August 10, 2012
Hola! I have tons of pictures and video to post, but we just arrived back at the hotel after a long dinner with the geologists, so I have to go to bed pronto to be up on time in the morning. Until visuals, enjoy these descriptions of the day:
WOW. This road into the mountains is the main – and until recently, only paved – Andean highway. With only one lane each direction, it connects Peru’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Today we rode it through a river-carved canyon, past the crowded foothill towns, into the mining districts, and across the South American continental divide.
The scientific experience I’m receiving completely surpasses any expectations I had, ever. Years ago I thought I would work in Peru at the beginning of my PhD. It is amazing that I am here now instead. As grad students, we celebrate myopic concentration on specific problems. But now that I’m here, I see how my work relates to a completely different world.
I just can’t describe the elation of being here with this amazing team of people. In addition to chairs from the USC Earth Sciences Department and Peru’s PUCP Mining Engineering department, joining us is the chief geologist and several other geologists from the PanAmerican mining company. Wow. Picture all of us, standing around a geologic map, standing on the South American continental ddivide. Little children bundled up in wool coats, swarming to sell us sweets, joined our huddle to stare at the strange map. And Dr. Rosas explained my dissertation work to the collected geologists, and said, “Todo es paleontologia!”; It’s all paleontology. They nodded and added agreements in Spanish. With my mix of spanglish, I’m able to explain my work, and ask questions, and it’s a totally amazing field seminar.
I’m an ecologist. I’m a time traveling ecologist. I want to know how animals recovered from a mass extinction. Studying marine invertebrates is completely different from studying terrestrial vertebrates, like dinosaurs. The animals I study don’t just get caught up in rocks. They create rocks. The animals that are alive in the sea drive the construction of whole worlds of rock, which, millions of years later, determine the location and availability of valuable human resources.
The mines themselves have long plagued society here with ignorant environmental devastation. Now the larger companies, if continually held responsible by the government, are investing uncounted millions into the education, research, infrastructure, engineering, and chemistry to create sustainable mineral resource management. Rocks and metallurgy are at the very heart of Peruvian culture from ancient times. Now the resources that built this computer I’m typing on and the airplane that flew me here have the power to pay for the needed environmental and civil infrastructure the people here need.
As a lifelong treehugger, looking into open pit mines alongside alpine lakes and bleach-white cliffs devastated by irresponsible mining many decades ago, it is strange that I feel a swelling confidence that people can, if they work cleverly, make this right. Dr. Rosas is passionate about the changes sweeping this industry and her university, and her students are learning how to process, isolate, and manage mining wastes from previous generation’s misuse.
Today we looked at cliffs and drove to mountain overlooks to survey the land we’ll be hunting for fossils all week. We would have started hunting today, but the geologists had to explain to a farmer that no, we are not looking for ore, and we are not looking to start any new mines in his area, so he would let us pass by a road he’d blocked near his farm. How to explain how esoteric, academic, and altogether non-lucrative the work that Dave and I do!? But the geologists were in their company outfits; he was necessarily cynical and explained wrongs the defunct 1970s company Cerro de Pasco did to him and his neighbors. Big changes in mining, big changes in geology; we’re just here to learn about the past, so we can better manage the future. After a long talk and showing him all of our university identifications, “de siencias”, he agreed to let us return on Wednesday morning. His son looked on curiously with his herding dogs. The old man shook our hands again, and seemed impressed at least with how far we’ve come to see his “rockas”. He may even come with us, and – crossing my fingers – we can show him his fossilized neighbors.