- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007


It’s a gold rush in the Amazon jungle, driven by the Internet.

Speeding past unbroken walls of foliage, a motorboat packed with gritty prospectors veers toward the shore of the Juma River and spills its passengers into a city of black plastic lean-tos veiled by greasy smoke.

All around them are newly dug pits, felled trees, misery and tales of striking it rich. This is Eldorado do Juma, scene of Brazil’s biggest gold rush in more than 20 years.

Drawn by a Brazilian math teacher’s Web site descriptions of miners scooping up thousands of dollars in gold, 3,000 to 10,000 people have poured in since December, cutting down huge trees, diverting streams and digging ever-deeper wildcat mines in an area that only months ago was pristine rain forest.

Hundreds of mud-covered men with picks and shovels hack at the earth, marking their tiny plots with tree branches and string. Others feed dirt into wooden troughs and the residue into pans. A lucky few will end up with tiny nuggets and flakes of gold to sell for $530 an ounce in Apui, a town about 50 miles north.

Even the cooks, cleaners and porters serving the new industry are making about six times the minimum wage.

It’s reminiscent of Serra Pelada, a mountain that became a gargantuan hole in the jungle floor after a gold rush in the early 1980s, immortalized in Sebastiao Salgado’s photos of what looked like a human anthill.

“This is even better than Serra Pelada. I’ve been mining all around the Amazon since 1978, and this is the best I’ve ever seen,” said Joao Leandro de Azedo, 70, overlooking his stake from a hammock.

He said he had panned about 70 ounces of gold worth $19,000 since arriving 17 days ago, including 17 ounces in one day.

Half the proceeds went to the man who staked out his plot and 8 percent to Jose Ferreira da Silva Filho, who says he owns the entire “garimpo” — wildcat mine.

Already, too many people are chasing too little gold, and there isn’t enough space for all the miners at the eight main digs.

Price-gouging — chain saws costing about $400 in gold — is rampant and malaria is spreading in the makeshift city, nicknamed Eldorado do Juma after the Amazon’s mythical “city of gold.” It has bars, restaurants, barber shops, bakeries, equipment shops and jewelry stores — most of them built of tree branches and tarps. A 16-room brothel is under construction.

Federal police armed with automatic weapons arrived last month, imposing a nightly curfew and cracking down on shootings, but making it more difficult to get rich quick.

“Luckily, we caught it right at the beginning. It is a concern for everyone … that this doesn’t become another Serra Pelada,” said Walter Arcoverde of the National Department of Mineral Production.

Residents had been mining this area of the jungle state of Amazonas in relative peace until Ivani Valentin da Silva, a math teacher in Apui, posted their pictures and stories on the Internet, said Antonio Roque Longo, the mayor of Apui.

“Perhaps he didn’t have any idea of the impact it would have,” Mr. Longo said. “People see this on the Internet, and they think they’re going to do the same thing. But the truth is, for every one person who strikes it rich, there are 30 who go home penniless.”

Mr. da Silva said he clearly wrote that the gold would run out soon.

“Unfortunately, no one read the article,” he said, denying responsibility for the environmental damage being done by the thousands of fortune seekers. His Internet posting brought federal police attention, he said, and without that, “the area would be totally devastated.”

Looking for order

Government geologists are trying to measure the deposits, while environmental regulators are struggling to prevent miners from using heavy equipment or mercury, which joins gold particles together but can ruin the rivers. The fear is that like Serra Pelada, Eldorado do Juma will end up a scarred wasteland.

Already, small rivers of mud gush from streambeds at night, suggesting that heavy-duty water jets are being used illegally, despite promises to wait for permits.

“Most of the gold that can be mined manually has already been found, but if they start using heavy machinery this place is going to explode all over again,” said Luiz Gonzaga da Conceicao, 51, a miner from Brazil’s far west.

The land reform agency says the region belongs to the federal government, but now that the miners are here, there’s talk of compromise — the authorities say they will permit pressure hoses, rock crushers and other machinery if miners police themselves and stick to an environmental-protection plan.

Mr. da Silva Filho, the self-proclaimed owner of the area, says he’s working on that. “This place has a great future. There are other minerals here besides gold. We have to get organized to exploit it,” he said.

Off the record, many miners talk of threats and intimidation that ensure they pay his 8 percent cut. Mr. da Silva Filho denies it and says he has his own share of headaches and unseen costs.

The federal government and most miners seem content to leave him in charge, if only to provide some order.

Meanwhile, prospectors travel up and down the river and deeper into the jungle looking for “fofocas,” new finds.

“There’s gold here for sure, the problem is finding an area to work. Every spot has three or four owners now. I’m just waiting for a new fofoca and I’ll be right in the middle of it,” said Jose Francisco Mendes dos Santos, 32, who came from the neighboring state of Rondonia. “A prospector’s motto is hope and his friend is luck.”

Gilmar Predebon reckons his gold store in Apui buys about 70 ounces of gold per day and molds them into gold ingots. He figures the mines generate 200 to 230 ounces a day overall — “a good amount of gold but nowhere near as much as you’d expect, considering all the talk.”

Gold is fetching about $650 an ounce on world markets.

Mr. Longo thinks his city of 20,000 would be better off without the mine: “Sure, it has been good for the merchants, but we have major health problems. Before the garimpo, we had malaria mostly under control here; now it’s a huge problem again.”

Others say the garimpo has improved things.

“This was a door God opened for Apui. Today the city has grown fivefold and people are flooding in from every corner of the country,” said Antonio Carlos Santos, 48, who quit his job as a policeman to work the mines.

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