Dominican Amber Mines
Let’s play word association. I say a word and you try to think of all the words that come to mind.
Ready? Here it goes. “Amber Mine.” Excavation. Hole in the ground. Shafts. Dirty-faced miners. Trolley. Shovels. Lamps on helmets. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Okay, I don’t know where the last one came from. But indeed, most of us have a certain image in our heads as to what a mine should look like, and the above words sum this up quite nicely. Steven Spielberg didn’t help the image. In his 1993 movie Jurassic Park, he depicted a Dominican Amber Mine the way he felt it should look (using the above words). The result was a very stylized Dominican Amber Mine, with a river alongside it, about a dozen miners in hardhats with picks and shovels and even the obligatory mining trolley. The mine itself was large and secured by pillars. It was vertical so that a grown man could stand in it. Even the amber pieces found are easily exposed and show off their interior beauty in the shine of powerful flashlights. To this critic, however, the funniest discrepancy was the Mexican accents of the miners. In short, most people imagine amber mining to be like shaft mining. The truth is, it is closer to bell pitting than shaft mining. The difference is quickly apparent: shaft mining is what everyone understands under ‘mining’: trolleys, lamps, pillars, the works.
Bell pitting, on the other hand is basically a foxhole dug with whatever tools are available. Machetes to begin with, some shovels and picks and hammers may participate eventually. The pit itself goes as deep as possible or safe, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, but never level. It snakes into hill sides, drops away, joins up with others, goes straight up and pops out elsewhere. ‘Foxhole’ applies indeed: rarely are the pits large enough to stand in, and tif so, only at the entrance. Miners crawl around on their knees using candles and short-handled picks, shovels and machetes. There are little to no safety measures in sight. A pillar or so may hold back the ceiling from time to time but only if the area has previously collapsed. There is also a shocking lack in any other safety measures usually found in other mines. Candles are the only source of light. Humidity inside the mines is at 100%. Since the holes are situated high on mountainsides (no rivers to speak of) and deep inside said mountains, the temperature is cool and bearable, but after several hours, the air becomes stale.
During rainy season, the mines are forced to close. The holes fill up quickly with water, and there is little point in pumping it out again (although sometimes this is done) because the unsecured walls may crumble. The dirt is hauled out of the pits using sacks, and the miners crawl to the surface out of their cave in Platonic fashion, squint into the sun as they dump the dirt and promptly return down into their reality.
There are some mining families who have done this for years. Other miners come on a temporary basis, but the number of people involved in the digging process fluctuates around 3000 island wide. In light of the above circumstances one is forced to ask why anyone would want to continue such a seemingly hazardous occupation. In order to understand the Dominican miners, one must understand the Dominican idiosyncrasy. We already talked about this in the Amber Forger Boys article, but the gist would be: as long as it works, it’ll do. This is also true when you look at the lack of security measures.
Most mines are privately held. Owners to permit the miners to dig on their premises and then buy the found stones from them. This is advantageous to the owner since he only pays the miners if they find something,o or if the miner shows him what he found. Much smuggling going on and as an outsider you might get into serious trouble when you buy directly from the miner. The advantage for the miners is that the more they work and find, the more money they make. It is not uncommon for a miner to make many thousand pesos in a good week , working on his own schedule. But then there are weeks we he will not find anything at all. Unfortunately, there are often cases of immorality, alcoholism and gambling (cockfighting is particularly popular among miners) and other money consuming habits. Foresight is no common at all — living in the moment is what counts. As a result, many mining families live in relative poverty (relative to western standards).
What about rumors of child labor? Unless a father decides to take his son to the mine and show him the ropes and have him help out a bit, children do not work in the mines (there goes another Indiana Jones image). Of course it is natural for kids to help out in the family business, especially here. Family bonds are very important in the Dominican Republic and young people are supposed to contribute, even after marriage. Children are not just thought of as offspring to guarantee the succession of a family line, but also as a Retirement Plan. At a certain age the roles in the household are reversed, and the grown children take care of their aged parents. At least this is the way it should be. A pointer to any foreigner considering marriage to a Dominican: you do not marry a person, you marry a family.
Mines spring literally out of the ground over night, sometimes last only a short time, and then run dry. Others seem to go on for years and specialize in certain types of amber. While one may be known for its insects, another may be known for its blue variations. Some have been around for years and don’t seem to slow down. Most of them are located in the Cordillera Septentrional, a mountain range between the coastal city of Puerto Plata and the “secret capital” of the Dominican Republic, the city of Santiago.
Want to visit a mine? Dominican amber mines are commonly not open to the public. In most cases, the access and even the way to the mines is rather dangerous. There is no security or insurance and no reliable guide can be provided. If someone offers himself as a guide, he might not have in mind to give you a great day, but cut himself a deal selling at high prices to a gullible tourist.
As mentioned before, in most cases the land where the mines are located is privately owned. The miners themselves have no authorization to sell directly to the public without the consent of the owners of the land. If they are caught doing so, they might face prosecution by law or even imprisonment or at least being expelled from the mine. So, please, don’t lead them into temptation.