EL CORPUS, Honduras (Reuters) - In the mountains of southern Honduras, hundreds of small-scale miners are scraping out tiny quantities of increasingly precious gold but their fervor could be threatening their lives and the environment.
Artisanal miners wielding pickaxes use diesel generators to illuminate narrow mine-shafts in one of Central America’s poorest nations. Many then use dangerous amounts of toxic mercury to extract the metal from the rocks they chip out.
Government officials say the number of freelance miners looking for gold in Honduras has increased from around 200 several years ago to more than 1,000 now.
More and more people have taken up prospecting as the price of gold has nearly tripled over five years.
“I started mining eight months ago because I saw that the price was going up,” said Geovani Zepeda, 26, in the tiny town of El Corpus.
Zepeda, who was introduced to the trade by his father, said the price paid for the tiny bits of gold he recovers has nearly doubled since he started.
“At first they paid me 170 lempiras ($9) a gram, now they pay me 320 lempiras ($17),” he said.
The small-scale miners are only paid around half the going market rate for their gold by the buyers they hawk to, but nonetheless their earnings are substantial in a region where the only other employment is poorly paid agricultural work.
Some families in El Corpus have spent generations extracting gold from dozens of small holes carved into the isolated mountain range.
Many scavenge in long-abandoned mines that were first exploited in the 1500s during the Spanish conquest, when indigenous people were used as slaves.
A small U.S. company, Mayan Gold, has an operational mine near the town, but most small-scale miners avoid that area since a standoff between El Corpus residents and the firm three years ago.
Now, the new gold rush is luring fresh faces.
“I see a ton of new people that have come to the mountains to work in the mines, but we have no way of knowing exactly how many there are because there are no official controls,” said Enrique Bellino, the mayor of El Corpus.
Unlike Chile, Peru and Bolivia, Honduras is a hugely underdeveloped mining country and is best known for exporting coffee and bananas, despite talk of mountains said to be full of rich gold veins.
Civil wars in the 1980s and early 1990s in neighboring Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador kept investors away, and now there are only two active gold mines in Honduras.
Apart from the El Corpus mine owned by Mayan Gold, mid-tier Toronto miner Yamana Gold operates another mine. A third mine, owned by Canada’s second largest gold miner Goldcorp, is in the process of shutting down, in part because of environmentalists’ complaints about its open pit operations.
In 2007, mainstream gold mining accounted for $75.4 million worth of exports, compared to $79.9 million in 2006.
A lack of monitoring means the government has no estimate of how much the gold that artisanal miners scrape out is worth.
Working in a fledgling industry with no government oversight, means conditions for small-scale miners are often dangerous.
Makeshift mines can collapse and crush workers, and the most common way to extract the gold from rock is to use mercury -- the third most toxic substance in the world, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- in an ancient and polluting technique with serious health risks.
Marcello Veiga, a United Nations expert on mercury poisoning in artisanal mining, said most small miners create a gold-mercury amalgam that has to be decomposed to recover the gold particles.
“Most people just burn off the mercury and they usually don’t know it’s dangerous. Sometimes they just do this inside their houses -- because it’s gold and they want to be protected -- but then they contaminate the entire family,” said Veiga.
Small-scale miners use three-parts mercury to recover every one-part gold, he said.
The mercury excess goes into the environment, mixes with organic matter, and is transformed into another toxic substance, methylmercury.
“That doesn’t stay in the water, it goes straight to the fish,” said Veiga.
Recent testing of river sediments around El Corpus have not yet shown abnormally high levels of mercury, said Danelia Sabillon, director of a centre that studies contaminants, at Honduras’ environment ministry.
But concerns are rising about health risks to children and pregnant women who are exposed to the artisanal mining process since mercury poisoning can lead to lung and kidney damage, harm foetuses and cause severe brain damage in high doses, she said.
In other parts of the world, small-scale miners have clashed with multinational firms as both seek to exploit the same gold seams. This has been less of a problem in Honduras.
Three years ago, hundreds of people from El Corpus invaded part of the mining concession owned by Mayan Gold to search for tiny bits of gold residue left in the company’s tailings pile.
The squatters stayed for months despite legal action and official complaints to the government until they had recovered every last bit of gold that they could. Since then conflict with mining companies has been rare.
The government has launched educational programmes in the communities around El Corpus to warn people about the dangers of mining with mercury.
But the risks, even when known, are not enough to slow the influx of new miners to the mountains.
“The price of gold is good,” said Emerys Espino, who started looking for gold several months ago, working with his brother and two friends.
“I have seen more and more people coming to this mountain. Farmers come from little, far-away towns to ask for work or to open new mines,” he said, standing at the mouth of his tiny mine shaft.
Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile