About this project
Our Vision: Mary Kelsey and Steve Cagan, Cleveland area artist and photographer, are developing a project to look at the effects of gold mining in the northwest El Chocó department of Colombia.
Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people of the area have been panning for gold as part of their traditional economy. They planted, hunted, fished, and cut lumber primarily for their own consumption. They also panned for gold part-time to provide cash for the things they did not produce themselves. This type of traditional panning—which still goes on—has barely any environmental impact.
Increases in the price of gold have brought mechanized mining, which threatens the delicate rain forest environment and its traditional cultures. Scores of large backhoes push aside and discard the thin forest topsoil and open immense pits to search for gold. Tons of silt and rocks, oil and chemicals destroy streams and rivers. Mercury is burned in the open air, contaminating air, soil and water.
Mechanized mining also produces profound social distortions as people abandon traditional activities and take up full-time panning in areas left behind by the machinery.
This project has been endorsed by the Rainforest Committee of the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club.
Who We Are: Steve has been photographing in this area of El Chocó for ten years. He has a network of friendships and professional relationships in institutions and communities. Steve’s article on mining will be published this winter in the journal of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard.
Mary has worked as a visual artist in rain forest communities in three countries of Central America, exploring the relationships of people to local environmental issues. She has exhibited and published that work, as well as given illustrated talks on the subject.
We are both past recipients of Fulbright grants for our work.
For us as artists, drawing does not start with the pen and pad, nor photography with the camera, but with a commitment to the communities whose situations we are witnessing.
Risks and challenges
If we were starting this work without our extensive backgrounds of work in these areas, we might be concerned about our ability to pull such a project off. But our experience in this area and our relationships with the communities give us confidence. Although there might be a concern about working in an area where there is violence of the Colombian civil conflict, Steve has worked closely with the Catholic diocese and communities, and they are very careful to let us know where we can NOT go.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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