Waiting for the Golddiggers
Some of the tasks that we have to complete tomake this project successful are unimaginably challenging – like following Jean4 in The Inferno, succumbing to the bamboo and lianas that ruthlessly maul you. There are others that don’t sound half as bad but in reality, are about as tedious. This moring I found myself engaged in one such activity – the de-burring of a butterfly net that has definitely seen better days. Being used heavily in the first week of Chiky’s arrival to bring The Master his Bug Buffet, this net was literally wound into a tight knot from the burrs.
I placed a small stool on the porch outside the lab and prepared to let my mind run free whilst my fingers worked at rescuing the net from an early grave. Of course, the best-laid plans never do hold up. In minutes I had a little panic attack having now covered myself in all the burrs that I had just released the net from. Dusting them off I glanced idly towards my feet to notice a swarm of army ants between the planks of the boardwalk. I braced myself for the bites that were sure to come, having been bitten twice this morning by members of a different colony, but was pleasantly surprised to note that they were not interested in me in the least.
I settled down once more to enjoy a pleasant bit of day dreaming and must have gotten involved in some internal argument in my head, leaving my hands still for a moment, because a little noise to my right caught my attention and when I turned to look I was greeted by a wholly unexpected sight. For months I’ve lived at this station and have been aware of the largish lizards running around under the boardwalks surrounding all the buildings in camp, but they are so sensitive to us that they immediately dart off upon approach. These South American ground lizards, Amieva amieva, are gorgeous creatures with white heads held high, bright green behinds and almost bluish hind legs. Their most remarkable feature is the striking change from white head to green behind that occurs half way down their body with no fading of colours into one another. The white just stops cold and gives way to green. This must give them the ability to be camouflaged in grass and scrub but it is quite unnerving to perceive just a floating head or body!
My de-burring seemed to have stilled me to the point where the lizards basically thought I wasn’t actually there. My glance to the right revealed a large and beautiful specimen of Amieva wandering towards me, in that typical lizard way – a fast dart punctuated by moments of frozen stillness. One was making his way over to me and came to a rest an inch from my toe! I was able to admire his beautiful scales from a couple of feet away on my perch…this one is quite the flashiest reptile I’ve seen so far!
The little lagartija having slithered passed me, I continued to work steadily, enjoying the satisfaction of burrs falling like rain around my feet, the rhythmic scratch-scratch-scratch as I ran my nails along the fabric of the net, and the feel of the soft sun on my arms and neck. I am a true sun-lover and the contentment of this homely scene was marred only by the escape of my mind, yet again, into an area that had been trying it for some time now.
You see, it wasn’t by accident that I was so pleasantly occupied at 9am on a Thursday morning. The reality of it was that I, and the eight or so people left at the station, were stuck in apparently endless idling in anticipation of a possible visit to the station by gold miners from the surrounding areas. All our troubles center around two enigmatic figures – the chemical element mercury, one of few that is a liquid at room temperature, and Minister Brack Egg, heading the Ministry of the Environment.
Mercury, as you all know, is that intriguing element present in thermometers that one’s parents were always terrified one would swallow. A broken thermometer in my home resulted in temporary chaos, with everyone charging everywhere trying to prevent kids and pets from getting near the stuff. I broke a thermometer once, in middle school, and was unhindered by any sort of authority from exploring the contents to my heart’s content. I prodded the little globules, noted that two globules would merge together almost magically and realized that the element was one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen, better than gold even! Indians all over are falling over in dead faints at my heresy but the two – mercury and gold – are connected in a way that I would never have imagined in 7th grade. Eventually, this special connection would come home in a big way, introducing anxiety, frustration and even anger into our lifves
Antonio Brack Egg, on the other hand, is a widely despised individual in these parts. In November, before our first evacuation, he made an announcement that would result in the effective banishment of miners and all mining operations from about 80% of the Department of Madre de Dios. He has a background in science and environment and is striving to save one of the most biodiverse parts of the nation from a slow and ponderous demise. However, in the process he is doing away with a large part of the economy of the department. Mining is the sole reason for many towns near us to exist – people are either mining on the river or making products that the miners need. Everyone is tied up in it, so this announcement shook the very foundations of the people.
Truth be told, Brack is fighting against a lot of other factors: illegal mining, destruction of the riverbed, and health issues to do with mercury poisoning over the long term. While the President of the country is loathe to let standing forests lie untouched, Brack is of a different mindset. He’s genuinely trying to help, but his charisma is distinctly lacking.
Earlier this month he finally came out with an actual protocol for instituting this mining hiatus. He allocated only the southern shore of the Madre de Dios and below for mining, preventing any mining north of the river. We are on the northern shore, and therefore protected. He alo banned any mining on the river itself, which will put a stop to most of the illegal mining in the area. Instead, everyone that mines must have paperwork. If you think about some of the rules, there really isn’t a need to protest, except if you’re illegal.
In any case, protesting is happening whether we will like it or not. The law in Peru allows a group to officially apply for a day on which to hold a strike. The incongruous reality of it is that they then burn down blocks of government buildings, block roads and airports and stop all stores from running during this period.
In the last few days I have heard everything from “Aww! Nothing will happen, don’t you worry!” to “ This strike will last two weeks. It’s going to be bad, very bad!” At this point, I’m really only sure that there are several angry groups out there, that they are traveling to Puerto Maldonado on the 4th, that every single person is going to remain indoors having stockpiled food for about a week, and that the miners will proceed to conduct some displays the extent of which are largely dependent on the amount of alcohol in them and the response of the government to them. I suppose it will also depend on how much police presence is at Puerto.
Speaking of which, we are to be joined tomorrow by three stern policemen. Why, you may wonder, would we need any such thing? It all, I’m told, comes down to a badly drawn map. ACCA, the organization that runs CICRA and a bunch of other field stations, is conducting a large-scale corridor project to attempt to link major fragments of land in Peru and Bolivia together. Within Peru, they have focused their efforts on connecting the Los Amigos Conservation Concession with the Tambopata National Reserve. The bit of land that connects these two pieces dwarfs each piece itself. It is depicted on this guilty map as a large square that dominates the picture. Below it was a bad legend (or a decent misunderstood legend) that implied to those that read it (in the mining towns) that ACCA was attempting to buy this large piece of land between the two reserves, or at the least, prevent subversive practices like mining from going on in there. Poor ACCA had just realized how lofty their goal of “convincing locals to participate in the project” really was. Moreover, it had one itself a reputation to boot. Now the enemy has a face, a name, a nice link to DC ( the best way to make oneself unpopular) and some conveniently boycottable locations.
So on this sunny morning, I’m reminded once more of the interplay between all these things – a badly drawn map, a man with an unusual name, and a chemical element that just won’t stay solid at room temperature! Together they have resulted in the large-scale evacuation of most of the region, with more people leaving Puerto Malonado than the jungle. We in turn are hoping to avoid most of the disruption by staying in the jungle and close to an exit point, should someone pay us an unwelcome visit.
The strike is on the 4th of April. The days that will see the mining towns upriver of us emptying are the 2nd and the 3rd, so we are to have those three nice policemen living here for a while. The navy is sending marines to patrol the waters too and perhaps they will drop in for a meal now and then. Then everything will cool down in the jungle and heat up in town. If things go well, the return journey back to the mining towns will be a lot less feisty, so we mightn’t need to worry more at all. Right now we’re focusing on keeping all lines of communication between town and ourselves open and the rest of the time, we’re trying to trap monkeys, as always.That’s about all there is to think about these days. That and feeding chiky, which is an ever present worry. I’m going to get back to bug-hunting now, actually.