When I met freelance gold miner Darwin McDonald in Guyana's interior, his third bout of malaria in just two years was ravaging his body. But McDonald, slumped over at a bus stop and looking deathly ill, had bigger problems than his aching joints and terrible chills.
In order to avoid returning for another three-month stint in the rainforest gold mines, he needed desperately to track down the prostitute who he claimed stole all his money the night before.
Darwin is one of a growing number of illegal gold miners known as "pork-knockers," whose unusual name is believed to come from their diet of pickled or cured meat, and who are now being targeted by a series of crackdowns by Guyana's government. Following complaints from property owners and legal mine operators, officials have begun working to curb the practice on land where prospecting licenses have been granted, but mining has not yet been approved.
In spite of the restrictions on their informal industry, these DIY miners play a significant role in Guyana.
"They represent a vital contributor to Guyana's economy," Pavaan Persaud, a spokesman for the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) in Georgetown, told VICE News.
In 2013, Guyana reportedly exported more than $1 billion of gold — a significant proportion of the country's $2.8 billion GDP. The existence of a further 30 million ounces has also been recently proved by an alliance of international mining companies.
Such fantastic wealth has resulted in a modern-day gold rush, which is being capitalized on by foreign mining interests, as well as independent and unregulated goldpanners.
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The Brazilian sex worker that Darwin met in Guyana's central Region 8 had apparently flagged the returning miner as a profitable target. Having swaggered back into town with five ounces of 18-carat gold in his pockets — the fruits of many lonely months in the remote jungle — he may have been too loud about the $5,800 he had exchanged it for.
Darwin said he woke up in the morning with a pounding headache, only to discover that the year's salary he had stashed in his rucksack was gone.
To add insult to injury, his night of drink, drugs, fighting, gambling, and sex also took its toll on his already-fatigued immune system. His whole body ached and, despite the 90-degree midday heat, he shivered uncontrollably as the resurgent malaria took hold, alongside the hangover.
Yet, for pork-knockers, Darwin's situation is nothing out of the ordinary.
A pork-knocker outpost in Guyana's region 8, from which the freelance miners launch their expeditions into the rainforest. Photo by Alasdair Baverstock
According to the most recent figures published by Guyana's Geology and Mines Commission, in 2010 there were more than 11,000 miners employed by the industry. The report, however, does not tally the number of "artisanal miners" — the official term for pork-knockers — working in the interior on small-scale illegal operations.
"We estimate that there are over 25,000 freelance miners working in over three thousand locations in Guyana this year," Persaud, told VICE News.
Having opened the way for international mining companies from the US, Canada, and China, the Guyanese government still receives a significant amount of its income from artisanal mines. In 2006, the country's gold board bought 200,000 ounces of gold from merchants who deal exclusively with unlicensed miners. That figure has now more than doubled. In 2012, 415,000 ounces of pork-knocker-mined gold was reportedly sold through middlemen to the Guyanese government.
Illegally mined gold can't be sold straight to the gold board, so the unlicensed miners sell it to gold dealers for about 10 percent less than full market price. These licensed dealers in turn make their profit by selling the gold directly to the government for its full value.
"As long as the pork-knockers' gold stays in Guyana it reaches the gold board," Frank Singh, a veteran pork-knocker of over thirty years who now runs a travel agency in Georgetown, told VICE News. "As long as it passes through the Georgetown treasury the authorities aren't asking questions as to how it got there."
Four pork-knockers and their boatman, heading out for three straight months of hard mining in Guyana's Region 8. Photo by Alasdair Baverstock
The business of mining gold in Guyana is currently a free-for-all. Large international mining companies, leasing land from the country's government, have hacked out entire swathes of thick bush in search of the gold beneath it.
"It's been a very easy country to do business in," Jacqueline Wagenaar of Guyana Goldfields Inc., a Canadian mining company that has operated in Guyana since the mid-1990s, told VICE News. "It's English-speaking, has a democratically-elected government, and rules according to British Commonwealth law."
Guyana Goldfields Inc. will begin a new hard rock mining project in Region 1 in 2015 from which it projects to extract 200,000 ounces of gold annually for the coming 20 years. "We've had tremendous support from all levels of government," she said.
Gold is found most abundantly in the oldest rock and is deposited through volcanic action in the earth's core, forcing the molten metal through faults in the crust, forming veins of gold known as "lodes." Erosion occurs over hundreds of millions of years as streams and rivers pass over the top of the lodes. Gold eroded in this manner is called "placer gold" — material eroded from the original "mother lode" — and is the focus of the pork-knockers' search. As rivers change their course, these deposits can be spread over a very wide area.
Pork-knockers often go in search of the mother lode, the source of the eroded placer gold. Such discoveries yield much higher profits but are extremely difficult to come across, given the dense and difficult nature of navigation in uncharted jungle.
A surface dredge, where land that was once a river bed is dislodged with a jet of water, and panned for placer gold. Photo by Alasdair Baverstock
The pork-knockers, not enabled with the high-powered machinery used by the mining companies, use more rudimentary methods to extract the gold, such as surface dredges.
This work requires a team to dig down to the clay level of the soil, tearing up the thick rainforest in the process. The clay that might contain gold is then blasted apart with a high-pressure water jet. The water is then pumped through a channel with a sieve bottom and any gold, the densest material, settles in this tray while the waste runs off.
Mercury is stirred into what remains, which clings to the gold and removes it from the mixture. The quicksilver is then heated to 675 degrees Fahrenheit, evaporating the mercury and leaving the gold behind.
Most pork-knockers don't wear gloves or masks while practicing this highly toxic method, so mercury poisoning is common.
The final stage of surface dredging, during which the fine gold sinks to the bottom of the tray. Photo by Alasdair Baverstock
Pork-knockers work from dawn until dusk, breaking for an hour or so at noon, when temperatures can reach 95 degrees. Alcohol and marijuana are consumed around the clock, to ease the monotony of dredging.
At the end of all this, a heavy yield is just 0.07 ounces of gold for every ton of clay — worth around $100 on the black market. A 12-hour shift on the dredge will process about 1.5 tons.
Lone pork-knockers carry metal detectors and venture into unknown reaches of the interior. These men, the hardiest and most self-reliant of their class, have to dig even lower to reach the black gravel layer of the earth. It's here that gold nuggets can be found.
"I once found a two ounce nugget," Roy Mendonca, a 29-year-old pork-knocker who has worked the Guyanese jungle since the age of 17, told VICE News. "That was at the end of four straight months in the bush. As soon as I found that, I went straight back to Georgetown. I told everyone I had malaria rather than reveal the truth."
Roy, who is a racial mixture of black and Amerindian, is a short and sturdy man. Accustomed to bush life, he said he is more comfortable in the wilderness than in Georgetown, where he spends less than four months of the year with his wife and six-year-old daughter.
"I will mine gold until I can't physically mine gold any more," he states, smiling broadly as he takes a generous drag on his third joint of the morning.
The earth is pumped out of the ground and over a panning device. Photo by Alasdair Baverstock
Rather than discussing money in terms of dollars and cents, pork-knockers talk in terms of gold weight — 15 troy ounces to a pound, 20 pennyweight to one ounce. One pennyweight is roughly equivalent to $60.
"The freelance miners live a very hand-to-mouth existence," Brian Crerar, a mining engineer and former consultant with BP Minerals, told VICE News. "In general what they take out of the ground in a day is just enough to live on. It's when they find those rare mother lodes that they start to make profits."
"We're all friends when no one is finding anything," said Roy, "but then if one pork knocker walks into the bar and starts buying beers we know he's found gold. Then it's every man for himself. He will be tracked to his new back-dam and if it produces the place will be overrun within a few days as the word gets out. Gold can't hide."
For a fee gold merchants will impart information on what each pork-knocker has sold them. If a pork-knocker hasn't been seen for a while, he's either dead or has struck a mother lode.
At that point, the others will visit the boatman, who sells information on which part of the river the lucky miner was last seen.
A pork-knocker walks through the dense rainforest, toward an informal mining site. Photo by Alasdair Baverstock
Health is a serious issue in the interior and despite the rivalry the pork-knockers live by a code. An unknown pork knocker has the right to another group's food, water, and shelter for three days. If he's sick, the other pork-knockers must get him to safety.
Malaria is rife in the back-dams, where the surface dredging methods leave pools of stagnant water: ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos. "I've seen malaria kill a man in a single day," said Roy.
Roy's mining partner, after a week of working 12-hour days despite exhibiting the first symptoms of malaria, announced one morning that he needed medical attention. A day's journey from help, Roy escorted his ailing friend through the dense bush, calling a boat via walkie-talkie to collect them at the nearest river.
"He died when we were just an hour from town," Roy recalled frankly, seemingly untroubled by the memory. "Malaria is very strong and you have to know your body. To tell when enough is enough."
Once infected with malaria it stays in the blood for life and exhausted miners who carry the parasitic protozoans that cause the disease are prone to flare-ups if their immune system is weakened.
"You work too hard in the bush, you'll get malaria," said Roy, who himself professes to five separate bouts of the sickness. "You get the flu, then you'll probably get malaria on top. Sometimes if you party too hard you get malaria."
In addition to malaria, typhoid and dengue fever are also an issue in the interior. Pork-knockers planning expeditions into the bush will purge their bodies for weeks beforehand, foregoing alcohol and marijuana, which are daily vices in the back-dams, in favor of herbal teas and exercise.
Kaiteur Falls, in Kaiteur National Park — an area that is being devastated by mining practices. Photo by Alasdair Baverstock
The appeal of the mines is particularly strong for Guyana's indigenous people. The Amerindians make up less than 10 percent of Guyana's roughly 750,000 population and are the only people permitted to mine within Kaiteur National Park, the 242-square mile region which contains the 740-foot Kaiteur Falls.
"Our parents have no interest in mining," George Yzami, a 23-year-old Amerindian from Chenapou, told me. "But the younger generation are perfectly positioned for it. We know the land better than any pork-knocker and can legally mine in areas they can't."
Most of the gold that remains in Guyana ends up behind the barred jewelers' windows of Georgetown's infernally busy Stabroek market. Jerry Peters, who sweeps the floors here, told me about his own racket.
At the end of five hours of sweeping the market he takes the amassed dirt home and pans it in his bathtub. In doing this he averages around six pennyweight of gold per week, which he then sells back to the market.
"I make an extra $350 a week doing that," he told me with a knowing smile. "Gold can't hide."
Follow Alasdair Baverstock on Twitter: @alibaverstock