From the small clay yard outside his house made of wooden sticks and mud, Jacques Charles holds a metal bowl filled with water and shows off the sliver of gold resting at the bottom. Then, he reveals the place where he found it—a 12-meter deep tunnel on the side of a hill that he’s been digging with a shovel for 22 days.
“I’ve found bigger ones than this, but you have to have good luck,” he says. “If the spirit doesn’t want you to continue living in misery, he can tell you where it’s buried.”
For more than 30 years, Charles and his neighbors in the village of Lakwev in Haiti’s rural northeast have been digging into the hard ground and sifting through the uncovered dirt in a search of the gold they know to be buried underneath. Artisanal mining is illegal in Haiti even when residents own the land they dig on. It’s also incredibly dangerous—the makeshift, hand-dug tunnels can easily collapse upon the digger, trapping him or her beneath tons of solid earth. Some in Lakwev have died that way.
Like many in the community, Charles didn’t want to spend his life digging for gold. Several years ago, he crossed the border to the Dominican Republic just a few dozen miles away, where he worked as a construction worker. When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, Charles immediately returned with all the money he had saved — but it didn’t last long. He needed some source of income to feed and educate his three kids.
So, like others before him, he began digging.
“Eighty percent of the people in the area look for gold because they don’t have work,” said Anolt Jean, 49, who serves as the de facto community leader in Lakwev. The 10 by 20-ft. wooden porch to his home serves as a meeting ground for residents.
Today, a half dozen of them sit on plastic chairs and play dominoes, listening to Bachata music coming from a Dominican radio station across the nearby border. On a dirt path near his house, a barefoot woman walks by with her hand closed, carrying a speck of gold she’s uncovered in a hand-dug tunnel.
Marie Celéne Saint-Fleur has been mining for gold since such a young age that she needs Anolt’s help remembering the spelling of her name and what year she was born.
Anolt fingers through stacks of index cards he keeps with the birth date, ID number and other biographical information about most of the town’s few thousand residents.
“I have files on every family,” he says of the color-coded cards. A white card means the person is unmarried. Yellow or red means married, and green means the person is a member of his church.
He stops at a green card and concludes that Saint-Fleur is 25 and that she dropped out of school after completing fifth grade because her father died.
Saint-Fleur says she tried to maintain the small plot of land on which her father cultivated yams and other crops.
“I wasn’t strong enough to work the land. I left school to mine.”
Her situation is common among Haiti’s rural poor, many of whom struggle to produce enough food to live on. Often, they produce little or nothing at all because the soil is too depleted from chronic deforestation, droughts or over-cultivation. Etude Dorelien, 35, who washes dirt that’s been dug up from a nearby riverbed, says agriculture and other work isn’t as viable as gold mining.
“When you find something, you can eat and you can pay for your kids' school fees,” she says. “If you do gardening, you might have to sit and wait a year to have something to eat.”
Dorelien says she struggles to keep her six children fed and in school. Youth in Lakwev are often the most vulnerable to the area’s poverty. Many children walk around barefoot, their short hair a rusty reddish-gray color, a sign of iron deficiency.
“The biggest cause of death is suffering from malnutrition. Their hair becomes red, their skin tightens up. Last Friday, one died right over there,” says Anolt, pointing in the direction of a small hut nearby. “Her hair was very red. Parents, they know it, but they don’t want to steal from others, so they accept it.”
Ernevil Jesula, the mother of the girl who died, says there was nothing she could to do to save her daughter who she says died of a fever.
“Food? We don’t have enough money for that,” she says. “We go maybe three days a week where we don’t have food. Other days we eat plain rice, because we can’t buy beans.”
Anolt says Jesula is 40 years old, but she looks much older. She describes the misery that’s befallen her family.
“I have seven kids, and I lost five, so I have two,” she says.
The remaining two children are now resteveks, or domestic servants, for a wealthier family in the northern town of Ouanaminthe. Like many parents who are unable to provide for their children, Jesula instead sent hers to work for a family that she hoped would feed and clothe them.
“It’s a zone with a lot of misery,” notes Anolt as he walks away from Jesula’s hut. “But there is gold.”
Each Thursday, a handful of Haitian gold merchants descend upon Lakwev from Ouanaminthe. They use small, battery-powered scales to measure the weight of the gold fragments before offering about 110 gourdes (just under $3) for one-tenth of a gram. Later, they will sell it for perhaps 20 gourdes (50 cents) more to Dominican gold traders, or Haitian jewelry makers such as Walter Jerson Eloi who lives a few miles from Lakwev in the town of Mont Organize.
“First I heat it with charcoal to melt it. Then I can form it into anything I want,” says Eloi, who mixes the gold with larger quantities of copper to make earrings, rings and bracelets that he can sell to clients from as far away as Port-au-Prince.
“When people are going to marry, they come to me looking for a ring,” he boasts.
But Eloi says he hasn’t had work in months.
“I can’t afford the material right now. Now gold is more expensive. As the price rises, I have to charge more too.”
Though the rising value of gold put Eloi out of work, it’s attracting large North American mining companies to explore for minerals in Haiti’s northern mountains in the hopes of striking it rich by opening a modern gold mine.
Anolt says various companies have already begun exploring the land around Lakwev, including Haiti’s own mining bureau some decades ago, and more recently the Canadian company St. Genvieve. Twenty-five miles southeast, a joint venture by two large mining companies — Newmont Mining Corporation and Eurasian Minerals—is already employing locals to improve roads that will allow the companies to transport their testing equipment to drill sites in the town of La Miel.
Anolt says Lakwev residents, who have labored for gold in hand-dug tunnels for years yet remain in abject poverty, hope a mine might finally bring jobs and income to what are some of Haiti’s poorest residents.