A crisply rendered account of “gold fever” in the southern Guyanese rainforest, attuned to the marginalized minor players on the ground.
In refreshingly straightforward prose, freelance journalist Herman explains why he was repeatedly drawn to the same hardscrabble South American region that once bewitched Spanish invaders: “El Dorado was surrounded by gold and diamonds [but] it was not a place easily associated with abundance or riches.” Herman effectively depicts two distinct, competing forms of gold mining. Determined and impoverished individual miners band together to work small, independent claims reminiscent of 19th-century prospecting; they excavate mud with crude pumps and hoses, then treat it with mercury, causing minute quantities of gold to solidify (and creating numerous patches of denuded rainforest and waste mud). These hazardous grassroots operations are overshadowed by internationally financed industrial mines, “enormous factories producing gold with advanced geology and chemistry and millions in heavy equipment.” Favored by the Guyanese government, such operations are bedeviled by the pitfalls of global trade. The Omai mine, for example, became notorious for a massive cyanide spill and despite its large production capacity is unlikely to become profitable due to fluctuations in the world gold market. Herman shrewdly addresses this paradoxical situation, noting that the gold industry’s 1990s campaign to make gold ornamentation ubiquitous actually devalued it as currency. Also, gold-mining stock shenanigans (particularly the huge Bre-X fraud) crippled the industry’s reputation among venture capitalists, which almost ensures that much of Guyana’s mineral wealth will remain buried. The author’s laid-back style and youthfully curious perspective help him capture minor moments of surprising gravity, as when he visits a backroom jewelry factory where local gold is diluted and made into rings that serve as the miners’ bank accounts. Elsewhere, his natural empathy results in solid and affecting portraiture of the Guyanese people; in a remote settlement, he observes that the wildcat miners’ meager profits are evidently invested in their well-clothed, healthy schoolchildren.
Sensitive, thought-provoking travel narrative.