Brazil’s new gold rush

Brazil's new gold rush
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This story has been translated from French.
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Valdir Ferreira, the informal owner of a gold mining operation for the last 15 years, is unimpressed by the hydraulic shovel that methodically scours the forest floor in search of the gold hidden 30 metres below his feet. “Mining gold today takes a lot of money, but there is not much left, and a very high level of investment is needed with these machines,” he says, making his calculations. Every month, he spends around 390,000 reals (€60,000 or US$72,000) to maintain two operating areas and 19 employees. “Whether it’s worth it or not, I don’t even know anymore, but it’s what I can do to support my family, so I have to stay here.”

Ferreira is one of some 40,000 gold diggers, who work illegally in the Alto Tapajós region, in the Brazilian state of Pará, a hotspot for gold mining in the Amazon. The region is said to be one of the largest gold reserves in the world, with 1,000 tonnes of the ore buried up to 1,000 metres deep. This wealth has attracted the interest of gold prospectors, large mining companies and associated financial and political powers. The mine explored by Ferreira, and around 800 other colleagues from the communities of São José and Puerto Rico, is located in the Crepori National Forest, one of the 11 conservation units that cover almost the entire territory of Alto Tapajós, which takes its name from one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, the Rio Tapajós. The few ‘white’ areas, as the unprotected lands are called, are located on the edges of the Transamazonica (Trans-Amazonia in English), Transgarimpeira and BR-163 highways, straight edged plots inherited from the Amazonian development ambitions of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the men and women who worked to open these roads, fled poverty and hunger in the interior of the North-East region, and many ended up staying in the area, turning to gold mining, which was then curtailed with the creation of protected areas in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile on the Brazilian and foreign stock markets, the value of gold is breaking records (a historic peak was reached in August 2020), in line with the trend of seeking safer investments amid the economic uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic; in the currutelas – the villages where the garimpeiros, the artisanal miners, live – the precious metal is fuelling their dreams of riches more than ever. It is a gold rush, with little concern for legality or environmental protection, in a region where the rules of survival take precedence over everything else.

 

The use of increasingly heavy and expensive mechanical devices in mining is a phenomenon that has been growing steadily over the past decade. It is a source of concern for environmentalists.

Photo: Gustavo Basso

In order to assess the extent of the phenomenon of illegal gold miners in the Amazon, a special force has been created by the National Prosecutor’s Office. Paulo Tarso Oliveira is the federal prosecutor involved in information-gathering and anti-garimpeiros actions in western Pará. He finds the current legislation inadequate.

“Gold mining as conceived by the legislator is supposed to be a small-scale artisanal activity, carried out manually on up to 50 hectares, but in practice we have seen the use of huge machines, which operate without preliminary studies. If we have moved from artisanal activity to organised business, why not make it subject to mining legislation?” he asks.

José Gilmar de Araújo, Ferreira‘s business partner, is a prominent local figure and the ‘owner’ of several mines since 1983. “For three years, I have been trying to legalise them, in vain,” complains the resident of Jacareacanga, now the capital of illegal mining. Recently, federal police action against mining on Indigenous lands destroyed two of his excavators: a loss he estimates at 730,000 reals (€112,000 or US$136,000). “The loss is so great that we go days without eating or sleeping properly. I know I’m going to be fined again and I will make a huge loss.”

 

Antônio Filho started mining at the age of 13; now 56 years old, he has returned from Mato Grosso, after 20 years in the forestry industry, to try to extract gold on the outskirts of the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

Photo: Gustavo Basso

However, the garimpeiros are wary of the imposition of real legal rules. “They say there’s a lot of gold here on this land, but it’s all mapped out by the big mining companies; if they arrive, there will be nothing left for us,” worries Filho.

There is no precise data on gold production, as only part of it is included in official records. The known data is the data that sellers provide through self-declaration. About 90 per cent of the gold that passes through Jacareacanga is believed to come from protected Indigenous lands, so brokers need to falsify its origins when recording their sales.

 

Gold is mined in plains near streams, where ore washed by rains accumulates. This mining operation has been criticised for causing the silting up of rivers.

Photo: Gustavo Basso

Advocates of gold mining claim that the area cleared for mining is smaller than in activities such as cattle rearing or planting soya beans. “Gold mining clears a small area, extracts this gold, then leaves nature to renew itself, when the mining passes to the next ravine; cattle and soya beans deforest the land and this land remains cleared forever,” argues Edson Elis, a farm manager, who has already spent 15 years of his life between mud and malaria.

But their arguments ignore the silting up of streams and rivers, considered a critical environmental problem by federal police. “When we talk about destroying an area, it really is relevant. Gold mining, like logging, is a forerunner in removing forest cover; next comes cattle and soya beans, each has its impact, neither worse nor better than the other. This argument hides other effects of informal mining, such as mercury contamination, the social impact, and even the formation of money laundering chains,” warns prosecutor Oliveira.

 

Valdir Ferreira examines an embankment, looking for gold hidden in the subsoil of the Alto Tapajós region. His teams have to dig up to 30 metres underground to extract an average of 300 grams in two weeks.

Photo: Gustavo Basso

As for the Munduruku Indians, legal users of the Munduruku and Sai Cinza lands, where much of the ore comes from, little of the wealth reaches them. According to information gathered locally by Equal Times, it is estimated that 20 per cent of the 2,000 gold miners working in these regions are Indigenous. Other non-native gold miners pay a royalty of 10 per cent of their earnings to tribal chiefs for their exploitation.

In the region, the influx of money and industrial exploration activities caused division amongst the natives of the upper Tapajós, between those who reject any extractive activity and those who do not want to miss out on the financial resources it provides. But according to the Federal Constitution, lands traditionally occupied by Indigenous communities belong to the Union, and the use of mineral wealth is subject to the authorisation of the National Congress.

 

Every day, dozens of boats leave Jacareacanga, carrying people and products to the mines across the Tapajós River, for example via São José do Pacu village.

Photo: Gustavo Basso

With a workforce dedicated almost exclusively to gold mining, there is no local production of food, drink or timber in the villages opened up by mining: it all ends up being brought in from outside, with prices inflated by excess currency and high transport costs. As a result, meat for example is up to 20 per cent more expensive than in the country’s major cities.

The villages buried in the middle of the forest repeat a pattern observed in Brazil since the colonial period: the complete dedication of the entire workforce to a monoculture economy.

 

The cooks are a rare female presence. Unlike the garimpeiros, who receive a percentage of the gold mined, these workers receive a salary of 20 grams of gold per month, estimated at around 5,000 reals (€770 or US$934 US), more than three times the average salary in the north and north-east of the country.

Photo: Gustavo Basso

In the grocery stores and dormitories of the currutelas, electricity is still produced by diesel engines, the noise of which is covered only by the fans essential to dissipate the heat of the Amazon and of the bars. Open from Monday to Sunday, the bars serve overpriced beer, while girls from other parts of the world sell their bodies for a few grams of gold garnered by men after a hard day’s labour.

As a witness to these timeless scenes for 15 years, Edson Souza is adamant: “I just want my children to study and have a good job so that they don’t become gold diggers. It’s bad to live like this, facing constant risks and heavy labour.”