Amazon gold rush leaves behind dross. The sparkle of gold dust is luring thousands of Brazilians into the Amazon rain forest. But with the miners comes pollution, violence, and disease that harm the environment and native tribes.
Rosa de Maio, Brazil
Aldamar Rodrigues spends his days sloshing about a muddy stream and his nights fending off malaria-infected mosquitos. Here, deep in the Amazon rain forest, Mr. Rodrigues is driven by gold fever. Rodrigues left behind the grinding poverty of rural Brazil half a year ago to look for his fortune at this jungle gold mining camp. And he's willing to work all day in muck and be felled every few weeks by malaria for a chance to unearth it.
``Everybody has a dream to strike it rich,'' Rodrigues says, taking off his mud-encrusted hat. Rodrigues is one of some 500,000 men who have fanned throughout the Amazon in what analysts say is history's biggest gold rush.
Many people say that the miners, known as garimpeiros, are heroes because they create jobs for the poor and have made Brazil one of the world's biggest gold producers.
But anthropologists say the garimpeiros, who have overrun Indian land throughout the Amazon, are decimating entire tribes, mostly with disease, but also with guns.
Environmentalists worry that the garimpeiros' use of mercury to separate gold from gravel is polluting the Amazon's rivers for years to come and contaminating wildlife.
The miners dismiss this. A hard-drinking, free-spending lot, they are gripped by visions of what gold can buy.
They are generally men with no past, escaping from the misery of rural Brazil. They settle disputes with both fellow miners and the Indians with guns.
The remote gold camps echo with tales of garimpeiros who found their fortune in muddy streams. But only a handful strike it rich. Some find a sizeable amount of gold, but most blow it on alcohol and prostitutes.
The gold rush began at the Serra Pelada open-pit in 1980. But this year it became more frenzied as Brazil's economy declined.
The miners found 140 tons of gold last year worth some $2 billion, according to Jos'e Altino Machado, the garimpeiros' spokesman. Gold traders and government officials estimate the amount to be somewhere between 110 and 120 tons. Most of the gold was smuggled out of Brazil, through wildcat camps scattered throughout the Amazon wilderness operating outside government control.
With most gold mining camps carved out of impenetrable jungle and accessible only by air, the individual prospector immortalized in last century's Californian and Alaskan gold rushes has little chance here.