MAC: Mines and Communities

Mexico's Amber Miners Risk Their Lives for $12 a Day

Published by MAC on 2010-04-18
Source: EFE (2010-04-08)

Mexico's Amber Miners Risk Their Lives for $12 a Day

By Kristian Cerino

EFE

8 April 2010

MEXICO CITY - The Simojovel caves, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, each day attract hundreds of indigenous miners dedicated to rudimentary extraction of amber who risk their lives for 150 pesos ($12) a day.

The price of amber, fossilized resin from conifers, is substantially inflated in the jewelry stores where the pieces can go for as much as 20,000 pesos ($1,600).

Sources with the Amber Regulatory Council in Simojovel told Efe that the resin extracted from the caves is from 25-40 million years old, making it harder than any other type of amber in the world.

About 10 percent of the 17,000 people who live in Simojovel dedicate themselves to the mining of semiprecious stones in the nine caves that surround the mainly Indian [Indigenous] town, which produces 3.5 tons of amber each year, equivalent to 90 percent of the total production of the resin in Chiapas.

To mine it, the workers spend eight hours below ground in terrible conditions because there is little oxygen and temperatures reach 40 C (104 F).

Despite the deaths in recent years of several miners from asphyxiation, the rest continue going down into the caves with primitive carts, simple chisels and hammers as their main tools to extract the stones.

Mario Gomez, 22, has spent almost half his life working in the amber-mining trade, first collecting the resin and later transporting it to the places where the women of the town clean it.

"We spend a lot on batteries because we use lanterns, because inside (the caves) you can't see anything, and we hardly speak at all to save energy and oxygen, because you can suffocate," he told Efe.

He said that when they are 200 meters (650 feet) below ground they can only hit their chisels three times with their hammers before they get tired.

When they get tired they rest until they recover, he added.

The large pieces of amber are the ones that bring the most profit but usually only small pieces are found.

"If there are large stones they are used for necklaces and ornaments with greater workmanship, and that also increases the value, but before all that you have to clean them of the coal they bear and polish them so they look brighter," Gomez said.

Laureano Hernandez, another miner, said that his first descent into the mine made him feel claustrophobic but as time went by he was able to overcome that.

He also told Efe that one becomes accustomed to the lack of oxygen, which is best combated by descending into the depths of the mine calmly and slowly.

Despite the large amount of activity in the Simojovel mines, the Amber Regulatory Council each year reports a reduction in production.

In some local markets, amber is sold under the false pretenses that it is locally produced when in reality its origin is unknown, said council spokesperson Guadalupe del Carmen.

Each mine has a commissioner to review the amber pieces that are extracted, and if they happen to have an insect embedded within them their value skyrockets.

Del Carmen said that scams have been uncovered where amber has been "painted" or insects - including mosquitoes and/or cockroaches - have been placed inside the pieces to increase their value.

The natural variations in color run from yellow, which is the most common, to blue, red, black, and even to white and green, which are the highest-priced and most difficult to find.

Simojovel, which has a Community Museum of Amber, is one of the towns comprising the so-called "Amber Region" of Chiapas.

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