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Brazil: poverty, desperation at Amazon 'El dorado'

by Staff Writers
Garimpo Bom Jesus, Brazil (AFP) April 29, 2009
A rumor is all it took to set off a gold rush in the deepest reaches of Brazil's Amazon jungle, with a thousand prospectors today plumbing an old mine in hopes of striking it rich.

Yet the "fortune" many have found since arriving at the Garimpo Bom Jesus (Good Jesus Mine) in recent months is meager at best, while malaria and unscrupulous mine operators sap health and wealth.

"It's like the lottery: few get lucky, but a lot of people keep going in hope of a better life," explained Elias de Brito, a 52-year-old who has spent half his life in search of an El Dorado in the region's mines -- or "garimpo", a legacy of a 1980s gold rush.

A Brazilian minister on a visit to Garimpo Bom Jesus saw things differently.

"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.

-- The mine is a prison in the jungle --


A few have done well, however. Joel Souza, a 24-year-old, presents himself as the "owner" of one of the shafts, and shows off a big watch, several chains and rings, all made of gold.

He sits near the top of a hierarchy that provides little benefit for those at the bottom, scrabbling in the mud and dark.

The alleged owner of the mine, at the summit of the system, says he possesses a mining permit. The rudimentary air field he had built allows him to charge exorbitant fares for the miners to fly out their gold and fly in supplies and fuel.

Under him, the shaft "owners" lay down capital to carve out tunnels in which five or six men will work. They have no salary but share only a small percentage of what they might find in the pit; the rest goes the "owner". Some miners work months for a few hundred dollars.

"They say they're the boss, and we have to accept it because they have the tools, the plane and the money. We don't," said Jose Ribamar Pereira, a 48-year-old miner who has spent 31 years in the garimpos.

Despite his grumbling, Ribamar Pereira was happy when he spoke because he had just been paid four grams of gold, worth 90 dollars, after a numbing 24-hour shift sifting rocks.

For lawmaker Jose da Silva, however, the Garimpo Bom Jesus "is a prison in the jungle, 100 percent illegal in terms of the environment and workers' rights."

"We can see that the state has a lot left to do in the Amazon," he told AFP after visiting the site.

Though Brazil is Latin America's biggest economy, the global financial crisis has driven up unemployment, a scenario that doesn't help officials already trying to halt illegal mining and logging in the impoverished Amazon.

"We have 25 million people in the Amazon who need to live," Mangabeira Unger said.

A regional official in charge of mining, Seme Sefrian, meanwhile, talked up the benefit of allowing the mines to continue. "The garimpos still account for 50 percent of the economy of the town of Itaituba," he said.

That community -- the closest settlement to Garimpo Bom Jesus, 300 kilometers (200 miles) away -- is the capital of a municipality that covers 62,000 square kilometers (24,000 square miles), an area twice as big as Belgium, for a population of 125,000.

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