Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Gold Mines of the Amazon

Brazil's Amazon basin contains a cycle of poverty that promises riches of gold. But many who work in the gold mines of the Amazon basin never reach the dream of getting rich from finding gold. Instead, they find a life of poverty, malaria and crime.

From the Khaleej Times, we find this AFP story on the "garimpo" or gold mines.

“The garimpo, socially, is one of the great open wounds of this region,” said Minister for Strategic Affairs Roberto Mangabeira Unger who is in charge of drafting a government plan for developing the impoverished Amazon.

In the 1980s, tens of thousands of miners, or “garimpeiros”, worked the pits, which became an economic motor of the area for a decade until most were considered depleted.

Rising gold prices helped trigger a new mini-rush in 2008, when local authorities say the rudimentary mines produced 3.5 tonnes of gold. Hundreds, including de Brito, have flocked to Garimpo Bom Jesus since late last year after news spread of a new motherlode there.

De Brito’s words rose over the incessant chugging of the machine used to sift rocks that—if chance smiles on him—could yield shiny particles of gold.

The mine sits at a muddy clearing framed by jungle, in the west of the state of Para in Brazil’s north.

As a “garimpo”—one of the thousands makeshift excavation areas created by informal gold hunters across Brazil’s vast territory—there is nothing industrial about it.

It resembles more an ant farm with holes everywhere leading to subterranean galleries. On the surface, the gold miners fix hammocks to wooden structures to sleep.

The scene owes more to the early images of the gold rush in the US Wild West than to modern mineral extraction: the process here is basic and done by hand. The chemicals used, like mercury, pollute the environment.

Like the Wild West, too, Bom Jesus is a lawless land, built half on myth and half on misery.

Drugs, prostitution, malaria and undrinkable water make the place a hell on earth. Prospectors shoulder their dream alongside guns for hire and shopkeepers.

“I’ve been working the garimpos since I was 20. And now I’m old and washed-up. I’ve got malaria and I can’t get any more medicine. But without the mine, there’d be no money coming into the region,” said Mario Borges, a 43-year-old miner. Like many, he sees his family only when he finds enough gold to pay the overpriced passage by boat or small plane, every four or five months.

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