How coronavirus is fuelling an illegal gold rush in the Amazon

Driven by skyrocketing prices, surging unemployment and lax enforcement, people are travelling from all over Brazil to work in the jungle. Terrence McCoy and Heloisa Traiano report

Monday 21 September 2020 13:00 BST
Miners work in a ravine at an illegal site in the Amazon
Miners work in a ravine at an illegal site in the Amazon

Alessandro Souza is a gold hunter. He chases it deep into protected indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest, travelling days by foot and canoe, and doesn’t emerge until his pockets are full. Sometimes he’s gone two months. Sometimes six. The only certainty is that he’ll be back, because hunting gold is his business, and business is booming.

“Today’s market quote,” Souza messages his WhatsApp group, Goldminers Without Borders: Gold is going for nearly $1,800 an ounce. Souza posts an arrow pointing skywards.

The coronavirus has devastated Brazil, infecting more than 4 million people and killing more than 130,000. It’s also fuelling the largest gold rush in the Amazon in years – with the potential for long-lasting consequences to the rainforest.

Driven by the skyrocketing gold prices, surging unemployment and lax enforcement by a distracted government, people are travelling from all over the country to hundreds of illegal mining sites, invading protected indigenous lands, stripping swathes of forest bare, poisoning rivers with mercury and laundering illegal gold through mineral shops. And they’re largely getting away with it.

Deforestation associated with mining on indigenous lands, where such activity is illegal, has reached record highs

Much of the activity is concentrated in the vast and underpoliced state of Para, where Souza lives in the remote mining hub of Itaituba, and where gold exports have risen sharply this year. As Brazil shifted its attention to the pandemic, exports have more than quadrupled, rising to $245m during the first six months of this year. 

In interviews, law enforcement officials, indigenous leaders, federal inspectors and even gold miners say the administration of Jair Bolsonaro has neglected its responsibility as a steward of the Amazon. 

At a time when scientists say the forest is being dangerously destabilised by deforestation, President Bolsonaro has pushed to scale back enforcement and legalise mining on indigenous land.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has used the military to crack down on environmental destruction, but it has been ineffective. The government’s chief environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, has been constrained by budget cuts, unfilled vacancies and Bolsonaro’s criticism. 

A miner washes a carpet used to trap gold fragments

It has scaled back the destruction of mining equipment found at illegal gold digs – a tactic advocates say is a key deterrent – and reduced operations to curb criminality in the Amazon.

“This moment is different,” says Sergio Leitao, the executive director of the Choices Institute, an environmental organisation tracking gold mining during the pandemic.

“The valuation of gold, the amount of manual labour that will work for almost nothing, the reduction in enforcement, and a government that is supporting the legalisation of more gold mining. This is a perfect storm.”

Bolsonaro’s office declined requests for comment. Environment minister Ricardo Salles initially agreed to be interviewed, but then cancelled. The defence ministry defended the government’s response.

“The country is unjustly accused of not taking care of the region,” the ministry said in a statement. It cited its recent enforcement operations and stressed the complexities in patrolling a forest “of continental proportions”.

Mercury is an essential tool in the process: maritime ecologies have collapsed. Indigenous communities have been poisoned. Years after mining, the earth remains barren and lifeless

Few know better than Souza. He has scoured for gold all over the Amazon, unlicensed and on protected land. Poverty and bureaucracy, he says, has left him without a choice: “We don’t have other options.”

So he does his best to avoid getting caught. This next dig will be so deep into indigenous forest – six days by canoe and foot – that he doesn’t expect to run into anyone else. Just forest and gold.

Illegal gold mining accounts for only a small fraction of deforestation in the Amazon – far less than agricultural practices – but its effect is more insidious. Mercury is an essential tool in the process, used to collect and purify gold traces found in the soil. 

Its toxicity seeps into the soil, air and water. Maritime ecologies have collapsed. Indigenous communities have been poisoned. Years after mining, the earth remains barren and lifeless.

“It ends up killing nature,” says Marilene Nascimento, a cook at illegal gold mining sites outside of Itaituba. “The rivers aren’t the same. The fish die. For years and years, they don’t come back to normal.”

Gold sits in a pan moments after being torched to eliminate any mercury left

After years working on digs, Nascimento has grown ambivalent about her work. She can’t forget the environmental devastation she has seen, and last year she swore she wouldn’t go back. But then the pandemic hit, other work opportunities dried up, and a friend was calling, asking if she wanted to make some good money. Nascimento would get 30 grams of gold for one month of working as a mining cook.

She did a quick calculation using that day’s gold prices, and was stunned. She’d make more than $1,200. Far more than last year. And 10 times more than she could earn in the city.

“It’s hard to see nature being destroyed,” Nascimento says. “But you make so much money.”

The forest has long been a safety net for Brazilians. During the economic downturn in the 1980s, as many as 100,000 people descended on the mine known as Serra Pelada. 

Another wave followed during the global financial crisis in 2009. And again in 2013. The gold miner became a Brazilian archetype: he wandered into the forest with little more than a hammock and hope.

A worker melts gold at a shop in Itaituba

But that’s not today’s miner. In the past decade, the enterprise has been industrialised and professionalised. Well-financed networks equip miners with expensive, heavy construction equipment like bulldozers and construction trucks. 

Remote digs have wifi, cable television and gas stoves. Even some indigenous people, lured by the technology, have taken it up.

Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018, has promised to expand mining even further. The son of a Serra Pelada miner, he says they aren’t criminals, but workers struggling to survive. He has welcomed them into meetings and criticised Ibama for destroying their equipment. 

Last year the agency burnt only 72 heavy mining machines – around a third of the number destroyed in 2015. Officials who oversaw one operation were fired. The military cancelled another, blocking Ibama from using its helicopters.

Senior Ibama inspectors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and policies have emboldened gold miners and made their own work all but impossible. 

When investigators are allowed to go out, they say, illegal miners mock them. They say nothing will stop them. That the gold is coming out of the forest, one way or another. That Bolsonaro is on their side.

“We’re getting so much political pressure,” one of the officials said. “It’s practically impossible to head out into the field. We’re being assailed constantly. People aren’t being punished.”

That’s common knowledge in Itaituba, a mining town of 100,000 residents deep in the Amazon, where gold is so omnipresent that it’s used as currency. Businesses along Rua do Ouro – “Gold Street” – buy illegally mined gold, authorities say, then launder it into export markets. 

Gold is weighed at a shop in Itaituba

The mayor, a miner himself, recently erected a monument to gold mining. Local journalists don’t even pretend to be objective. “More than 70 per cent of the mining is illegal,” says Mauro Torres, the editor of a local news site. “But I’m on the side of the gold miner.”

“With every video of Bolsonaro, I’m more proud of my vote,” reads a typical tribute.

Many miners see Bolsonaro as their champion. He has defended them from environmentalists, nongovernment organisations, indigenous advocates, pressure from foreign leaders and the government itself.

For years, they say, Brazilian authorities encouraged mining in the forest. The right to mine is enshrined in the constitution. But then the government made registration so arduous, and protected so much territory, miners say, that honest workers were made into environmental criminals.

“There’s no poverty in Itaituba,” says Jose Antunes, a prominent local lawyer who represents miners. “There never was. People come here to escape poverty.”

That is the hope of Ronaldo dos Santos, 30, who has travelled 1,000 miles from Lago das Pedras, in the state of Maranhao, to reach the gold mines of Itaituba. It was either that, he says, or watch his four children go hungry in Brazil’s poorest state. Now he says he could make thousands of dollars per month, mining gold by day, sleeping in a forest hammock by night.

He doesn’t worry much – not about environmental damage, the law or invading indigenous land. In fact, he says, mining there is better. “Indigenous land is where you get the good gold,” dos Santos says. “Easier to find.”

That is where Souza is heading. He isn’t looking forward to it. He hates being away from his children and wife for months. But he says he has little choice.

“If I stayed in the city to try to find work, I wouldn’t be able to put my kids through school,” he says. “There’s no work.” He wishes he could tell his family how long he’ll be away. “The miner knows that he is leaving,” Souza says. “He doesn’t know when he’ll return.”

© The Washington Post

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