Video published byGlobalPost. Text published by New Statesman [PDF].
Six hours’ journey through savannah and thick jungle from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, Mahdia boasts no landline telephones or bank machines. But this small dirt town in the Amazon rainforest is experiencing the sharp end of turmoil in the financial markets, as it finds itself at the centre of a new gold rush.
“It’s kill or be killed,” says Rovin Allen, a young miner who was shot in the leg and robbed of £1,150-worth of gold just months ago. As investors place their bets on gold – a supposedly secure asset in times of crisis – prices have soared. Prospectors have flocked to Mahdia, but so have thieves. The 26-year-old Allen now carries a 38mm pistol when working at his small camp. “You can’t trust anyone, even your friends and those you work with.”
Vivakeanand Bridgemohan, one of the town’s two doctors, is seeing double the number of patients he received 12 months ago. He has treated miners stabbed in the head, face and jugular this week alone. “There are a lot of bandits here,” he says, “for the gold and the money.”
Allen works at Pamela camp, in the forest that surrounds Mahdia. As I am driven there on the miner’s quad bike, a large clearing opens, revealing makeshift huts strung with hammocks, next to a small river cutting through the rock. To the side is an electricity generator, allowing the miners to enjoy pirated music DVDs on an antique television set strapped with white tape to a wooden joist above a small kitchen area.
Allen’s small group will take in about £15 for each ounce of gold they find. Allen tells me he finds roughly ten ounces every four days or so, earning him about 80 times less than a trader in New York. Working 12-hour days, the miners must contend with wild animals and disease as well as bandits. “Had malaria many times, says Neil Hutton, one of Allen’s colleagues. “Sick today, tomorrow I get up.”
Some days after my visit to Mahdia, I meet Guyana’s outgoing president, Bharrat Jagdeo, at a rally in Anna Regina, a town in the west of the country. Gold reserves in Guyana, a former British colony, were neglected until relatively recently, but Jagdeo tells me that the country expects to produce 320,000 ounces of the precious metal this year, up 5 per cent on last year. “We have seen some movement of criminals,” Jagdeo concedes.
Patrick Harding, president of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association, says that mining makes up 70 per cent of the country’s economy. “The violence is something we’re very worried about,” he says from his office in Georgetown. “It could impact the whole industry.”
For the most part, traders on the financial markets make no link to men on the ground such as those in Mahdia. “For 5,000 years, gold has maintained purchasing power for the holders,” says George Gero, senior vice-president at RBC Wealth Management in New York, who has been trading and analysing gold for half his life.
“Investors see gold as an additional currency and as an asset-allocation tool,” he says. “Nobody is that concerned about the people panning for it.”
Bridgemohan, speaking after hours in his hospital waiting room, has one message for the traders. “Enjoy the gold,” he says. “It’s a great sacrifice the workers are making out here – so just cherish what they are providing for you.”