20 August, 2015

Gold: A precarious existence

Peru 1
by Victoria Waugh, Major Account Manager for the Fairtrade Foundation

Victoria Waugh recounts her trip to Peru to meet Fairtrade gold miners.

The drive from Lima to Chala takes about eight hours with the road first passing through Lima’s industrial outskirts before heading into the desert.  We pass through a number of desert towns - the sea on our right and the foothills of the Andes on our left, and make a quick stop off for a lunch of mashua, rice and lima beans.  The locals want to introduce us to the delights of Pisco sour, but it’s still a bit early in the day so we continue on our journey to the gold mines of SOTRAMI and MACDESA in the Arequipa region of western Peru.

We are visiting the artisanal and small-scale mining groups to introduce them to representatives from a Swiss gold refinery and a UK jewellery brand, and hope that our conversations will lead to more Fairtrade gold being bought from the mines over the coming months. 

Our first visit is to SOTRAMI, which received Fairtrade certification in 2011. We take a tour of the mines’ processing plant and learn about the methods used to crush, grind and mill huge chunks of rock containing gold down into powder before extracting the metal through a complex chemical process.  Through the Fairtrade Premium the miners have invested in new equipment to increase the productivity of this process, meaning that they now have more gold to sell.  The mine itself is 12 levels deep and their next project is to build a ramp to provide safer access, instead of relying on a network of ladders.  They talk about their company slogan – ‘There’s always a better way to do things’.

SOTRAMI have recently been given an award recognising their way of working as ‘best practice’ in the ASM sector and we can hear the pride in their voices as they talk about all they have achieved since formalising the mine.  This is in stark contrast to the informal mines we pass as we head back into the desert: holes burrowed high into the hillsides, rudimentary equipment, people working without health and safety equipment, and chemical pits on the periphery of their villages.
At MACDESA our visit starts with a tour of the mine and so we are kitted out in our health and safety equipment and led into the mine shaft.  MACDESA have just received Fairtrade certification after several years working to achieve the Fairtrade Standards.  The MACDESA mine is not very deep, but instead extends horizontally into the mountain side.  I watch three miners returning from their lunch break.  They pass me and head off into the tunnel, the light from their torches shrinks to the size of pin pricks before I lose sight of them in the distance.  These miners work underground in a pattern of 20 days on and 10 days off.  This shift work means that when they have their break they have enough time to make the long journey to see family in different parts of Peru.  Other miners have made their home near the mine site in the village of Cuatro Horas.  I’d seen photos of the community before we arrived: a small town set in a valley with a church, a school and rows of wooden houses.

 Today it’s a very different image.  Just a week before we arrive a fire has swept through the community.  There is no water supply here so the fire has burned down three quarters of the buildings and killed livestock before dying out at the desert’s edge.  Thankfully none of the residents were seriously injured, but they now have a great deal of work to do to rebuild their community and rehome the people living there. 

Peru 2

The remains of the village at MACDESA

As we have lunch in the workers canteen, I watch hands being shaken as the Swiss representative does a deal to purchase Fairtrade gold. A warm mixture of excitement and hope fill the air. I capture the lively conversation the group beings to engage in, with a thought coming into my mind – Fairtrade, above all, is about people. 



If you would like to donate to the MACDESA disaster fund to help the community rebuild their school, visit http://bit.ly/helpmacdesa.

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