Discovering the true El Bagre
On Monday I’ll be flying to Medellin, Colombia to meet up with my interpreter & photographer, Juan Sebastian Villa and on Tuesday, he and I will fly into the community of El Bagre in the district of Antioquia, the region's highest gold-producing municipality, accounting for 80%- 90% of its revenue. In the 5 years between 2008 ~ 2013, the population of El Bagre grew from 5,000 to 30,000 and many traditional farmers turned to gold mining as their main source of income.
Antioquia carries the distinction of being the world's single largest mercury polluter per capita from artisanal gold mining.
I’ll be traveling there to connect with and learn from the miners and their families who work directly with or live in the vicinity of their mercury-driven gold mining and smelting operations.
Originally, I thought I would go to witness the varied neurological disorders that inevitably arise from living in such a toxic environment- it seemed to me that the world needed to be aware of their horrific reality. But on reflection, considering the specter of some gringo guy asking dignified and proud rural Colombian gold miners to share about their health problems from mercury poisoning, I realized this likely wasn’t a great idea.
I realized that what I want is to just be with them, to appreciate and celebrate them for who they are and for the gift they are to the world. They’re the people who give us the treasure of gold that we often use to commemorate our most special occasions. They unearth and refine the precious metals that are sculpted to gracefully yet firmly hold gems of immense value that endure the rigors of daily use and abuse.
The health impacts brought on by mercury poisoning can take many forms and one can imagine that most everyone living in gold mining/smelting communities that use mercury are suffering from one or more of the many related health conditions. These ailments profoundly diminish the quality of their lives and often death comes at an early age.
As a goldsmith who has profited from these miners’ sweat, hardships, dangers and even deaths for half a century, they are deserving of my deep appreciation and profound gratitude. They’re among the world’s poorest people, digging in the dirt to eke out a meager living, if they’re lucky. They’re no different than me, no less and no more; we’re all in this together with the privilege of supporting, celebrating and learning from one another.
I’m confident that through experiencing their world without separation or judgment, I will learn how to approach and share with them our commitment to pull together the world’s resources and discover a replacement process or material that will capture gold without the tragic health and permanent environmental impacts of mercury. Should we succeed in achieving truly breakthrough results, artisanal gold miners around the world will have access to mining far more efficiently and profitably, helping raise the 100 million people who depend upon ASGM for their livelihoods out of poverty and marginalization.
The problem of mercury contamination from gold mining is completely invisible to most people. Many know to not eat tuna or swordfish more than once a week because of the bioaccumulation of mercury in fish higher on the food chain. Fewer are aware that pregnant women and those still nursing their children should avoid these fish altogether.
Only a scarce few are aware that artisanal and small-scale gold miners (ASGM) are emitting 1,400 tons of the neurotoxin into our biosphere every year. That’s roughly 8,000 lbs (3,628kg) of mercury per day that enters our soils, atmosphere and water supplies. There is no place on earth free from the impacts of mercury on our environment and it’s getting worse. Up to now, these miners have had no real alternative.
A multitude of difficult-to-diagnose and even more difficult-to-treat neurological problems result from exposure to mercury. Children, nursing mothers and developing embryos are particularly susceptible.
The annual loss of global economic productivity due to mercury poisoning is estimated at $43 billion.
These daunting circumstances notwithstanding, we live in a truly extraordinary moment in time!
For the first time in history, we have access to everything we need to solve the world’s biggest problems. We have abundant and available financial resources, exponentially expanding, mind-boggling technologies, as well as our access to the massive fount of collective wisdom… all ready at our fingertips.
The time is right for passionate, entrepreneurial spirits to discover a safe and effective replacement for mercury that will empower subsistence miners around the globe to new levels of profitability and responsible mining practices. Discovering an effective mercury alternative and effectively taking mercury out of the gold supply chain will contribute to the health and longevity of all 7+ billion people on earth and those yet unborn.
We have an opportunity to make a profound difference in the lives of every person on earth by discovering an effective replacement for mercury, allowing miners to mine profitably while not harming themselves, their communities and the planet.
The Mercury Free Mining Challenge is standing where Ferdinand Magellan, Orville & Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindberg and Burt Rattan of SpaceX stood, declaring some version of,
“We know it’s never been done in the history of the world and we’re doing this!”
(Credits to Sausalito Jewelers for their generous contribution underwriting our trip to El Bagre. Sam and the team have been stalwart advocates and activists for responsible sourcing of their metals and gems and are out to create a sustainable jewelry industry and planet. Also, thanks to Stephanie Kantis of Stephanie Kantis Jewelry of Florida for passionately underwriting the creation of a video from our trip. She and Anthony are provocateurs for an inspiring world and an ocean free of plastic detritus.)
Also, thanks to Starbucks, Corvallis, Oregon downtown manager Kim Alden for the donation of 14 stunning insulated travel mugs as gifts to the gold miners & their families in El Bagre!