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Back to top. Get to Know Us. Amazon Payment Products. English Choose a language for shopping. Amazon Music Stream millions of songs. Amazon Advertising Find, attract, and engage customers. Amazon Drive Cloud storage from Amazon. Alexa Actionable Analytics for the Web. Sell on Amazon Start a Selling Account. Towering trees, perhaps feet tall, not yet sacrificed, can be glimpsed in the distance.

Then we reach the enormous pits, lit by strings of lights dangling across their gaping emptiness. Men stand in deep pools of turbid water, manning water cannons; another crew siphons displaced silt, rock and gravel. My driver tells me that this particular pit is known as Number During the next two hours, the destruction inside is relentless.

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The men never look up: They are focused on dislodging the soil, suctioning it, then dumping the slurry down a nearby sluice. Finally, around , as light filters into the sky, men carrying gigantic chain saws—the cutting bars on each must be four or five feet long—enter the forest, walking around the edges of the holes.

They go to work on the biggest trees. The pit crews have finished digging. The laborers lug a dozen or so to an area near the bottom of the sluice. There, a square blue waterproof tarp lies on the ground, its edges enclosed by felled tree trunks, creating a shallow, makeshift pool perhaps 9 by 12 feet. The men lay the mats, one at a time, in the pool, rinsing each repeatedly until—at last—all the gold-laced silt has been washed into the cache.

The process takes close to an hour. One of the workers who has emerged from the pit, a year-old named Abel, seems approachable, despite his fatigue. In another few years, if nothing happens to me, I can go back to my town, buy a nice house, buy a shop, work simply and relax for my life. As we are talking, women from the blue-tarp settlement behind us—back toward the road a half-mile or so—arrive with meals. They hand white plastic containers to the crew. Abel opens his, containing chicken-and-rice broth, yucca, hard-boiled eggs and roast chicken leg. He eats slowly. The sides of the hole can fall away, can crush you.

In the 30 or so pits here, Abel says, about four men die each week. On occasion, he adds, as many as seven have died in a single week. Things unexpected Then he simply lies on his back in the mud, leans his head against the trunk of a felled tree, crosses his boots at the ankles and instantly goes to sleep, hands clasped over his chest. A few feet away, a thick layer of sludge lies in the bottom of the pool. As workers prepare to separate gold from silt, the overseer of this particular pit, who is named Alipio, arrives.

He will monitor the operation, to make sure that none of the gold in the pool is stolen by workers. Alipio is friendly yet serious. Like all the men here, his face is chiseled by a life of hard labor. As the men collect the sludge inside the pool, using a stainless-steel bowl about 12 inches in diameter, he watches them closely. Meanwhile, yards away, the chain-saw-wielding crew fells trees with professional ferocity.

Every few minutes, another jungle hardwood topples. The earth shakes. After the workers empty the first loads of sludge into an open gallon drum, they pour in a little water and two ounces or so of liquid mercury, a highly toxic substance known to cause a host of ill effects, notably neurological disorders.

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Another miner from the pit, who gives his name only as Hernan, steps into the drum. Now exposed directly to the poison, he works the mixture with his bare feet for five minutes, then climbs out. He grabs an empty stainless-steel bowl and dips it into the barrel, panning for gold. A few minutes later, a gleaming, gelatinous alloy, or amalgam, has formed. It is seductively striated, gold and mercury. He places it in a zip-lock bag and goes back for another load of silt.

Alipio, Haviv, Ortiz and I walk to the makeshift settlement of Lamal. There are bars here and, in one tent, a brothel. An abandoned hamlet we passed during the motorcycle ride also was called Lamal. Near a cantina and a few bunkhouses, we enter a blue-nylon tent containing only a propane-gas canister and a strange metallic contraption resembling a covered wok, set on a propane burner. Alipio removes the lid, dumps in about one-third the contents of the zip-lock bag, screws down the lid, turns on the gas and lights the burner under his gold cooker.

A few minutes later, Alipio turns off the propane and unscrews the lid. Inside sits a rounded chunk of karat gold. It looks like a hard golden puddle. Using tongs, he lifts out the gold, examining it with a practiced air. He sets it on the packed-earth floor in the tent, then begins the process again. Pay for fuel, food for the men, pay for the engine and dredge siphon Or even in cities. Finally he shrugs. Alipio mentions that recently the price of gold has fallen a bit. Because costs for mercury and fuel have increased, he says, he and his crews exist at the margin of profitability.

We glance around at the wasteland that was rainforest, its handful of remaining trees, cache pools contaminated with liquid mercury, and bone-tired men risking death every day in the Amazon basin. Eventually, untold tons of mercury will seep into the rivers. Alipio gazes out at the ruined landscape and its tent city. Donovan Webster lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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