Albion Monitor /News

Brazilian Gold Rush Symptom of Poverty

by Ulisses Capozoli

Pitted against mining companies, the government, the military and large farm-owners

(PANOS/IPS) SAO PAULO -- Thousands of hopeful gold-diggers have descended upon the gold-rich village of Serra Pelada in the northern Brazilian province of Para, setting the stage for possible confrontations over Brazil's greatest natural resource -- land.

In spite of its vast territory of 8.5 million square kilometers, Brazil has been witness to constant conflict over land. These clashes pit poor gold-diggers or "garimpeiros," indigenous people and, recently, a multitude of landless peasants against mining companies, the government, the military and large farm-owners.

The basic problems facing the gold-diggers, the indigenous people and the rural landless are the same: unemployment and abject poverty. And the rush for gold in Serra Pelada is a reflection of these problems.

Official statistics place the number of unemployed in Brazil at 3.5 million, but unofficial estimates put it at about six million.

The ranks of gold-diggers swell by 100 each day

The struggle for land over gold mining is not unique to Brazil.

Experts predict that in 20 years around half of global gold production will come from territories used or claimed by indigenous peoples.

These regions include Amazonia, the high Andes, parts of northern Canada, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and northern Samiland in Scandinavia (Lapland).

The World Bank estimates that mining by gold-diggers alone produces half of Brazil's total gold output. Other studies of the country's northernmost state, Roraima, which produces ten percent of the informal sector's gold output, show that mining is import ant in supplementing smallholder incomes.

It is no surprise that between 6,000 and 12,000 gold-diggers have converged on the ramshackle village of Serra Pelada following the discovery earlier this year of what could be the largest gold deposit yet found in South America.

The gold deposit, announced by the state-owned mining company, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, is estimated at anywhere between 150 and 900 tons. If true, it will dwarf the 1980s' gold find at nearby Eldorado dos Carajas, which yielded between 40 and 100 tons of gold to some 70,000 garimpeiros.

But confrontations loom over two crucial differences between the 1980s' gold rush and the one at Serra Pelada.

For one, the 1980s' deposit was at an accessible depth of 100 meters, whereas the Serra Pelada gold is thought to lie 400 meters below ground, which would make it beyond the reach of the garimpeiros' simple picks and shovels. A spokesman for the company was quoted saying recently in a newspaper article that the gold diggers' "primitive methods using the pick and shovel are outdated. To get at the gold, we have to ....use the latest technology."

As a result, the company has tried to move in modern mining machinery.

But gold-diggers have sporadically tried to stop company lorries from entering the area with the gold deposits.

Second, the government may not allow the garimpeiros free access to all the deposits, as was the case in the 1980s. This is because the company claims that part of the deposit belongs to land that it owns, which is contested by the gold-diggers. In addition, the company has been negotiating the purchase of further land with private owners in the area.

The diggers have been allocated about 100 hectares to mine. Said Fernando Marolino, leader of the miners, "the company wants to kill us by suffocation."

Undaunted, the ranks of gold-diggers swell by 100 each day and this, observers warn, could mean clashes. A general climate of tension and unease has worsened recently on account of a violent clash close to Serra Pelada.

Poverty and political violence amid a wealth of natural resources

The April 19 incident involved a group of landless peasants or "sem terras," who had blockaded a road at Eldorado dos Carajas, demanding land for the landless. A clash occurred with armed police, leaving 19 demonstrators dead and 51 injured. It was one of the bloodiest such encounters in Brazil.

The steady stream of diggers into the village poses a huge health problem as well -- one only has to witness what has been left of the deposit at Eldorado dos Carajas from just a decade ago to sense that.

The old excavated mine, only two kilometers from the new site, has been turned into a lake which is polluted with mercury that had been used to extract gold. Though the health implications are enormous, there are no doctors in Curianopolis, the municipality to which Serra Pelada belongs. Instead, four nurses take turn in an improvised attempt to treat gold-diggers, many of whom are ill with malaria or poisoned by snake-bites.

Garimpeiros, Indians and the "sem terras" tell the same story.

The gold-diggers are jobless drifters from cities and towns -- a collection of disillusioned men who have little opportunities to better their standard of living and who see prospecting for gold as a quick way to get rich.

Joao Roberto Parello, a 49-year-old former lawyer, was among the gold-diggers who arrived at Serra Pelada in March. He told journalists, "I have gold in my blood and I need it to survive."

The "sem terras," on the other hand, are villagers who have no work because farms have become unproductive. Economic depression in recent years has hit the farming sector, and prices of farm produce have plummeted.

Formed into an irregular army of bedraggled peasants and equipped with instruments to work the soil, they roam the country and invade any vacant or unproductive farm that they can find. Their aim is to press the Brazilian government to adopt land reforms so that peasants can grow food.

The third deprived section -- the indigenous people of Brazil -- face the constant threat of illegal possession of their lands. Indian lands are rich in gold, wood and other natural resources, which makes them an attractive and easy target for unscrupulous and wealthy land-owners. In the past, these land-owners have acquired Indian land without any formal documentation -- by simply threatening indigenous people.

Besides, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso passed a decree in January, substantially reducing the number of lands officially recognized as owned by indigenous people.

In a sense, Serra Pelada is a metaphor for conditions of life in Brazil -- poverty and political violence amid a wealth of natural resources.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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