by June Carolyn Erlick
The vault-like room on the top floor of Bogotá’s Gold Museum was shrouded in darkness—an eerie penumbra. Gradually, while indigenous flute music played in the background, the light began to dawn, and I was surrounded by thousands of pre-Colombian gold objects: necklaces, breastplates, drinking vessels, masks, pendants, earrings. I felt alone with the power and the beauty and the mystery of gold.
Since that first visit to the museum in 1975, I’ve taken dozens of visitors there without telling them about the magic of the gold-filled room (readers, I apologize for the spoiler!) Yet, it is only now, as I write my letter to you, that I remember earlier—and more negative—reactions to the products of precious metals from Latin American mines.
I had visited dozens of colonial churches in Central America before arriving in Colombia. Handcrafted silver amulets in the shape of ears, legs, hearts and other body parts caught my attention, and I learned they were a way of giving thanks for healing. Already struck by Central American poverty—a child in Honduras had grabbed some half-eaten chicken bones off my plate—I was saddened and angered by these costly donations from long-ago folks who probably had little to eat.
Metals played an integral part in the history of Latin America. After visiting the Gold Museum, I could understand how colonial Europeans were so attracted by the myth of El Dorado. Wealth and mining went hand-in-hand; something very lucrative was said to be “worth a Potosí,” a reference to the vast Bolivian silver mine.
After my vastly different reactions to the Gold Museum and the churches, I more or less forgot about mining during the 17 years I covered Colombia and Central America as a foreign correspondent. My stories were about war and revolution and the church, about human rights abuses and social change.
I did once report a story on gold in Colombia, my first experience in finding that statistics from different government agencies sometimes lack the least bit of similarity. I went to the huge Cerrejón coal mine in northern Colombia in the early 1980s. I even wrote about mine nationalizations in Nicaragua.
But mostly mining was off my radar.
Fast forward to 2010, when the world watched as the Chilean government and international supporters attempted to rescue 33 trapped miners...and succeeded. I cried as the men emerged from the mine. The drama of the rescue was televised live internationally. That Halloween, trick-or-treaters in Cambridge were wearing Chilean miner costumes. All of a sudden, miners had a face.
I remembered that the last times I had felt emotions around mining were my experiences in the Gold Museum and in the Central American churches. These conflicting reactions reflect some of the tensions in mining even today. Mining is a source of wealth, development, beauty, modernization and employment. Mining is a resource curse, making countries dependent on one commodity; it exploits; it is environmentally damaging.
In this issue of ReVista, we’ve explored some of these issues, as well as community reactions. And as I write about my three emotional responses to mining, I might add, don’t forget the people. No matter what your response to mining, what matters in the end is how it affects people’s lives.