The action emerged from jungle darkness into the white heat of day. A group of men stood waist deep in murky water at the southern edge of Venezuela and used wads of mercury to sift gold from silt - a fortune, however small.
Globe photographer Essdras Suarez and I encountered this moment at the Las Cristinas gold mine six years ago. The families had come to the mine to find a way to survive. As I wrote in the story about life there:
"Pickup trucks shuttled men, women, and children west along a rocky road to the gold mine that they all, remembering the day one high mud wall fell too far too fast, call "Los Cuatro Muertos," The Four Dead.
The mine was conceived as a vast operation, digging deep to tap one of the world's largest gold deposits, and controlled, as is so much in South America, by foreign interests. Crystallex International Corp., a Canadian company, in 2002 obtained long-disputed rights to the Las Cristinas mine, as it is officially known, in hopes of harvesting a half-million ounces of gold a year, beginning in 2006.
But in southern Venezuela, more than a century of mining has left behind holes of poverty. So as Crystallex lawyers battled and engineers plotted, independent miners came, picks and pans in hand, to clamor at the gates. President Hugo Chavez, a champion to many in Venezuela's poorer classes, did not stop them.
Four thousand swarmed at the chance, an ant farm of backs hunched against the heat.
Inside the mine's open gate, three laughing miners, arm-in-arm and singing boldly, sauntered past guards, two of whom loosely held sawed-off shotguns. A woman sold soft drinks and lemon cake from a makeshift shop. A mother, father, and their children, ages 17, 13, 12, and 6, clustered near a wide pit and shared bowls of chicken smothered in a rich sauce.
Fifty feet below, Alejandro Ortuez, at 29 already a 17-year mining veteran, stood waist deep in water and rolled small wads of mercury through silt to capture flecks of gold."
It is an epic tale, of course, humans trying to seek sustenance or more from the earth. And it continues still, as I was reminded today, while looking through a collection of Earth Day-inspired photos at the Big Picture. There, among them, this, from the Las Cristinas mine, in 2009.