An artisanal miner pans ore, concentrating it by removing dirt, sand and other materials, while retaining the gold. A skilled panner can recover nearly 95% of the gold in their ore, albeit it takes a long time and a team of them to process large batches. 

A group of miners rest for lunch joined by one man’s son. The chances of him becoming a miner are high, as are the chances of him, his father and the rest of those men dying in that mine. One month prior to this photo, the adjacent mine collapsed killing fifteen men. As more mines are created up the hill, the hills are stripped of their vegetation resulting in erosion, mudslides and an increase in mine collapses.

To make an amalgamation (a ball of mercury and gold) ore is mixed with mercury in a balleta, a large steel pan. A rock is used to crush and mix the two together before it’s filtered through cheesecloth leaving a highly malleable mercury and gold mixture. To recover the Hg, miners squeeze the mixture in a cloth, wringing out the mercury, which is flowing on the sides of the yellow cloth and dripping down his hands into the bowl below. Everything is covered in mercury here, including the miners.

A fully functional fume hood, gas masks, tools and a clean work space was an odd sight. Following a ground of processors for the day, I traveled 45 minutes into the countryside to a friends private factory. A professional gold processor met us there to transform the large bar of gold and silver into pristine clean pure bars.

The gold is melted and poured into a vat of water, which transforms the molten droplets into thin gold ribbons to maximize their surface area. For 5 hours the ribbons are boiled in nitric acid, where plumbs of thick brown smoke billow upwards, thankfully carried away by the fumehood.

Many people know of this process and nitric acid was a common sighting. Safety equipment and functional fume hoods were not as common and on several occasions I watched men stand in front of the bubbling pot with nothing but their shirt to prevent the vapors from dissolving their lungs.

A dore the size of a dime rests on a rusted pan, still hot from the torch. At only eight grams, the two men responsible for mining the earth, processing the ore and refining their spoils are quietly counting their costs.

Two artisanal miners worked for 50 hours to process 40 tonnes of ore into a ball of mercury and gold, called an amalgamation, weighing nearly 400 grams. Like metallic playdough, the amalgamation is easy to shape. Unfortunately, the only method miners have to extract their hard earned gold from an amalgamation is to burn it, releasing the mercury into the air for them and their community to breath in. This ball is quite large, and it’s unlikely that it will be heated hot and long enough to remove all the mercury.

A panoramic view over the town of Zaruma, a town high in the hills away from the dust, noise and immediate plumbs of mercury vapor emitted from the factory. Tiny artisanal mine shafts litter the in the hills above Zaruma. These mines are small holes in the ground, most only three feet tall and accessible by horse or on foot.

Following the rails with nothing more then your headlamp, pushing an empty card to be refilled is a daily operation. Winches, pneumatic hammers and flashlights are the only pieces of modern equipment in this mine. Carts are pushed by hand and the mine has only a few lights. Thankfully this mine has several natural caves and shafts that all fresh air to more freely throughout the mine.

Mercury (Hg) has made artisanal miners famous; it’s incredibly easy to use for extracting gold from ore and a long-lived toxic element that’s difficult to remove from the environment. Miners who use mercury everyday do not see it as toxic, but as magical. They often play with it in their hands, rolling the metallic beads back and forth. For them, mercury is a life giving force, like water. Mercury flows into the dirt and rocks, searching for any hidden gold.

Unfortunately they do not see the long-term consequences of using mercury. They do not see the slow, permanent brain damage that results from inhaling it or eating the food it has contaminated. Many, even when told of the damage to themselves and their community, continue to use it because they believe they have no other choice.

A dore – a honey comb/Swiss cheese structure is left over from burning the amalgamation. The miners who burned this amalgamation did not trust the retort and left it open. The retort would have captured the vaporous mercury, and condensed it in the water below. But, because they believe the retort steals gold, they don’t use it. Instead they breath through their shirts, hoping the cotton fibers will stop of the mercury from entering their lungs, blood and brain.

A months labor in the miners and 48 hours of non-stop processing has three exhausted men staring over the shoulder of a professional gold refiner. Over seven hours he’s separate the silver, removed any impurities from the gold and is now in the final stages of making a gold bar.

The clay urn is heated to over one thousand degrees. Like a chef, the refiner tosses on a hand full of borax, which binds to impurities in the molten mixture and makes them easy to remove. Tipping the clay urn, he uses the force of the torch to push the impurities (the slag) floating on the into another container. He repeats this technique nearly 30 times, each time careful not to spill a drop of the molten gold inside. Especially not with 3 eager, tired men behind him.

A amalgamation rests after it’s been squeezed of it’s access mercury. The entire area is rusted, contaminated and dark. As I get closer to the amalgam to get a better shot, the miner beside me edges forward, waiting for me to reach out and take his hard earned work. The amalgam weighs in at only 27 grams, leaving him and his boss roughly 13 grams to cover costs, play miners salaries and themselves.