The Dragon's Poison
Disease, government neglect and ambition: gold fever got the better of a village in Chocó and is spreading through the rivers just like mercury through its inhabitants' blood. A journalist and a photojournalist provide a map of the epidemic.
She says, “The rash. Look at the rash.”
Yulitza uncovers her calves. Her dark brown skin looks besieged by round white spots, long and oval, no larger than a coin. At first they were blisters. Pockets of water wrapped in a fine layer of skin. The doctor said it was contamination due to contact with metals. Yulitza began to take antibiotics and, in a few days, the pouches of water turned into festering sores. She continued with the penicillin. Days later, the sores dried up and stayed just as I'm seeing them now: round white spots, long and oval, no larger than a coin.
“The river. That was the river.”
Yulitza is 39 years old and her last names are Mosquera Palacios. She’s black—with a wide nose, full lips, and puffy hair—although her skin isn’t ebony blue; chocolate, perhaps. A year earlier she was living in Bogotá and eking out a living in the bleakest ways: as a street vendor, cleaning in restaurants, running errands. Worn out by the harshness of the city, she looked up one of her brothers here in Río Quito. Her brother gave her food and shelter. She asked him where she could find a job. In mining; everyone here works in mining. Yulitza had never done it before, but they looked her over and gave her two options. One, she could go to the riverbanks with a pan and a weeding hoe, and rummage through the sand and the sediment. The other, she could knock on the dredgers' doors so she could shake the meshes that filter the gold from the soil that’s been drilled. For the first, Yulitza needed knowledge and practice. For the second, only the will. She chose the second. And after a month of being exposed to contact with water from the river and meshes and drilled earth, the blisters appeared.
She says, “They hurt something horrible. The infection hurt. I bled. I don't even want to look at that river anymore.”
Night falls with an indigo-blue sky. Inside, a reddish curtain filters the street light, and the living-room where we're sitting takes on a Martian-red tone.
Río Quito is located nearly 600 kilometres west of Bogotá, in the rainforest region of the Colombian Pacific Ocean, in the middle of Chocó Department. It has 9000 residents. Black people, inhabitants of this land since colonial times. There is also a handful of indigenous families. But no mestizos. The little bit of white skin one can see here and there are occasional apparitions, gleaners of the jungle's wealth that leave once their pockets are full.
Río Quito's origin is recent. It takes its name from the tributary that crosses its boundaries: a vast water flow that runs parallel to the Atrato River, with rhythmic bends and curves that from above look like an infinite ochre serpent. Until April 1999, its territory and inhabitants had been included in the census of Quibdó, the department's capital. From that year on, the government gave it life as a municipality, integrating around ten small villages erected along the banks of the river over two centuries ago. The largest and most populated, Paimadó, serves as the county seat, where the town hall and the police headquarters are located. It has around 3000 inhabitants. It's followed in area by Villa Conto, with 2000 inhabitants, and San Isidro, with under 1000. From there on down, the villages have around 200 inhabitants. The rest of the 9000 are made up of minute communities hidden in the tropical forest.
As in any village in the Colombian jungle, people obtain their living by hunting and fishing, subsistence agriculture, logging, and gold mining—activities carried out with tools made by their own hands throughout the years. But at some moment, which the people of Río Quito can't quite pinpoint, they lost control of the gold mining. Enormous machinery came in, dredges and backhoes, people with money to spare, who brought unchecked exploitation without environmental controls or limits of any kind, without securing licenses, without fiscal regulation, with no compassion for ecosystems, without substantial economic rewards for the municipality, without real benefits for the community.
Francisca Palacios Murillo, 34, says: “We didn't know that the water was so contaminated. We'd bathe in the river, wash cloths, everything.”
Since she was a girl, Francisca learned how to mine—minear—using the same method as her ancestors: barequeo, or panning, which consists of placing the sediment in a curved wooden pan and moving it in concentric circles to start the filtering process. The centrifugal force, quickened by the water, expels the lighter particles towards the edge of the pan and leaves the denser ones—such as gold—in the middle. But she gave up mining when the dredges ate up all the metal on the shores. After giving birth to her daughter, Francisca knocked on the door of a mining exploitation site—a dredge captained by a Brazilian citizen. There was no room for her on the payroll, but they let her dig around the mud that had already been processed by their machines. In other words: they gave her a chance to stick her hands in the residues. With luck, she'd find a tiny spark of gold that had escaped the modernized extraction mechanism. She began. She'd take the leftover mud, she'd sit on the riverbank and begin swirling her pan. One week. Two weeks. On the third, Francisca began to feel an unbearable itching in her vagina, accompanied by a dark secretion. She went to the doctor. She was diagnosed with a severe infection caused by a fungus in her uterus, after prolonged contact with the water from the river. Her treatment involved painful surgery in order to clean the endometrium. She was left with dizzy spells, headaches and a tremor in her hands. She says:
“It's an intense headache, like being stung. And my hands shake all the time. If I open the fridge and feel cold, they shake. If I carry something heavy, they shake. If I stay still and make an effort, they shake.”
After recovering from surgery and fully avoiding immersing herself in the river above her waist, Francisca went back to panning. A few days in, she cut her finger with a knife, but she didn't pay much attention to it. It wasn't pain for a Chocoana from the jungle. That is until she began to notice that, instead of healing, the wound had begun to eat the flesh inside, leaving her bone exposed. She went to the doctor. They operated on her, healing and reconstructing her finger.
Sutured and bandaged, she went back to her house in Paimadó. Desperate for money to cover her daughter's needs, she began to pan again. In a few days, she messed up another finger on her hand. It got infected. And when she arrived to the doctor, they hospitalized her. They told her that if each cut—no matter how small—was getting infected, it was because her blood was poisoned with mercury. They did tests. She says they never gave her the results. But they recommended that from then on she have no more contact with the river water. She told them yes, but no to herself. How else could she earn a daily wage?
Not long ago, during a routine checkup with the gynecologist, they detected a new infection. This time, in her ovaries. The same medicines, the same explanations.
Her daughter is already six. She also had tests to discover the levels of mercury in her body. According to Francisca, they didn't give her the results either. For some time now, every time the little girl goes into the river to swim, she gets fungus on her scalp. Francisca brushes her and, once her hair dries, the sores appear.
“Her skin got really ugly, all spotted,” says Francisca while she opens her hands in a sign of helplessness. “She has urinary infections. The mercury hit my daughter really hard, really hard.”
In order to reach Paimadó you have to take a speedboat from the dock on Atrato River in Quibdó—thirty-five passengers on a fibreglass hull with a canopy, which they call a panga. The route goes along the current's left edge and before long enters the flow of the Quito River. The first kilometres have serene waters filled with thick vegetation. Every now and then, a hut built from boards and hay.
Just before passing through Villa Oconto, about twenty-five minutes into the journey, the landscape changes. It twists. Strangles. The colossal trees, the foliage and the knots of leaves disappear from the edges. In their place there’s a kind of ground-up earth, of the dullest grey, with crumbled stone. Sometimes placed in a particular geometrical order, as if it had been positioned like a dyke. Sometimes flung without aim or purpose, formed by mounds of construction waste. And over and over, an indifferent dredge left on a bank, or its rusty skeleton after having been destroyed by the police.
In Paimadó, the motorboat docks at a natural wharf: a stiff mud terrace that serves as the main entryway to the village and opens onto the first streets. People move with magnificent agility on unpaved ground. Children run and play barefoot. There are women sitting on the stoops of their houses. There are men playing cards in a kiosk built on a slope from which you can see the Quito River, wide and placid. In front, as if greeting those that show their face here, the parish church and a small plaza that offers benches and children's games.
There are hotels. Besides the one that welcomes Víctor Galeano—the photojournalist—and me, I counted two more. Hotels in a manner of speaking. There are second floors in family homes divided into cubicles with closed doors, with a bed and a TV. The bathroom is shared and there's a shower. This isn't a minor point, because the families are used to taking bucket baths in the patio next to the laundry sink. Since there isn't an aqueduct in any of the villages in Río Quito, people collect rainwater to clean themselves and their homes. To prepare food, they have to fetch water from streams and springs still untouched by mining chemicals. It can take an average family—father, mother, five children—a whole morning to get this water: an hour there and back, two hours queuing—there are neighbours that get there first—and an hour to fill the containers.
Besides having no aqueduct, they have other day-to-day woes: there is no sewage system or garbage collection, no telecommunication networks, there are no parks or sidewalks; many families live crowded together in wooden shacks, not all children go to school, and you can count those who have gone into higher education on the fingers of one hand. According to government statistics for the last ten years, Río Quito has consistently been named the municipality with the highest index of unmet basic needs—in other words, the poorest in Colombia. A point of comparison: whereas in Río Quito 98% of inhabitants suffer from all of the above conditions, in the municipality of Evingado, the least poor in the country, only 6% do.
Coming all the way here and enquiring about mercury and mechanized mining is getting old. Community leaders and the population in general are used to all kinds of researchers and curiosity-seekers showing up, as we do, our eyes filled with interest. The first conversation I had on the subject was with Bernardino Mosquera, president of the Community Council of Paimandó, a body that debates and makes decisions regarding the community's well-being, especially those having to do with protecting the ancestral territory. Surrounded by several of his fellow Councilmembers, Bernardino met with me at a café in Quibdó.
It was a meeting of minimal politeness in which Bernardino warned me from the outset that in Río Quito they were tired of researchers visiting the area, gathering information, data, testimonies, and not sharing conclusions with the community.
“What will be the use of what you’re going to do?” he asked me, without the slightest hint of rhetoric.
He then went on to explain the basic issues of the situation, some with a complaining look. He told me the dredges had come in 1997, more or less, always operated by people from Brazil. And that between the years 2000 and 2005 this form of extraction had had its “boom,” because miners had also arrived from other regions in the country with cash and machinery. Over the following years, the community reacted, leaders denounced what was going on in the media and demanded that the offices in charge put a stop to the machinery. There was no immediate answer from the government, but there was one from paramilitary gangs that appeared suddenly, declaring themselves guardians of the gold entrepreneurs. There were threats and murders. Then law enforcement showed up, and in 2008, sporadic operations to seize and neutralize machinery and arrest people began. In 2011, the Community Council of Paimadó, with the support of non-government organizations, filed a public interest claim against mechanized mining for violation of fundamental rights. In 2015, a judge ruled in their favour. He ordered several offices—the mayor, environmental authorities, ministries—to draw up a plan to put a stop to the devastating exploitation of Rio Quito, recover agricultural production, ensure sustenance for its inhabitants and revitalize social dynamics in the municipality. Also, that those responsible for illegal mining appear before court. And in 2016, the Constitutional Court visited the municipality. It observed, listened, took notes. At that moment, the community recovered its faith in the government.
It was a fleeting moment, however, because nothing happened over the following months. The dredges continued swallowing up the jungle's entrails and hurling toxic waste into the Quito River. At most, it was what it always is: helicopters and light aircraft flying over the area; they identify the places where dredges and backhoes are operating. A few days go by. Suddenly, a beefed-up security force appears: police reinforced by the army. They storm a dredge—or two or three—, cover it with dynamite, blow it up. They capture an operator—or two or three. A few days go by. A month, perhaps. And another dredge—or the same rebuilt one—starts extracting again.
Río Quito's City Hall is a single-storey building, narrow and badly lit. A police guard, rifle on shoulder, guards the entrance. In the office, Mayor Heraclio Mena is answering official letters from the Inspector General that are being sent to him daily with citizen complaints.
“There are people in the community who blame the mayor for everything,” he says, “but they won't accept that the dredges arrived and stayed because the community itself allowed it.”
Mena is 76 years old, bald, and sports a milky-white moustache. Born and bred in this land, he recalls that his parents were traditional miners. When he was a child, there were no machines or motor pumps. There were plenty of fish. People would bathe in the river without fear or risk. His parents switched between mining and agriculture, and nobody thought they could get rich with gold.
“It barely helped buy the necessities.”
When he took office as the local government's highest authority in early 2016, Mena counted 75 dredges in the scrublands around the Quito River. In his ruling, the judge had ordered the mayor’s office to order the illegality of this kind of mining and request the intervention of law enforcement. Mena signed the order, but he says the police didn't help him.
“And an order without law enforcement to impose it isn't worth the paper it's written on. Police come, and then they go. They are here one or two days and hold symbolic burnings. I say symbolic, because miners always know beforehand that these operations will take place. They take the motor off the dredge, they hide it, they bury it, and the police come and burn the motorless dredge, which is just a structure of floating wood. But once the authorities leave, the miners mount the motor again. As if nothing had happened. I've been a mayor for two years, and I've never known when there’ll be an operation. But the miners do. How do they? Who tells them? How much money is that information worth?
In his opinion, there are many ways in which mechanized mining has transformed the community's culture.
It changed the agricultural and fishing trade. Heart of palm, maize, cocoa, rice crops, all kinds of sustenance farming, have disappeared. And those who used to be farmers who owned a plot of land or a farm of several hectares now lease their land: they sit in their rocking chairs and care about nothing other than getting 10% of the weekly dredge production.
Everyday dealings changed, and relationships between relatives suddenly became violent. For example, several siblings would inherit a plot of land. As they argued about what to do with it, one of the siblings would convince the rest to turn it over to the dredges and collect the weekly fee. But when he got the money, he wouldn't distribute it among the other heirs and fights would break out.
“In this very poor village, so much money drove a lot of people crazy with greed.”
With wads of bills in hand, came waste—liquor, drugs, and sex with prostitutes that became frequent visitors to the village. Liquor and drugs awakened rivalries, stoked egos and triggered machete fights at bar entrances. Prostitutes brought with them venereal diseases that were unheard of here before and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Mena has been one of the few to publicly state that the blame for this disaster falls—at least in part—on the community itself. He explained that the Community Council didn't merely allow the first dredges; it also negotiated their presence. According to Mena, several councilmembers during those years received money in exchange for granting permits for the machinery to begin mining.
“They motivated the community with money,” he says in a neutral tone, with no desire for revenge. “If someone has never had two million pesos, again and again, when they're given ten million they change their mind. They don't care how this change in attitude will affect the community. Now, a decade later, there's no going back; the consequences of having received that money are evident. And now I hear that more people feel affected and don't want the dredges to be here.”
A retaining wall armoured with iron rises next to the mud pier, about half a block long. On top there’s a pathway with a railing, leafy trees, and a small shack. A long park of sorts overlooking the Quito River. Inside the shack, a few women play cards. Leaning against the railing, Benedesmo Palacios, 53, says:
“Mechanized mining has brought a few benefits. Some have made a living. They fixed their houses, they bought clothing, they improved their diet. Those people are thankful for mining. Those of us who haven't received those benefits are fighting against it.”
A grey-haired woman sitting under the shade of a tree speaks up. She doesn't tell me her name, nor does she stand next to us, but she speaks loudly so we can hear her. She says:
“It's the only source of employment here. The government has completely neglected Río Quito. If there are houses around here that aren't made of boards, it's because of dredge mining. If people have eaten chicken and meat and salad, it's because of the dredges.”
Paimadó wakes up early. A crowd of schoolchildren surround a man selling buñuelos. Farther ahead, some women cook arepas on a grill as a handful of friends build a second floor onto a house. The traces of mercury in these people aren't evident at first sight. Many don't even know what’s flowing through them. On at least two occasions, a few locals have had tests done to detect how much mercury is in their bodies. The most recent was in 2016. The National Health Institute took samples by choice and at random of 100 people. Eighty percent of participants turned out to be poisoned. What my interviewees have said—without irony or sarcasm—is that if all 9000 inhabitants of Río Quito went to the lab, the results would show that 90% of the people are poisoned. It doesn't matter whether they work in mining or not.
Mercury is used during the extraction process to recover gold particles, no matter their size or how intermingled they are with other elements. First, the backhoe sweeps the green layer that covers the riverbank—it scratches the earth's surface, knocks down trees and tears away vegetation. Animals flee. Once the terrain is cleared, the dredge begins to operate: the floating wooden structure approaches the edge and, under the water, a spoon-shaped pulley with metal teeth begins to bore through the earth and deposit the soil into a tank. This soil is filtered with water, and the heavier materials settle on mats. Drops of liquid mercury are then released onto this material. And what happens next is beautiful and surprising: as if moved by an intelligent force, the liquid mercury runs to adhere selectively to familiar metals, in this case gold and platinum. Each drop gobbles up the particles around it and grows larger and larger. Finally, all drops end up joining together and forming a large drop of mercury with the gold and the platinum inside. This step is known as azogamiento (quicksilvering) or amalgamation. Cold is then used to solidify this drop into an opaque silver mass. In order to decant the coveted metal, the mass is subjected to intense fire. The mercury evaporates and what remains in the container is the gold and platinum, pure, brilliant, clean. Needless to say, the tailings fall into the river: the liquid material mixes with the water and changes its colour—giving it an earthy, yellowish tone—, the crushed gravel accumulates in conelike shapes, and what used to be virgin forest is now greyish devastation. So mercury penetrates people's bodies in various ways. What falls into the river settles at the bottom and is ingested by small fish that feed from little animals and tiny sticks. These fish are eaten by larger species, which are then the ones preferred by man. When a family takes a bite of the catch of the day, they inevitably ingest imperceptible quantities of mercury metabolized in the fish's flesh. And when people come into contact with the river, whether when bathing or touching it, particles of mercury and other toxic substances cling to their skin and hair.
The mercury that evaporates when the amalgam is burned is also damaging. The people who are next to the burning breathe in these vapours and the metal settles in their lungs, their blood, and ultimately their brain. Those who aren't in the immediate proximity of the burning, but live in the area, receive this vapour after it rises into the clouds and falls as rain; it waters fields and people and settles into collection tanks. When a floor is mopped at home or clothes and kitchen dishes are washed, mercury is inevitably spread.
Fifteen minutes upriver from Paimandó, in a sector called El Tigre, lies an active mining front. Along one kilometre of riverbank, three dredges eat away at the jungle 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The area makes the contrast visible. The river’s original course is maintained from the edge of the village up to a few metres before the dredges. It then becomes confusing, labyrinthine, because of openings in elliptical paths made by the dredges. This is one of the community's complaints: if the water level is low, boatmen can see the riverbank and are able to move without fear of drifting; but if the water level goes up, it swallows up the riverbanks and the edges of the debris; the course becomes blurred, and the boatmen risk running their vessel aground. The first dredge is enormous; the other two less so. It looks like a floating, stationary house, about 25 or 30 metres long and two floors high. From the forward frame, two pillars emerge from a sunken pulley, forming a triangle of tubes and tensors in the air. The residue extraction mouth rises in the back. From a distance, this dredge looks like a terrifying animal of Jurassic proportions—a colossal mouth, sharp tusks, and a tail. Locals call them “dragons.”
On the first level is the pulley's motor and a command post controlled by an operator in eight-hour shifts. From there, the speed and depth of dredging are chosen and the structure's stability is controlled. Before arriving, the noise from the motor sounds thunderous and eternal, like a never-ending industrial buzz pierced by the natural voices of the living river. But once inside, the noise becomes a din that drowns out every other sound. A short staircase leads to the second level. Separated by a central corridor, there are two boxed cubicles where the workers' bunkbeds are located. There's a kitchenette where a woman, around 40, prepares lunch. She doesn't tell me her name. But she smiles cordially. Four hardy-looking guys—tall and burly, sharp faces and distrustful gestures—play cards. On the table: wrinkled bills and Coca-Cola. No liquor. The players neither chat nor gesture. They avoid straining their voices. They speak with hand movements, looks, and lip gestures. A Brazilian citizen named Bidú is the boss in this dredge. He has curly hair, sun-darkened skin, and is short of stature. He's wearing flip-flops and boardshorts. He tells me he's originally from an Amazonian village on the other side of Manaos, a place invaded by the same lust for money around thirty or forty years ago. Bidú is around 50, maybe younger, and he learned gold extraction as a trade when he was a boy. His work team has 12 people, including a few Brazilians. Among the Colombians, most are from the country’s interior: urban-looking mestizos. There's only one Chocoano, a young, 25-year-old Afro-Colombian named Johnny, from Istmina, a village two hours away. I can talk about other things with Johnny. Although Bidú is happy to clear up my doubts, I stop asking; his Spanish is limited. Johnny is aware that this work is harmful to him because it exposes him to mercury and other dangerous substances, aside from the fact that it destroys wildlife.
“But nobody here has any schooling, barely high school,” he says, as I bring my ear closer to his mouth to counter the motor's racket. “No one can leave the village and say they'll find a job in an office. And you're not going to let yourself starve to death.”
“But you're exposed to diseases and armed groups…”
Johnny lowers his eyes; he appears to think about it. After a second he says:
“I agree that the authorities should stop the mining, get rid of the dredges. But they should give us an option.”
I understand this sincerity as that of a Raizal who was raised in that very region, accustomed to hunting and fishing, to traditional mountain food, pushed into this work by circumstance. But it's hard to believe that Bidú and his other companions may think the same. There's a lot of money at stake.
A dredge can cost around one billion pesos. In other words, around three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The backhoe, another two hundred thousand. The dredge boss can get a monthly salary of four million pesos, around thirteen hundred dollars. His workers less, around five hundred dollars. The woman in the kitchen, seven hundred. Gold production varies depending on the quality of the terrain. A land rich in gold can leave the dredge between five hundred and six hundred highly pure—between 18 and 22 carats—grams a day. Each gram is sold at eighty thousand pesos on average, the equivalent of 27 dollars. So a very productive day for a dredge can mean fifteen thousand dollars, which in a month adds up to a fortune of four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Who does this pile of cash come from and who does it go to?
As I leave Paimadó for Villa Conto, I run into a 79-year-old man. Gloomy gaze, quiet voice, cap, and barefoot. His name is Victorio. He speaks without looking at me. He prepares the canoe, puts the tools in, picks up the rope. He sleeps here in Paimadó and owns a few hectares downriver that can be reached through a branch of the Quito River. A lifelong farmer, he grew pineapples, rice and bananas, which disappeared one day. A dredge had gone into his lot without his authorization and transformed food into a wasteland.
In a frightened, almost inaudible voice, he says:
“They left me with nothing. I couldn't stop it. To be as old as I am and not be able to live from what I picked my whole life. It’s very hard.”
Villa Conto is a village of adobe and vara en tierra, houses made with an arbor of branches sloping to the ground. A dredge is anchored at its dock, but around twenty more swallow up the surrounding areas. To say that all of the water surrounding this place is contaminated is no exaggeration. Besides the Quito River, the banks of the Pató stream have also become earth ground by the machines. The only remaining source of pure water is an underground spring that runs into the Bagaradó stream and that people protect fiercely.
Adriano receives us. A young husband, and father of five young children. A social leader who isn't a member of the Community Council of Villa Conto for now. He is short; a round, bald head; honest eyes with elongated corners, and a kind smile like few others. His house is a grey adobe frame covered with sheets of metal and a cement floor. His wife smiles and says hello and smiles again. Their children play barefoot inside the house and watch television. One of the younger daughters infects her siblings and the rest of the family with her laughter. Adriano and two other Raizales guide Víctor Galeano and me to a mining area distant from the Quito River, where there are no dredges, only backhoes.
When flying over Chocó Department, what surprises you first is the size of the jungle, surrounded every now and then by wide rivers. You can see the vegetation and the virgin forest as far as the airplane window allows. But there is a moment in which the landscape is cut or interrupted by brown patches that seem to have been torn out of the jungle. There are no rivers close by or roads or anything that appears to allow you to reach this wilderness. And yet, those patches are hectares and hectares ravaged by mining. How do they get all the way in there? In Quibdó, Bernardino Mosquera told me that the machines could push their way beneath the trees without being seen from the air. He explained that a backhoe would be carried down the river on a barge until coming upon a clearing on the shore, where it was set ashore. From there, it would penetrate the territory, being careful not to dismantle the plant canopy. But once it found the mining perimeter, it would grind down trees without the slightest compassion.
The fact is that here, in Villa Conto, a twenty-five-minute or so canoe ride down a branch of the Quito River, we reach the beginning of a bridle path that is the entrance to one of these ochre patches. At the dock, two canoes dance to the mood of the current. And on the sand, a mule driver loads a pack of four mules with gasoline containers. Without roads or navigable rivers, the mule driver is the only one capable of providing fuel for the machinery inside the jungle, because his job is, precisely, to transport goods where there are no routes—a nineteenth-century trade that can be seen today in the country's most remote regions. From this point onward, the mule driver and his four packed mules must walk for a day and half until they reach tip of the pike—that is, the head of the backhoe that rips the forest.
Adriano, Víctor and I, plus our two companions—the boatman who brought us down the river and a young man armed with an improvised rifle just in case a guagua or paca crosses our path, for lunch—start off by foot following the tracks of the mule driver and his mules. The first ten minutes are a forced march over mudflats between trees, which occasionally suck in a leg up to the calf. Víctor and I make use of walking sticks. The guides walk loose and nimble, dodging mudholes. After thirty minutes, we enter woods that have already been cleared by the hand of man. There's a stream that doesn’t have even a spoonful of water. Adriano tells us that, at one time, the banks of this riverbed were swarming with women from Villa Conto panning for gold. Mechanized mining ran them off because there wasn’t “any gold on the bank,” and the water was poisoned.
After fifty minutes of continuous walking, we reach another wood crossed by a stream; this one does have pure water. Adriano has a good command of the terrain and tells us that the machines haven't touched this tributary, nor the lower banks. We make a rest stop and drink water from the riverbed, gathered into a cup made by the boatman with the skill of an origamist using a thick leaf similar to the lotus. We proceed, and twenty minutes further, after passing over a low hill already wounded by machines, we reach the entrance of what from the sky looks like a patch. A large, circular depression opens at our feet, on a plain that must have been all shades of green but is now coloured in various tones of red and grey, with a crater-like shape carved out by the backhoe’s teeth. Down at the very bottom, perhaps five hundred metres down, the virgin forest canopy rises vertically in green and black. A few metres closer to us, we spy a stack of board with a roof, without a soul nearby, where a few motors and other small excavation equipment seem to lie in wait. The picture is completed with a few pools of fetid water peeking out like small, silver circles where you can look at yourself in the mirror. If I had to calculate the size of this area, I'd say it is close to five professional soccer fields. The guides explain that a devastation this big must have taken five years. And that if the backhoes aren't here, it's because they've already eaten up all the gold.
We continue down one side looking for a small exit river. Fifteen minutes on, with the sun beating down our foreheads, we jump down a steep trail of red soil where, hidden among sheets of plastic, we see a few motorized pumps for drawing out water. Adriano stops and turns to warn me that we've been away from the dock where the canoe is waiting for us for two hours already, and that means that we’ll have to walk another two hours back.
“Do you want to keep going?”
The evening greets us in Villa Concho with an abated sun. There's music in the streets. People are getting ready to begin the Saturday night fiesta. Reguetón, salsa choque, a bit of vallenato music. Some have already been drinking beer sitting on the doorsteps of their homes.
Agio Palacios, 49, is a construction worker. He works building walls. He suffers from something on the skin. He says:
“It's an itch, an itch that bleeds.”
Before he allowed us to interview him he was mixing cement. I ask him to wash his arms so we can see his wounds better. He goes to the sink. He pours some water on himself. He comes back. He shows me. It's like an outbreak that makes his hands and forearms scaly. Although “scaly” is imprecise. Rather, his skin looks like an alligator's: swollen, cracked, and with an oily shade. He's not bleeding now and it isn’t itching. But Agio says that when it begins to fester, the stinging drives him crazy.
“Only on your arms?” I ask.
“My entire body,” he answers, and the people around us, three or four of his neighbours, all say in chorus: “His entire body.” Agio unbuttons his shirt and shows us his torso. He rolls up a pant leg. It’s covered. People look at him between compassion and fear. Agio is willowy and strong. His face is square, with hard angles. His forehead is wide and clear, with an iron chin, as if on his days off he were a boxer. He’s in a common-law relationship and is a family man. He says:
“I got this from bathing in the river. I haven't been in it for a year. Before I used to go every day.”
Besides the obvious damage to the skin, Agio suffers from other symptoms common to mercury vapour poisoning: lethargy, muscle weakness, tremors. Up to a week ago he had been in bed because his body just couldn't take it. Last Monday he forced himself to get up to go work.
“If you just lie in bed, you die there.”
Night has fallen. The clock strikes nine. We're sitting outside Adriano's house. On our plates: fried plantain and melted cheese. There's a soft moon in the middle of a clear, starry sky. It is hot and the air hangs humid on the back of my neck. His neighbours pass by and wave. Our chat is interrupted by a powerful, faraway noise that floods the entire village. The soul of a colossal motor. A dragon that for months has been devouring the edge of the river, just across Villa Conto.
“And it's like that every night,” says Adriano, with a shrug of resignation.
My notebook still has notes from spontaneous conversations that I didn't record on audio. Forty- and fifty-year-old women expressing common ailments. One of them: “I'll be walking and suddenly I really feel like sitting down, because I'm breathless all of a sudden.” Another one: “I say that mercury is a matalento, a slow-killer. You don't feel anything, but there's something that starts killing you from the inside.” One more: “Sometimes you start thinking, what are you going to do if it's your fate to die from that?” A very young one, poisoned, who has miscarried twice: “I don't want to die. The government should help us; they shouldn't let us die from this.”
Men in the same age range wanted to put their hopelessness into words. ” We all think we're contaminated here.” “Anyone who gets the test has that. A little, a lot, but it's there.” “Children used to learn to swim when they were two or three, because they'd already be going into the river. Now there are ten-year-old children who don't how to swim because their parents have forbidden them to go into the river. Do you realize what I'm saying? A child from a water village that didn't learn how to swim.”
January 2018. It's been two months since we left Río Quito. My mobile rings. It's Adriano. He tells me that a week after Víctor and I were there, there was an operation. They captured people, they blew up dredges. Three days later, the miners turned the machines back on again. And now Adriano asks me: “Will no one ever be able to stop this?”
April 2018. It's been six months since we left Río Quito. My mobile rings. It's Adriano. He asks if we can return soon. He sounds worried. “A lot more people have been contaminated. This is very serious. It would be good for you to see it with your own eyes.”
May 2018. In this country it takes three-and-a-half lifetimes for urgent measures to take effect. Over two years had to pass after the judge ruled in favour of the community for the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development to order the “complete suspension of mineral extraction activities in the Quito River,” legal or illegal, until the government is capable of regulating them and the course of the river is recovered. The Army and the Public Prosecutor must enforce the measure. A colossal task. The area they must patrol measures 166 000 hectares, a space larger than Mexico City.
July 2018. I call several community leaders in Paimadó and Villa Conto. They say that there were operations with state security forces around the time the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development decreed the suspension of mining in the zone. The same as always: they deactivated a few machines, they remained a while longer while the presidential elections took place, and then they left. The next day, dredge operators switched the motors back on. And at this moment, dear reader, as you finish reading this story, know that between Paimadó and Villa Conto there are no fewer than twenty-five dragons transforming the lushest rainforest into a spoil tip, and water into a slow-killing poison.