Blood Gold in the Brazilian Rain Forest

Indigenous people and illegal miners are engaged in a fight that may help decide the future of the planet, Jon Lee Anderson writes.

One day in 2014, Belém, a member of Brazil’s Kayapo tribe, went deep into the forest to hunt macaws and parrots. He was helping to prepare for a coming-of-age ceremony, in which young men are given adult names and have their lips pierced. By custom, initiates wear headdresses adorned with tail feathers. Belém, whose Kayapo name is Takaktyx, an honorific form of the word “strong,” was a designated bird hunter.

Far from his home village of Turedjam, Belém ran across a group of white outsiders. They were garimpeiros, gold prospectors, who were working inside the Kayapo reserve—a twenty-six-million-acre Amazonian wilderness, demarcated for indigenous people. Gold mining is illegal there, but the prospectors were accompanied by a Kayapo man, so Belém assumed that some arrangement had been made. About nine thousand Kayapo lived in the forest, split into several groups; each had its own chief, and the chiefs tended to do as they pleased.

Ever since the Kayapo had come into regular contact with the outside world, in the nineteen-fifties, whites had been trying to extract resources from their forests, beginning with animal skins and expanding to mahogany and gold. In the eighties, some chiefs made easy profits by granting logging and mining rights to outsiders, but after a decade the mahogany was depleted and the price of gold had dropped. After environmental advocates in the Brazilian government brought a lawsuit against miners, the Kayapo closed the reserve to extraction. Since then, though, international gold prices have tripled, to fourteen hundred dollars an ounce, and an influx of new miners have come to try their luck.

The prospectors whom Belém met told him that they wanted to build a road linking Turedjam with their mine, about forty miles away through the forest. Belém understood why they wanted such a road. Turedjam was situated on the Rio Branco, which formed the northeastern boundary of the Kayapo reserve. The area was rich in gold—and Turedjam had a recently built bridge that could support heavy vehicles. The proposed road would also allow prospectors to sneak machinery through the reserve under tree cover, without being spotted from the air by federal police, who periodically raided their operations.

Back in Turedjam, Belém told his chief, Mro’ô, about the proposal. A young chief, Mro’ô had founded Turedjam four years earlier, leading a group of Kayapo from his home village after a dispute with a senior chief, who wished to allow outsiders to mine and to log mahogany. Mro’ô had established Turedjam as a “sentinel village,” keeping watch over the vulnerable edge of the reserve. He told Belém to let the prospectors know that he wasn’t interested.

A year later, Mro’ô died, apparently from diabetes. His brother, a heavy drinker known as Juan Piranha, quickly made a deal with the prospectors, and before long their road was cut—a track through the forest wide enough for excavators capable of moving hundreds of tons of rock and earth a day. Then Mro’ô’s successor began allowing prospectors to work the surrounding land in exchange for ten per cent of their findings. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miners poured in.

Wildcat mining is less pervasive than logging, but it can be more insidious. Loggers usually harvest valuable trees and leave the rest; miners cut everything. Mercury, used in the refining process, leaves rivers poisoned, and the pollution can spread hundreds of miles downstream. The allure of gold attracts fortune-seekers, who bring prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and violence. “Letting prospectors into the Kayapo reserve is like leaving your children in the protection of a drug gang,” Barbara Zimmerman, a Canadian ecologist who has worked with the Kayapo for three decades, told me. In the past few years, according to environmentalists, several hundred thousand acres of the reserve have been destroyed or degraded by illegal mining and logging.

Read more of this excellent article: Source: Blood Gold in the Brazilian Rain Forest | The New Yorker

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