LAKWÉV, HAITI — From the small clay yard outside his house made of wooden sticks and mud, Jacques Charles holds a metal bowl filled with water and shows off the sliver of gold resting at the bottom. Then, he reveals the place where he found it—a 12-meter deep tunnel on the side of a hill that he’s been digging with a shovel for 22 days.
“I’ve found bigger ones than this, but you have to have good luck,” he says. “If the spirit doesn’t want you to continue living in misery, he can tell you where it’s buried.”
For more than 30 years, Charles and his neighbors in the village of Lakwev in Haiti’s rural northeast have been digging into the hard ground and sifting through the uncovered dirt in a search of the gold they know to be buried underneath. Artisanal mining is illegal in Haiti even when residents own the land they dig on. It’s also incredibly dangerous—the makeshift, hand-dug tunnels can easily collapse upon the digger, trapping him or her beneath tons of solid earth. Some in Lakwev have died that way.
Like many in the community, Charles didn’t want to spend his life digging for gold. Several years ago, he crossed the border to the Dominican Republic just a few dozen miles away, where he worked as a construction worker. When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, Charles immediately returned with all the money he had saved — but it didn’t last long. He needed some source of income to feed and educate his three kids.
So, like others before him, he began digging.