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Nicaragua /Reportage. “Güiriseros” in search of an Eldorado

A loud cry, deafening. “It’s coming on top of us. Run. It’s going to bury us”. Then nothing else. Silence. A large black cloud of earth pours out of the tunnel. Now slowly the first ones are coming out. They look at each other, they count each other. The names are repeated. Of the 51 miners who were in the mine shafts, 29 are missing. Life and death in the mines of Nicaragua

“It was like a bomb – said Francisco González, one of the miners just out. The explosion threw us far away. We were overwhelmed by stones and mud. The lights that we had on our helmets went out. A scary darkness. At a distance we heard desperate cries that tried to grasp onto something. A stream of water and mud”. It was 10.30 in the morning. An explosion, a mudslide buried 29 miners in the artisanal mine of El Comal in Bonanza.

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The head of the commission of the municipality, Luis Camacio, immediately made it known that that area had been declared at risk for months. “Yes, they told us that we could not work. But we saw that our bosses didn’t give it any serious attention. They told us to go to work”, says Marvin Urbina, one of the surviving miners.

The gold rush

Bonanza is a municipality of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua. In Bonanza it’s difficult to take a taxi. They are always full. Every day a lot of people come looking for work in the mines. The exploitation of the deposits has lasted for 130 years by now. There is not a job that doesn’t have to do with the mines. In this municipality most men work as güirisero (artisanal miners). “The work of the güirisero is to break stones where it is supposed that there is gold, refine them and sell them (to the mining companies) so that they can process them and get pure gold,” Jose Raul Talavera tells us, a young man of 22 years who has worked as a güirisero for 11 years.

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Some prefer to process it themselves to obtain pure gold by using highly toxic substances and very artisan-like processes. In other parts of Nicaragua the güiriseros immerse themselves in rivers with a special dish to extract gold. But here in Bonanza instead the güirisero must go underground, in wells or tunnels to dig with a hammer and take the stones out and sell them. “Working as a güirisero is hard. You can ruin your eyes, remain trapped by a landslide. You can die at any moment, because there is no security in the tunnels”, says Melendez Francis de Dinken, a güirisero of 48 years old with 21 years of experience.

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Each güirisero has his helpers. The ‘mozo’ can also earn five dollars a day. They are boys who start with no experience. Sometimes they are the ones that cause landslides in the tunnels of the mine. In the nineties, Bonanza had a population of about eight thousand people. Now the inhabitants are around 40,000. “It a growth of 500% in just 20 years. This is a lot for a small country like Bonanza”, says Marcela Castilo, vice-president of corporate relations of Hemco, the most important mine in the place. The high prices of gold at the international level have led to a resumption of the gold rush. Hundreds of young people from all over the country attracted by the hope of jobs and making money fast. To be rich immediately. In the bars of Bonanza stories and legends linked to gold circulate.

Gold.Export product

Gold is Nicaragua’s third export product, after beef and coffee. It corresponds to 18.4% of total exports. There are three main mining areas in the country: El Limόn, in the Department Leόn in the north; La Libertad and Santo Domingo in the region of Chontales in the center; and Bonanza, in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua.
According to the Central Bank of Nicaragua, in 2014, the export of gold generated more than $386 million. The artisanal production of gold accounts for 27% of the total production. There are two international companies that dominate the mining industry: the Colombian Hemco and Canadian B2Gold. The main export markets are Canada and the United States.
Sergio Rios, president of the Mining Chamber of Nicaragua (Caminic) confirmed the good period for gold mining in Nicaragua. Affirming that are are three other areas of the country currently under exploration, he pointed out that it is difficult to quantify how many people are involved in the work of gold mining, due to the constant movements of people. But we are talking about thousands of people involved directly or indirectly.

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In Bonanza, the municipal committee, recorded 1,500 artisanal miners collectively. Each collective in general is formed of five to seven people. But the town hall also points out the large number that has not been registered. With big economic interests behind it all.
It’s already evening, in Bonanza and Bar Ema is as always full of people. Marvin Urbina, one of the two survivors of El Comal, is drinking and talking to a friend. Tomorrow he will return to the tunnel. But not the same one. It is closed. The reason is simple: the ‘need’, he says, “is stronger than anything else”. It’s that simple. From above, this city is a portrait of reality: thousands of houses, clinging to the foot of the mountains, greenish ponds that do not harbor life and hundreds of shacks covered with black plastic, where the hope of a future is sought which for these people always has a golden color.

Patricia Mendieta

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