Dust. Poverty. Danger. Pollution. More than before.
Motorcycles everywhere. Bouncing on narrow tires. A baby squished between a father and mother - neither more than teenagers. No helmets, of course, the moto bouncing hither and yon, dodging mules, cars and motos all the way in, swerving around the big tough trucks, from new to almost inoperable, that grind up and down the mountain.
Closed faces, tough, hard, dirty. We reverse precariously, muleteers holding their ground.
I wished I had arrived alone on an old motorcycle or in a beaten-up Land-Rover, in ragged jeans and a T-shirt; that I had walked around for a while, talking, listening and, finally, asking if I might take some pictures. But I was a guest of generous hosts and decided simply to return alone another day.
I couldn't bring myself to take photographs. It seemed patronizing. Insulting, even. There is dignity even in a hard, poor and filthy life.
All around, the mines. Some no more than a door in the hillside. The mills, small workings beneath corrugated iron roofs. Cyanide leaching pools, streams of toxic pollution seeping down the slopes and down into the river far, far below.
A landscape, a world, to inspire Dante. An industrial wasteland in Paradise, a Hell operating for the benefit of shareholders and owners who live safely, comfortably, and far away while subsistence wage employees hack at the rocks, bare-hand the chemicals, breathe in the toxic dust day and night. Abandoned, too, by the government that gathers the mine taxes.
Fifty years ago, my grandfather owned these mines. The equipment he designed, built and installed in the 1930s still functions. It was fifteen years ago that I first visited. Then, I met several old men who had known him, respected him and greeted me with interest and kindness. Now, I was ashamed of what I was seeing - surely the end result of a process he began. But I remembered his love of this country, this area; his admiration for the campesinos and his respect for his workers. I recalled that he instituted schools and clinics and that, long after he sold the mines, he responded to former employees who reached out to him, finding them work and housing in the city. Sounds like a whitewash except that it's true. As is the fact that he, too, used cyanide as the leaching chemical and that he, too, polluted the river even if his leaching ponds were maintained and repaired as necessary.
The mines are approaching exhaustion. One day they will die. The good news: no more pollution. The bad news: no more work; social unrest; migration of hard, angry people to cities ill-equipped to embrace them. There, they will be execrated as lazy benefits leeches that don't know the meaning of work. Beggars. Potential criminals. Malcontents.
You speak of a Free Market, the power of trickle down, the inherent decency of capital - but what mining corporation in the world has ever invested in the well-being of its miners unless dragged screaming to the negotiation table by tough unions or outraged public opinion? And, at the table, which party has the money to bend the resulting regulations to its advantage?
I'm not my grandfather's hagiographer. I never met him. My information comes from ex-employees, friends and family. But it seems to me that this iconoclastic individual who came to this country, fell in love with it and stayed forever, was a far more efficient and fair dueno than any of the corporations or government departments that followed him, despite the cyanide (integral to gold-mining). Without men and women like him, the only solution to the miners' working conditions is unionization. So, answer your own question, mine owners: if you hate unions, improve conditions and wages yourselves. There are precedents,