Found Item: The “Matador” of the Mines in Peru’s Madre de Dios





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Contributed date

November 26, 2018 - 7:44pm

Critical Commentary

Peru’s Amazonian region of Madre de Dios is nestled between Brazil and Bolivia. Madre de Dios means “the Mother of God” or the Virgin Mary in English. It is an ironically fitting name for a region known for its “pristine” or “virgin” rainforest, where sex-work operates as the companion industry to the mercury-infused gold mining that is deforesting at an alarming rate. A South American gold rush is currently taking place in this Amazonian region once known as “The Capital of Biodiversity.” Several factors have contributed to the mining boom in Madre de Dios: 1) the building of the Interoceanic Road which corresponded with 2) the fall of the US dollar and 3) the rise in the price of gold on the world market.  The gold in Madre de Dios is in the form of dust, not nuggets as with the North American gold rush. So for an industry that functions more by hand than by machine, the use of liquid mercury is fundamental to form an amalgam with the gold. In the next installment of this photo essay, I will detail the gold mining process.


Public health officials, doctors and nurses who work with miners in the jungle struggle to explain the affects of mercury poisoning. Quicksilver “poisoning” in maternal-fetal health and in that of the Pachamama, her plants and animals has more immediate visibility than it does in the hands of the mostly male miners who place the silvery liquid in their hands and shake their heads to ask me, “esto es veneno?” How could anything this lovely be venomous? Even with the visible marks on the earth and children’s development, life is the mines is often better than “home” for those who migrate there. Mercury’s effects are often secondary to those of the poverty people left behind


The work in the gold mines tends to be strictly gendered, with the men in the mining pits and the women in the prostibars. There is a strong affinity for “el mercurio,” seen as a strong male element. This association of male strength connected to both the virility of the bull and to the matador’s ability to “matar” (to kill) and thus prove themselves stronger than the bull, fed men’s affinity for the lithe liquid. The harvesting of gold needs the alchemical interaction with mercury. Stories about the frivolous character of gold, personified as a beautiful woman who lures men into the mines only to leave them with nothing, abound. That quicksilver, the male element, “grabs” the gold particles, harnessing them into an amalgam, makes the human affinity for the heavy metal that much stronger. The image is a powerful and a necessary energizing one because work in the mines is grueling if not fatal.


Elvira, Victor.

Cite as

Victor Elvira, "Found Item: The “Matador” of the Mines in Peru’s Madre de Dios ", contributed by Ruth Goldstein, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 26 November 2018, accessed 5 December 2022.“matador”-mines-peru’s-madre-de-dios