Mining Mania: The Lure of Gold Has Brought Thousands of Migrants to the Rainforests of the Brazilian Amazon, Where They Toil in Artisanal Mines for Little Reward. and as the Country's Reserves Are Exhausted, the Practice Has Begun to Spread to Neighbouring French Guiana

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A trader examines a nugget in Oiapoque, Amapa province, Brazil. History's first recorded gold rush took place in Brazil during the 1960's, when about 400,000 Portuguese speculators imported more than 500,000 African slaves to work in what is now Minas Gerais province in the country's southeast. The latest in a series of recent rushes in the region began in 2006 and has seen as many as 500000 people exploring the rainforest in search of gold


ABOVE: a mine in Boca do Jacare, French Guiana, where Brazilians have begun to dig for gold as deposits in their own country dry up. This kind of artisanal operation is typically dug by three men. Twenty days' work might produce a few hundred grams of gold. Once they have paid for a generator, fuel and food, each miner will have two or three grams left: ABOVE RIGHT: at Eldorado do Juma in Amazonas, Brazil, miners go to great lengths to strike gold these days. This slum village, 80 kilometres north of the town of Apui on the banks of the Juma river, was the site of a gold rush in 2006. Rumours of rich deposits attracted as many as 3,000 men and women from all walks of life, who flocked to this remote outpost to try their luck. Since then, professional miners have continued to work there, digging deep pits in which they loosen the soil with high-powered hoses. The ponds and streams created are then panned and the residue searched for gold


ABOVE: washing mercury in Approuague, French Guiana. Although illegal, mercury is still routinely used as part of the extraction process at artisanal mines in Brazil and French Guiana. Mixed with gravel that has been washed and crushed, it draws together specks of gold dust. When this amalgam is heated, the mercury evaporates, leaving gold with no impurities. After years of its use, mercury has polluted the rivers and subsoil in many parts of the Amazon, and has become concentrated, particularly in fish. Some Amerindian populations, for whom fish is a staple food, have consequently suffered the effects of poisoning--brain disease, blindness and deafness and, in young children, paralysis: ABOVE RIGHT: those miners lucky enough to strike gold can receive around 40 reals (12.80 [pounds sterling]) a gram. On the open market, it would fetch more than twice that amount. But not all of those who work at the mines are able to cash in on the gold they find. Many are attracted to the forest by the prospect of well-paid agricultural work, only to find themselves imprisoned by debt, labouring in inhumane and dangerous conditions in exchange for a tiny wage. …


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