The city of Segovia, Colombia has the worst mercury pollution per capita in the world. In the surrounding Bajo Cauca region, an estimated 75 tons of mercury a year are unloaded into the environment as run – off from gold mining operations. An estimated 200,000 families depend on informal mining for their livelihood, and mercury is considered an essential tool by many. This reportage engages an essential modern tension, the contradiction between long-term environmental concerns and the immediate economic needs of people.
All day long, miners in Segovia, Colombia carry sacks of ore-bearing rocks into rudimentary refining plants. They dump the rocky contents into spherical mills, called coconuts. A worker adds honey, bleach, lemon juice, water and copious amounts of mercury to the sphere. The coconuts spin frenetically for four hours, then the operator pours out a watery sludge, a first concentration of the gold. The miner then sluices this mixture into a wooden pan (la batea), adds more mercury, and expertly stirs and coaxes out the gold with his bare hands.
In mythological terms, Mercury is a trickster god, a being that passes borders, a transgressor. Fully aware of its poisonous effects, I find myself entranced by the physical charisma of mercury, the uniquely liquid metal called quicksilver. These photographs form part of a book-in-progress, La Batea: Impresiones del Oro en Colombia (Tragaluz, 2015), which I am making with my sister, the anthropologist Elizabeth Ferry.