Gold Under Foot
August 2008

by Philip Poupin

Gold fever is infectious in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest. The forest is destroyed to dig gold mines and I wanted to see what was happening.

© Philip Poupin/Redux Pictures
A forest area in Brazil has been burned on purpose to be cleared for farming. Grass will be planted to make meadows. The extension of agriculture is one of the causes of the deforestation of the Amazon: the money earned by selling gold is reinvested in agriculture and cattle raising.
Before going to the gold mine, I inquired about the degree of safety at Eldorado do Juma, a nickame given to this mine of the State of Amazonas, 350 km (217 miles) south of Manaus, because of the rush of thousands of gold diggers who have arrived since the discovery of the first vein in November 2006. "No, you aren't a garimpeiro (a gold washer), don't fear anything. But don't dare to buy gold--they will kill you just to rob you!" people told me in the nearest town. This barely comforting news led me to wonder whether the gold washers were really in that much of a fever to have gold. "Fever" was the word that came to my mind even though this kind can't be detected by a thermometer.

I discovered Luis Carlos lying down on a white bed at an Apui hospital, the nearest town to the garimpo (the gold mine), his face swollen, saying nothing. On that morning, the 43-year-old Brazilian lost his hand during a brawl. Because of the dry weather the men hadn't worked. So they started drinking cachaça (a very strong sugar-cane alcohol) very early and too much! As the sun was at its zenith, the quarrel which had been going on for weeks between Luis and his fellow worker degenerated. His colleague tried to cut Luis' throat with a long machete. Luis stopped the blade with his wrist and his hand fell--cut off. Luis, like 3,000 gold washers who work in the garimpo do Juma, arrived here last winter (2006-2007). Like the overwhelming majority of the gold washers, fortune didn't favor him. So far he has lived on imaginary salaries, on the dream of what he could earn if he discovered the vein. The days pass this way in the Eldorado. The gold washers grin and bear it during hot and humid weather, when they catch malaria or when they see their children growing up without going to school. I understood that looking for gold can make you even poorer and can also kill you.

© Philip Poupin/Redux Pictures
In the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, some men dig the sandy earth using a firehose. The mud will then be pumped through another pipe that carries it onto carpets where gold particles are collected.
Staying five months for several reports on trafficking in the Amazon rainforest, I felt all the people I met came straight out of the set of a Western film but the explanation is all too real. Back in Rio de Janeiro visiting some relatives, I was listening to economic news on the radio. A clear reason for what I saw in the forest was aired in brutal clarity by the economics correspondent: "With the economic instability due to the unpredictable stock exchange and the subprime crisis, the value of gold shot up 30% in 2007." In those conditions gold is a safe investment and the desire to seek the precious metal is a normal reaction. Numerous gold mines open or reopen. Even the famous garimpo of Serra Pelada, which Sebastiao Salgado documented in the 1980s, had been exploited for more than 20 years and was later closed. It has just been reopened. More than 10 hectares of rainforest have been devastated at Eldorado do Juma: some people have called it the "new Serra Pelada." The mine has been dug to a depth of more than 25 meters (82 feet) deep. Even though the official line is that there are hundreds of kilos of gold and some will be devoted to reforestation of the site, deforestation is irreversible. The situation felt desperate to me and that the solution was political: gold buyers would have to adopt a different behavior and ask for more controls on the business.

© Philip Poupin/Redux Pictures
A young gold digger pans to find gold in a pit more than 25 meters (82 ft.) deep.
The gold mine on the Juma River is illegal but can't be closed down. The presence of the police is the evidence and the paradox of it. How to chase away 3,000 workers who came there to survive? "The date of the regulation of the mine is not scheduled," reveals the police chief living permanently in the mine. His job is limited to lowering the number of brawls and thefts. In the neighboring town of Apui the senior police officer, wishing to remain anonymous, confided in a low voice that to speak about the legality of the mine is taboo. This at the last moment of our talk as the bus that was going to take me more than 800 kms (500 miles) further on the Trans-Amazonian road was arriving.

The bus moved away and the sight of deforestation along the Trans-Amazonian leaves little hope for the fate of Eldorado. In the Amazon the road and development that it is supposed to bring is the pathway to further deforestation. The garimpo do Juma has its own plan for a road: a path has already been opened. The mine will later become a village, then a town. The land speculators will reap the profits made over the last years. And the rootless men, seeing their vein shrinking away, will go somewhere else, lured by a new rumor. Few of them will make up the new population of Eldorado since they need to find a means by which to support themselves.

© Philip Poupin/Redux Pictures
The garimpo do Juma, "the gold mine of the Juma River," spreads over 10 hectares (25 acres) and was hollowed out to 25 meters (82 feet) deep. Deforestation, a consequence of mining, is irreversible.
While the old bus bumps up and down on the dusty road bordering meadows strewn with charred logs I think again about the two stripteases I saw two evenings in a row in the mine. Two prostitutes undressed completely on a little wooden stage. As the male audience became overexcited, the men bid on the women. The highest bidders got the girls for the night. The women will be paid about two grams of gold for the night, the equivalent to 30 euros/20 dollars. Women such as these make the rounds of the mines staying only a few weeks in each of them. So those migratory women sell their bodies to rootless men who have only a bit of gold to cling to and stay alive.

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© Philip Poupin

Philip Poupin is the AfghanWire staff photographer. He has worked in France, Palestine, Turkey, Niger, Chad, Sudan (Darfur), Bosnia and Afghanistan. He won the Grand Prix Paris Match du Photoreportage Etudiant in 2004. His work is distributed by ZUMA Press and LightMeditation.

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