Yurani Carabalí Vergara
The sun burns our skin as we stare in awe at the beautiful flooded landscape of the Salvajina Dam, which submerged the municipality of Suarez in 1986. “(…) The construction of the Salvajina Dam in 1986 not only [submerged] areas of recognised gold-mining wealth, but also destroyed the dream of continuing the excavation of the rocks of Mindalá and other counties which had formerly been generous with the miners’ efforts, who were obviously forced to leave their homes for different areas. (…)”.
From this high point, where one can gaze upon the Cauca’s mountains of Colombia, Yurani speaks eagerly about the barequeo (“gold panning”: a form of traditional mining) and her life, two concepts that, in her words, seem to blur into one. Yurani is 25 years old and she is mother to Karol, who smiles just as much as she does, and daughter to a woman with a calm, nostalgic gaze. Yurani works in artisanal mining “panning for gold on the shores of the lake or along the river”. This is what she lives with, together with coffee cultivation, two trades she started learning at 13.
“Sometimes, when it’s time to harvest the coffee, you go and work there, and when it’s not, you just go look in the water, in the streams”.
When it is still dark, at 5 a.m., Yurani wakes to get her daughter ready and take her to school. The school lies higher than their wooden house and, walking the dirt paths that lead us there, one realises that mining does not only provide for Yurani, but a for whole community. After having said goodbye to her daughter Karol, Yurani goes to work, alone or in a group (with her mother and aunts): “Sometimes we walk, others we use the canoe; we rest a bit and then we start panning for gold”.
At 2:30 p.m. Yurani will go back to pick Karol up from school, they will have lunch and spend the afternoon together. Yurani looks at her daughter and recalls her times at school, and when she went to Cali to continue studying, until she got pregnant at 20 and came back home. Even if she had to drop her studies, Yurani speaks cheerfully about new challenges: she is going to class every Monday to finish her degree; after that, she’d like to keep studying and become a teacher. Nevertheless, she says that for now she enjoys what she does: “I like to work with people, I like the streams, the water…” She proudly explains that her mother taught her: “She brought me with her because she too is a barequera (a miner who works with the panning technique), and because this is what keeps us going; nowadays, this is still what provides for us – mining. Also agriculture, but since I don’t own land, I am just starting out with a few plantain and coffee plants”.
Despite her cheerfulness, Yuraní also describes what she doesn’t like about the job – removing rocks. “Sometimes there are massive rocks, and to move them you need a lot of strength, which can give you back pain sometimes”, she explains.
She does not work with mercury anymore. Even if she extracts the minerals with an artisanal process, she’s not interested in using a contaminating material. “Before I got pregnant, I used to work with mercury, but then when I was expecting the baby I heard it was dangerous and started avoiding it, and now we don’t use it anymore”. She explains that the gold comes out the streams relatively pure: “Sometimes one can treat it with sage to get the gold to sit, to clean it, and you need a magnet to remove the black residue stuck in it; you can put it in a cloth and hang it to dry and that’s it, or in a spoon on the fire”.
Yurani started participating in workshops organised by Alliance for Responsible Mining. The foundation has familiarised them with themes of personal safety and mercury handling. “They spoke about the gear that one can bring down to the streams, like boots, shovels and personal equipment like gloves (…)”, she remembers. However, she admits she still goes to work in sandals occasionally: “Sometimes there are no money to buy stuff, and sometimes you can get your toes hurt with rocks”. Concerning the use of mercury, she explains that she doesn’t fish anymore because the fish is contaminated, and she talks about the need for other miners in the area to gradually stop using it too.
Yurani is an empowered and lovely woman who never stops smiling. She has a strong will and she is thankful for what she’s got: “I can’t be away from my land, every time I leave I can’t wait to come back here”. This barequera from the Colombian Cauca region is willing to improve the quality of life in her area, and she wants to work on her education, both in the mining world and personally, to get, one day, to become a teacher.
The Alliance for Responsible Mining would like to thank you for the time you spend participating in the activities we organise. We know that with your dedication and effort you will surely succeed in achieving all your goals.