael Freyre area in Holguin province attracts hundreds of people
every year who dream that a mine will help them out of their economic
difficulties. Is it need? A hobby? Or a real gold rush? Everyone
experiences it in their own way, but the oldest people in the area say
that when “people have gold in their eyes it’s like a demon that will
The stealth miners have created their own working tools from few
resources. Among the most important is the “car,” a sieve with a piece
of rubber where the mud is deposited, that then falls through the
screen. It is a team effort, requiring at least three strong men. While
two shake the sieve, the other pours water over the mud collected in the
excavations. “Then the gold dust is left, in particles like a kind of
pea hull, although there can also be nuggets,” says Fernando Ramón
Rodríguez Vargas who lives in Levisa, Mayari municipality, and for years
has dedicated himself to the pursuit of the precious metal.
Those who spend a lot of time in these tasks have developed and eye for
finding where the gold is, they don’t believe in metal detectors. “They
aren’t very effective because they go off everywhere, in this area there
can be a little piece anywhere. The most commonly used method is the
same as it is used by industries. I take a sample of the dirt and I wash
it to check how much gold it contains just so I will know if it’s worth
the trouble,” Veredia Elcko says, revealing his secrets. He has
participated in numerous fortune hunting expeditions. He claims that the
Cuatro Palmas area in Holguin is the most famous for the size of the
pieces found, and because the gold “is at ground level.”
The second day of work is when your bones ache more. So the three men
bathe in a creek early in the day to relieve the little punctures all
over their bodies, and resume their excavations. The main symptom of
“gold fever” is working and working almost to the last light, without
eating. They go along making holes, because they aren’t in an area of
surface tailings, the layer is deeper. The gold itself marks the path to
follow, from the amounts they come across.
Everybody wants to take your seam, then they start to dig deeper around
the hole and come in from underneath,” says Verdecia Elcko, who has dug
with several friends and neighbors working together. You have to go
faster, the hands sinking full speed into the earth and the sieve never
stopping its “swish swish swish.”
The technique for finding a seam is to test and test. Consistency is key
to this work, and perhaps because of this the stealth miners take on an
obsessive look, incapable to letting themselves be deterred by defeat.
Normally they look for the tracks of rivers that no longer exist.
They’re like scars in the hills where water would have once swept along
the mineral. There are also muddy areas on the banks of still running
rivers that are good places for findings.
The third working day. The bread they brought is full of mold because of
the humidity. On getting up, the three men have numb hands, and the skin
on their fingers is cracked. Every muscle aches, but they have to keep
going. Perhaps today will be their lucky day. The first hours on the
site they work with more energy, but exhaustion returns and slows the
pace as noon approaches. The whole time their feet are damp with the
water flowing through the “car.” One hurt his hand another coughed all
night. Around lunch time a 0.8 gram nugget restores their hope and they
decide to continue.
They’re picking up tiny pieces, or “lice” as they call them. They hope
to have a breeze to start the melting. One brings a little mercury. They
put it in a pot and apply heat. It gives off a poisonous gas and the men
stand upwind to avoid breathing the smoke. It’s a dangerous process, but
almost magical. In the bottom of the vessel the gold gleams. Every 24
carat gram they sell will bring a price of between 25 and 27 convertible
pesos, a little more than a dollar.
Gold fever can also become gold death. Verdecia Elcko knows this well.
“Over in the La Canela area a lady—they call her Mimi—found the largest
piece of the mineral ever found in that area, four-and-a-half-ounces.
Now the woman has developed cancer from using so much quicksilver.” The
mercury is taken from state industries, diverted from laboratories and
chemical plants. It is a product that should be controlled, but it hits
the streets and gets into the hands of miners and jewelers.
If they get lucky, the three “seekers” will have to be cautious. If
they’re seen to be spending a lot of money in town, people will start to
investigate where it came from. Someone could follow them to their place
and find the exact site of the mine they’ve found. Everything has to be
handled with a lot of discretion. There is also the danger of the Forest
Guard, which imposes fines of up to 1,700 pesos. According to the Mining
Act “the subsoil is the property of the State, the only entity
authorized to extract minerals and to exploit it for research purposes.”
However, the State isn’t interested in many of the small deposits. The
costs of exploitation would be greater than the earnings, so it isn’t done.
Sometimes it is not gold that glitters. “I have found old coins and
indigenous remains,” says Rodríguez Vargas. The biggest frustration for
those who pick through these hills is having to leave the area with no
Gold fever infects everyone equally, regardless of age, gender or
education. “You can find a doctor who, in his spare time, is on the bank
of the river, a teacher, a young student, a pregnant woman or one with a
kid,” says Verdecia Elcko. “Because in the end it’s just like the
fisherman, who always has to return to the sea.
The official institutions categorize these miners as a real “invasion of
prospectors.” They accuse them of harming the environment, especially
the topsoil because they remove and wash it. The streams and water
reservoirs of the area are also affected by turning over and carrying
the sediments. Verderia Elcko admits that “the waters are polluted and
the farmers’ animals have fallen in the holes that are dug. There have
also been accidents in the area, but this is a question of necessity,
A study by researchers at the Institute of Geology and Paleontology
concludes that the “organization of this activity under business
structures including State, cooperative and self-employed,” should be
encouraged. The report suggests “local governments should provide the
knowledge and power necessary to enhance the usefulness of the rocks and
minerals present in their regions.” However, for now, the decision
whether or not to exploit a site depends exclusively on the highest
levels of government.
The days of searching are over. The stealth miners return home. They
will return to the hills in a couple of weeks. The youngest of them sold
his refrigerator to buy a half liter of mercury. “You’ll see, the next
time we’ll find more gold and even a pirate’s treasure,” he says with
the golden glint in his eyes that everyone in the area knows very well.
Source: The New Gold Rush / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez | Translating Cuba –