A not so illegal industry

It was early October 2019, and the morning after the night on which we observed the miners’ nocturnal prospecting. We’d decided to try and meet some of them, and ask to be taken aboard a barge to observe an evening or two of gold mining.

While we hoped to ask a lot of questions, shoot pictures and video, and get a rare inside look at the industry, we would not be asking for any names or reveal any faces — gold mining in Brazil is only legal with a permit, so a great deal of it is conducted as part of the Amazon’s shadowy illicit gig economy.

During the afternoon, we went down to the Porto Velho riverside and crossed over to the opposite bank where barges of varying sizes were docked — we counted hundreds up and down the river.

Seen by the light of day, a typical dredger looks like an ungainly sea monster: each big barge is topped with giant hoses like elephant trunks, above which hover massive cranes. The cranes are used to lower the huge flexible hoses down to the river bottom, where they suck up mud, sand, silt, and hopefully specks of a precious metal humans have craved beyond reason for centuries.

These urban dredgers mostly lacked permits, so went about their illicit work under cover of darkness. But the degree of that “illegality” is highly debatable. During the day, these floating machines were clearly visible to all, tied up along the banks of the Madeira in plain view of the 530,000 inhabitants of Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia state.

Lately, thousands of new miners have been drawn to the dangerous and unhealthy Amazon gold mining industry. Risking arrest they are driven by the incessant, rising global demand for the precious metal. The miners’ risk is compensated by a recent astronomical rise in gold prices. At the moment, gold is selling at the highest level in a decade — more than US$1,700 per ounce, or $54 a gram, a price forced ever upward by the grim uncertainties of the Coronavirus pandemic and a tanking world economy.

Inside Brazil’s gig gold mining economy

We found the garimpeiros, as the prospectors are called in Brazil, aboard one of the dredges we’d seen fleeing the river the night before.

They were joined by the operation’s owner. A young man in his thirties, he had once worked with an “old” garimpeiro on the Rondônia and Acre state borders. His former boss, seeing the young man’s dedication, offered to sell him a dredger — a great opportunity, even though he is still paying it off.

Mining dredges vary in cost, depending on barge size, and how much sediment can be pulled up per hour. Our operator tells us that dredges can cost anywhere from R$100 thousand to R$1 million (US$20k to US$200k). So lucrative is gold mining along the Madeira River, that investments there for a single dredger have reached some R$2 million (US$400k) according to a Federal Prosecutor’s Office report.

Together our operator and three men work day and night to the point of exhaustion, controlling the machines and hoses which pour sand and silt sucked from the Madeira onto a large carpet, which they then beat, extracting gold specks which they later amalgamate using toxic mercury, leaving tiny shiny coalesced gold lumps the size of a thumb tip. The  residues of discarded mercury-contaminated sediment are washed away into the river without regard for the environment or public health.

After working all night sucking mud from the river bottom, dredge workers must “beat the carpets” to separate the sediment from the gold, which gets stuck to the fabric. Image by Fabio Nascimento.
The sparking process. A rapid circular movement deposits the gold at the bottom of the batela. The process is usually carried out by the dredger owner or manager, who can tell just by glimpsing golden sparks how much gold will be found in a night’s work. Image by Fabio Nascimento.
Mercury burning off in an improvised crucible aboard the dredger. Although laborers mention the health risk of exposure to mercury vapor, they do not really seem to care. Image by Fabio Nascimento.

Much of this happens in plain view, but there seems to be tacit agreements between some authorities and the garimpeiros as to what will be prosecuted and what may not. For example, it is well understood that the miners should only work the river running south of Porto Velho. To the north lies the Madeira River Sustainable Development Reserve, a state conservation unit, where mineral exploitation is strictly prohibited.

The law enforcement threat to the dredgers working to the south of the city comes when Navy agents, Federal  Police, or environmental agencies occasionally send out patrols.

When asked about the up-and-down river distinction, dredge owners congratulated themselves for staying outside the reserve, and for being environmentally friendly, though ignoring the fact that they are acting illegally. All see their endeavors as “honest” work, and back up that assertion by noting the full support of President Jair Bolsonaro, who says he himself was once a garimpeiro.

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.

While mining significantly harms major streams, like the Madeira River, it also does tremendous environmental damage to smaller rivers and tributaries as well as forests all across the Amazon. Image by Fabio Nascimento.

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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Traveling down the Madeira River we saw hundreds of gold mining dredgers. Image by Fabio Nascimento.
Article published by Glenn Scherer
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