In Exchange for Gold


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  • Title: In Exchange for Gold: The Legacy and Sustainability of Artisanal Gold Mining in Las Juntas de Abangares, Costa Rica
  • Author(s): Richard Niesenbaum, Joseph E.B. Elliott
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: On Sustainability
  • Keywords: Costa Rica, Gold Mining, Environmental Mercury, Sustainability, Natural History, Documentary Photography
  • Date: January 25, 2019
  • ISBN (hbk): 978-1-86335-124-9
  • ISBN (pbk): 978-1-86335-125-6
  • ISBN (pdf): 978-1-86335-126-3
  • DOI:
  • Citation: Niesenbaum, Richard , and Joseph E.B. Elliott. 2019. In Exchange for Gold: The Legacy and Sustainability of Artisanal Gold Mining in Las Juntas de Abangares, Costa Rica. Champaign, IL: Common Ground Research Networks. doi:10.18848/978-1-86335-126-3/CGP.
  • Extent: 102 pages

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Copyright © 2019, Common Ground Research Networks, All Rights Reserved


Gold has been mined in the area surrounding the small Costa Rican town of Las Juntas for over 100 years. In the beginning, large-scale North American mining companies exploited the people who worked for them. Today the large-scale mining operations are gone, but the old tunnels are still worked by local artisanal miners or coligalleros as they are called in this town. Conditions in the mines are even more dangerous. Minors process the gold using mercury in their own backyards along the rivers, threatening their own health as well as the ecology and public health of this community and that on a global scale. This book documents the linkage between the human experience and ecology of Las Juntas through the words of a natural scientist and the images produced by a documentary photographer. The photographs are not meant to illustrate or support the text, but rather tell the same story in a different way. This type of collaboration between a scientist and an artist is rare, but is essential for truly understanding the give-and-take among a cultural heritage, social condition, and the ecology of an area. This is a case study that both honors this community and its rich culture and history, and serves to increase awareness of the environmental and human implications of gold extraction by adding a personal element to this story. It also examines sustainable approaches to protecting the environment, and the needs of individuals and communities whose heritage and livelihood come from this activity.