Bolivians Converge on River in Search of Gold : Few Are Finding the Precious Yellow Metal but Many More Are Succumbing to Yellow Fever
A gold rush is under way in this poorest of South American countries and Bolivians from all walks of life are converging on the Mapiri River here in search of instant wealth. Few find it.
Some of them, drawn by the gold fever from urban poverty and drought-seared farms, succumb to the affliction of the jungle--yellow fever.
Neli Gonzalvez pans along the river but there are more mosquito bites on her infant daughter’s face than specks of gold in her pan.
At Least A Chance
“I’m fed up with mosquitoes, but there is no work in the capital,” said the 45-year-old mother of six, who left La Paz with her husband after he lost his construction job. “At least here we have a chance to earn some money.”
A few miles up the river, bulldozers owned by mining cooperatives plow up dried tributary beds and dump tons of dirt onto mechanized gold sifters, while Aymara Indian peasants stand by to rummage through the waste.
Last year, the Bolivian government exported five tons of gold to earn $40 million.
“In five to 10 years, gold could substitute tin as the country’s principal source of income,” Mining Minister Luis Pommier said in a recent interview.
Much of the gold fever centers on Guanay, 150 miles northeast of La Paz. Since 1980, when gold discoveries here coincided with the start of a long national recession, Guanay has become a bustling town where gold is the currency used to buy radios, appliances and motor vehicles.
Most of the immigrants are Indian peasants who abandoned their farmland after a severe 1983 drought. During the March-October dry season, when gold is easier to find in the river, as many as 400 newcomers sleep each night in the town square.
“Many come here because of the country’s economic situation,” said Luis Rodriguez, a navy officer stationed in Guanay. “They think it’s just a question of dipping a finger into the river and coming out with a gold ring.”
Indeed, a few have become wealthy. Most prospectors, though, barely survive in a region rife with yellow fever and tuberculosis. Upriver in Mapiri, a mining center of 2,000 people, 25 have died this year from yellow fever, according to Gonzalo Guzman, a police colonel.
“People in La Paz hear there is gold, sell their belongings and arrive here full of hope,” said Ignacia Capella, a Roman Catholic missionary in Guanay. “Most of them return empty-handed, often sick and poorer than when they arrived.”
Not Much Luck
Fernando Quispe, a weaver in the capital, drove a truck 16 hours across the mountains with his wife, leaving their two children with her mother. It was the couple’s third prospecting trip to Guanay.
“Everything is expensive in La Paz, and I have trouble selling my work,” Quispe said. “I haven’t had much luck here either.”
Guanay’s mud streets, lined with open sewers, join one-lane roads to Tipuani, Unutuluni and other mining centers. To reach the town of Mapiri, miners in Guanay board motor-powered dugout canoes for a six-hour trip through rapids and treacherous whirlpools.
Along the shore, families and cooperatives have staked out pieces of land and begun panning the river. Recent arrivals have set up shelters of plastic sheets or banana leaves.
Government-licensed cooperatives do most of Bolivia’s gold mining. About 300 cooperatives with a total of around 10,000 members operate in the Guanay area. Some cooperatives have discovered rich gold veins, invested millions of dollars in equipment and produced as much as 220 pounds of gold per month.
While the gold rush is transforming Bolivia’s frontier, opening roads and encouraging migration from the highlands, the government is getting few benefits.
By law, all gold must be sold to the state-owned Mineral Bank in La Paz. Smugglers, however, pay at least 5% more than the bank’s price for gold, and the bank is often short of hard currency or closed because of strikes.
The bank estimates that 80% of Bolivia’s gold is smuggled out of the country. Members of big cooperatives, who benefit directly from such trading, refused to discuss their incomes. There is little display of personal wealth along the river; it is invested elsewhere.