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 April 26, 2016
The Human Cost of Colombian Gold

 Gold. The word beckons with promises of beauty, elegance and wealth. Empires were built on its trade, reshaping regions where generations of people were displaced, uprooted or caught up in the fever.

"Mining is one of the main reasons why lots of parts of Latin America even exist," said Elizabeth Ferry, an anthropologist who has studied mining in Latin America. "One of the main forces of colonialism was the search for precious metals."

As she knows, the quest for gold and silver remains a powerful force, especially after the financial crisis sent gold prices to new highs because of nervous investors looking for stability. Yet their economic well-being has had some of the opposite effects in place like Colombia, where a new gold boom has attracted thousands of traditional artisanal miners as well as transnational behemoths, sometimes pitting the two groups against one another.

The struggles of these small miners is the subject of a book Dr. Ferry hopes to publish with her brother, Stephen, an American photographer who has lived in Colombia for the last 15 years. Called "La Batea" --- after the wooden mining pan used by traditional miners --- the book shows the backbreaking and sometimes harmful process these latter-day gleaners resort to in order to support their families. Both Mr. Ferry and his sister hope their book, which they plan to publish through Red Hook Editions after a Kickstarter campaign, shows this world in a more understanding manner.

"We're both respectful of the efforts of these small miners who do a job that the world wants," Mr. Ferry said. "Humanity wants gold. Gold is tied into the history of humanity. It is not going to go away. All over the world people use gold for wedding celebrations, for all sorts of purposes. You can't just say it's bad."

The Ferrys trace the current rush to the 2011 spike in gold prices north of $1900 an ounce, which proved to be an irresistible lure for campesinos and others who have often been left to fend for themselves in regions where the state --- ensnared in a long armed conflict with Marxist guerrillas --- has little presence. As people turned to mining, either in mountains or on riverbanks, they found themselves also having to pay a "tax" to the armed groups that controlled the area.

The scenes Mr. Ferry captured show the range of human activity, from the local miners who descend on a riverbank for their chance to sift through the muck for a few hours each day, to the processes used to separate gold from stone and mud using mercury. He also saw how in other parts of Colombia --- for example, on its Pacific Coast --- small miners were more sensitive to protecting the environment from damage caused by the mining and refinement process.

Of course, the new global demand has also attracted large corporations, especially from Canada, that employ large-scale methods that transform the landscape, as well as trigger conflict among local residents. In Marmato, Mr. Ferry said, a longtime community of miners has been trying to protect their town from being obliterated by an open-pit mine.

"It has been a pretty anarchic situation in Colombia because the state has leased out a lot of subsoil to multinational mining companies," Mr. Ferry said. "A lot of that process happens in a way that does not have any transparency and people don't know who owns the subsoil rights."

Dr. Ferry said her collaboration with her brother allowed her to try a different type of writing, as well as giving him a new way of looking at a story he has long followed as a photojournalist.

"We're both at a time in our careers that we are open to experimenting with thinking about how the way you look at something changes what you think," Dr. Ferry said. "I'm very much from an academic background where there is a particular procedure for how you gather information and what audience you are talking to. This gives us new audiences to reach and new ways to talk about things without having to cite a million other scholars for all my opinions and observations."