Not a romantic business
The dredge owner, expecting no patrols the next night, invited us along. Everything worked out as planned. Around 7pm, the barge’s powerful 165 horsepower engines kicked in and took us out to the middle of the river. Those same engines power the two hoses sucking up sediment. This muddy water cascades onto thick carpets which retain the heaviest sediments.
Nothing about modern-day gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon is romantic. The dredge laborers toil in an unhealthy and dangerous work environment, dominated by the deafening noise and stench of exhaust from the massive engines which burn about 100 liters (26.4 gallons) of diesel per night. The angle of the large flexible hoses (with diameters from 30-60 centimeters (roughly 12-24 inches) must be adjusted constantly. And when a hose breaks loose from a crane, a worker must jump into the dark river, dive down, and adjust attaching ropes.
Work shifts are exhausting. From the time the garimpeiros arrive in the afternoon to prepare the equipment, until the end of the cleaning process using the carpets back ashore the next morning, the men can put in a 20 hour day, most of it overnight.
The total amount of gold harvested from the river the night we were aboard: 10 grams, or 3,000 reais (roughly US$600). The commission given to the workers is 12%, totaling US$ 72 for those 20 hours of work.
As small of a profit as that may seem for so much work, the gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon continues surging. In the first four months of 2020, as the global pandemic worsened, there was a 14.9% increase in gold exports by Brazil, according to a report published by Escolhas, a Brazilian-based Institute. There is little doubt that a substantial portion of that gold was mined illegally. That illicit gold ends up being laundered before it ultimately reaches the other end of the supply chain in the global financial market and international jewelry trade.
Laundering is achieved by mixing illegally mined gold in with that which is mined with a legal permit, something achieved quite easily by the DTVMs (an acronym for the authorized agents who purchase gold and who are scattered in cities and towns across the Amazon), says Ana Carolina Haliuc Bragança, Attorney of the Republic in Amazonas state.
The Bolsonaro government — and administrations before his — have all recognized the illegality of the gold trade, but contend that it is too difficult to police in the remote Amazon. “Mining is not a police matter, it is a social matter. Isolated policies, whether environmental or mineral, will not solve it,” explained Frederico Bedran, director of Geology at Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Even as gold prices soar above $1,700 per ounce, the element’s value can’t begin to make up for the socio-environmental harm done. Gold miners leave behind ravaged and mercury-contaminated, landscapes and riverscapes — an ordered natural world torn from its moorings, turned upside down, and shaken out on carpets.
Add to this the looming danger as tens of thousands of prospectors, potentially carrying the Coronavirus, penetrate deep into remote Amazonia, potentially infecting people in indigenous and traditional communities.
Banner image: A gold dredger on the Madeira River at twilight about to begin its nocturanl prospecting. Image byImage by Fabio Nascimento.
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South Africa Today – Environment
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