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Brazil: Mythes and Reality National Union of Books Eds., Rio de Janeiro pp. 97-119

Ecology in

Gold Rush and Environment in the Brazilian Amazon

Marc J. Dourojeanni
Chief, Environmental Protection Division, Inter-American Development Bank,
Washington D.C.
and Maria Tereza Jorge Padua
President, Fundao Pro Natureza (FUNATURA); Brasilia D. F.,
Mineral prospection, especially gold prospection, thereafter
deforestation for cattle ranching and agriculture, is the most
negatively impacting activity in the ecology and the human life of
the Brazilian Amazon. The case is made that river pollution by
mercury is only one among several lesser known environmental
impacts of this activity. Sediments in rivers and its consequences
on fisheries and navigation, watershed degradation, destruction of
soils suitable for agriculture, deforestation, pollution by oil and
invasion of indian reserves and protected areas are, at least, as
serious as mercury pollution. In addition, gold prospection is the
main disturbing factor in indian and traditional Amazon life style,
a main obstacle to current efforts to establish sustained rural
development, and also a principal factor to the spread of diseases,
corruption, crime and other problems. While recognizing that
Amazon's environment and development will have to live with the
mineral prospection, several proposals are made to deal with this
issue: Ecological zoning, establishment of mining reserves,
registering and licensing of mining activities, recovery of
mercury, managerial organization of placer miners, social and
technical assistance, rehabilitation of mined areas, rerouting of
placer miners to other economic activities, establishment and
management of protected areas and, a more effective gold tax
collection system, are all parts of a program which is proposed.

Since there is preoccupation for the fate of the Amazon's
biota, agriculture expansion through planned and unplanned
settlements and extensive cattle ranching have been identified as
the major threat for its future (Fearnside,1980; Hecht, 1982,

Buschbaker, 1986). Exploitation of natural forests is an additional

cause of deforestation (Browder, 1986; Dourojeanni, 1990). Two
other instruments of deforestation are often mentioned: large
hydraulic infrastructure, especially dams for energy and large
mining operations (Goodland, 1980). It is only recently that small
and very small mining operations, known as "garimpo"
"Garimpo" means small scale mining. "Garimpo" is often
associated to gold mining, but as a matter of facts it refers to
every possible kind of mineral exploitation. The "garimpo", in the
Brazilian Amazon, is mostly related to gold, diamonds, cassiterite
and .... "Garimpagem" means the act of practicing "garimpo" and
"garimpeiro" is the miner. A "garimpeiro" is the owner of a
"garimpo" operation, usually heavily mechanized, as well as each
one of his associates or workers. The term also includes
individuals, with little or no equipment, who works alone searching
minerals in a way which does not differ much from the XIX and early
XX century California and Alaska gold diggers.

in Brazil,
are being recognized as an important direct threat to the people
and to the biota, especially sluice water pollution by mercury
(Cousteau and Richard, 1984), which is its better known and most
publicized impact on the environment. The case is made, in this
paper, that the "garimpo" is the origin of a complex set of
negative environmental impacts of which, mercury pollution is only
the top of an iceberg of threats to the Amazon's future.

This paper discuss the "garimpo" issue with regard to

environment on the basis of scarce available information: mostly
unpublished reports, press news, personal references and authors
observations in the field. Therefore, the authors recognizes that
many of their conclusions are preliminary and refers to trends and
patterns which have to be confronted with the results of deeply
required studies. On the other hand, the "garimpo" issue is so
important for the future of the Amazon that there is no time to
waste to make it better known and to deal with its effects.

The New Gold Rush in the Brazilian Amazon

The Amazon is a mineral emporium

The Brazilian Amazon is a mineral resources emporium: Bauxite

(aluminum), cassiterite (tin) and iron ore, manganese, gold,
diamond and other precious stones, lead, nickel, chromite,
beryllium, copper, calcareous, phosphates, gibbsite, among others,

are abundant in the Amazon (Nyrop, 1983; Santos Bastos, 1984). The
iron ore (hematite) deposits of the Amazon are the largest and
richest in the world. Brazil is amongst the largest producers of
manganese and gold. The mineral richness of the region is a fact
which is not common knowledge, especially among environmentalists.
The potential reserves of gold are not well known but, in theory,
there is gold everywhere in the Amazon. Some estimates establish
the Amazon gold reserves in at least 3,000 MT (Santos Bastos,
1984). Gold is the most exploited resource by "garimpeiros" but
they also intensively exploit diamonds and cassiterite (DNPM,
1986). Mid size mining exploitation often exploit cassiterite ore,
as in Jamari (Rondonia). Large size mining exploit bauxite and iron
ore, as in Carajas with its highly complex environmental situation
(Fearnside, 1989).
From the El Dorado legend to today's gold prospectors

The search and exploitation of minerals in the Amazon is not

new. The "El Dorado" legend is as old as the European presence in
the continent. Gold, diamond and other precious stones were the
main motivation of their quest. The placer miners or "garimpeiros"
were always present in the Brazilian Amazon, especially since the
last century (Guimaraes
, 1982). There were several mineral
exploitation "booms". During the 1960s there was a cassiterite boom
in Rondonia which attracted to this by then unpopulated territory,
some 50,000 prospectors. But the current boom is unprecedented
large, especially with regard to gold. It was initiated in the
early 1980s, as a consequence of several coalescent factors: (a)
attractive gold prices in the world market; (b) better access to
the Amazon basin thanks to new roads, cheaper and safer aircraft,
diseases control, radio communication development; (c) widespread
poverty in the country and lack of employment, in part rooted in
the deep Brazilian economic crisis and in its external debt; (d)
development of new small scale mechanized technologies, especially
for gold mining and; (e) geopolicy decisions favoring human
presence in the Amazon. Some forms of "garimpo" were often directly
promoted by federal or state governmental agencies, such as in
Paraiba and Rio Grande do Norte (Alves, 1984) and also in Serra
Pelada, where 80,000 miners were attracted in the early 1980s
mostly by official publicity (Feijao and Pinto, 1990).
Social and economic dimension of the "garimpo"
There is no accurate information about how many persons are

directly or indirectly involved in this form of mining. This is not

surprising considering the fact that the "garimpo" is essentially
an outlaw activity. The most commonly mentioned data refers to 1.0
(Feijao and Pinto, 1990) to 1.5 million (Barham, 1990)
"garimpeiros" all over the Amazon basin. Only 650,000 are mentioned
by Malm et al (1990) but 2.0 million are also often cited in the
press. The "garimpagem" is practiced all over Brazil and it is
probable that the higher information refers to it and not only to
the Amazon. In 1980 they numbered only about 250,000 (Barham,
1990). By 1986 they numbered around 400,000 (Pfeiffer and Lacerda,
). The states of Para, Mato Grosso, Rondonia and Roraima are
those with the largest numbers of "garimpeiros". The number of
"garimpeiros" in the Tapajoz and in the CumaruTucuma (Para) is
estimated at 220,000 and, governmental officers of Mato Grosso
consider that 150,000 to 200,000 are operating in the State, of
which around 50,000 are located in the area of Pocone, almost in
the Pantanal. Around 100,000 prospectors are operating in Rondonia.
Their number, in the State of Roraima, mainly in the Yanomami
territory, was estimated at 45,000 in January 1990 (Brooke, 1990).
Feijao and Pinto (1990) estimated there are around 2000 "garimpo"
areas spread on some 160 million hectares of the Amazonia Legal.
These "garimpos" are operating 25,000 sets of exploitation
equipment, including mills, jetbeak, bulldozers and trucks as well
as rafts and dredges. These authors estimated there are 1,100
landing strips, 750 airplanes, 20 helicopters and 10,000 boats and
motorized canoes servicing the "garimpos". The Table 1 indicates
the 16 most important gold mining provinces of the Amazon. However
there are at least 20 other areas where gold mining is also being

If the information on the number of "garimpeiros" operating

in the Amazon is inaccurate, the number of people indirectly
involved in this activity or depending from it is even less known.
People indirectly associated to "garimpo" include those providing
essential services to the "garimpos", such as (a) equipment
construction, maintenance and trade; (b) logistic support,
especially fuel and oil, mercury and other chemicals, food and
medicine; (c) road, river and especially air transportation; (d)
gold and other minerals trade and traffic and; (e) banking,
medical, prostitution and security services. The relation between
people directly working in "garimpagem" and people making it
possible through other activities is at least 1:1. The total number
of people depending upon "garimpagem" (including families) amount
4 to 5 million person, most of them located in the Amazon (Feijao

and Pinto, 1990). This represent around 30% of the population of

the Amazonia Legal, which is estimated at 15 million people.

In 1980, the registered gold production of Brazil was 13.8 MT

while the estimated production was 35 MT, of which 88.07% was
produced by "garimpos" (Guimaraes, 1981). Brazil's registered gold
production, in 1987, was 23.86 MT (IBGE, 1989). In 1989, the
registerd gold production of Brazil was 48.9 MT (Barboza, 1990).
Unofficial gold production is, obviously, several times larger. The
USAGALFAMA (federation of placer miners unions and associations
of the Amazon) claims that, during the last decade they have
produced 650 MT of gold, of which 500 MT were produced since 1985
(Feijao and Pinto, 1990) or, roughly, 100 MT a year. This
information is also included in the 1990 Metals & Minerals Annual
Review, which indicates that Brazil's gold production in 1989 was
96.9 MT (Murray, 1990), situating this country as the sixth most
important gold producer in the world, after South Africa (608.3
MT), Soviet Union (300 MT), United States (259.1 MT), Australia
(197 MT) and Canada (158.9 MT). However, other sources strongly
differs from USAGAL's estimate. The production of Mato Grosso alone
was estimated by local government officers at 100 MT in 1988. Only
3.8 MT of gold were officially registered that year in this State.
The gold production for the Madeira river alone, in Rondonia, is
estimated at an average of 90 MT a year by local authorities. In
1986, when the number of "garimpeiros" was estimated at 400,000,
the most conservative gold production estimate was 144 MT (Sinal
Verde, 1989). If these last sources are to be taken into
consideration, the gold production of the Amazon is at least around
300 MT a year. These State's government estimates seems to be
confirmed also on the base of USAGAL's own information, when Feijao
and Pinto (1990) reports 25,000 sets of gold mining equipment in
operation. Each one of these sets works at least 200 days a year
and produce a minimum of 60 gr a day (usually above 100 gr a day)
or, 300 MT a year. To this result it is necessary to add the
production from manual prospection and from large mining
enterprises. Based on the estimate of USAGALFAMA, the distribution
of the gold production of the Amazonia Legal states is: Para (35%),
Mato Grosso (26%), Rondonia (11%), Roraima (10%), Amapa (5%),
Amazonas (4%), Tocantins (3%), Maranhao (2%), other states (4%).

Gold prospection is the most important economic activity in

the Amazon states and a very important economic asset for the
entire country. If the previously indicated figure about the
production of gold (300 MT in 1989) is near reality, this year

value of the production (300 MT x US$11.0 13.00/gr) would mean

at least 3,300 million dollars, equivalent to the ...% of the gross
national product of Brazil. The Brazilian economy was only
marginally benefitted, as only a fraction was declared. The rest
was smuggled to other countries, especially Uruguay.
"Garimpo" practices

The following are summary descriptions of the several types

of gold mining by placer miners in the Brazilian Amazon:

Ferry boat (balsa) and divers

: This technique is extensively
utilized in large and mid size rivers, especially in the Madeira
river in Rondonia. A ferry boat, equipped with an air pump for the
diver and a sand pump (airlift) to suction the river bottom
material. The diver guides the suction hose to the apparently
richer places of the river bed. In Northern Mato Grosso, there were
around 600 ferry boats in operation in 1989, mainly in the Teles
Pires and Juruena rivers. Several thousand ferry boats are
operating in the Madeira river in Rondonia.

: This technique is replacing the rafts and divers. It
is already extensively utilized in large and midsize rivers, such
as the Madeira in Rondonia, the Tapajoz in Para, and the Teles
Pires and Juruena in Mato Grosso. The dredges are more expensive
and more efficient equipments. By 1983, there were some 800 dredges
in the Madeira river. Currently, it is estimated that at least some
2,500 dredges are operating in this river. Most local sources
indicate as many as 6,000 to 7,000 dredges in the Madeira, but this
number seems to include ferry boats as well as obsolete dredges.

Trenches and mills

: This technique is utilized for gold vein
exploitation. It is not common in the Amazon, where gold is
sedimentary, but it is widely utilized in the Pantanal watershed.
The trenches are initiated with bulldozing, as deep as feasible and
continued manually, as deep as the vein goes. The material
extracted is then crushed in mills.

Bulldozing, jetbeaks and mills

: This is a very common

technique widely applied everywhere sedimentary gold is exploited
in small sized rivers or in creeks. It is extensively applied in
Northern Mato Grosso, where its environmental impact is enormous.
Large bulldozers excavate the river or creek bed, as well as river
banks and the material is carried out by a tipup lorry to the
plant where this material is washed with high pressure water jets
and then concentrated in riffled boxes or, in some cases, also
centrifuged. Another common technique is hydraulic dismounting of
the alluvium material followed by the use of a sand pump to carry
the material to the concentrating riffled box. Large amounts of
water are required. Rivers and creeks are often dam up, to ease
water captation or diverted, to ease excavation.

: In most "garimpo" there are other forms of exploitation

going on. There is an important manual activity utilizing rejects
from mechanized exploitations. There are also many prospectors with
less economic resources who are working with smaller portable
motorized equipments or who work manually, as in the past. This
last case is extreme in the case of Serra Pelada (Para) where
15,000 people are currently manually exploiting an open pit mine,
utilizing a variety of concentrating processes. In Serra Pelada the
abusive use of mercury is extreme.

Feijao and Pinto (1990) estimate that 47% of the gold being
produced correspond to the jetbeak type of exploitation, which
employs 50% of the prospectors (Table 2). It is essential to
realize the heavy mechanized character of the current gold rush in
the Amazon, as most of its environmental impacts are directly
related to this fact.

Environmental Consequences

River pollution by sediments

River pollution by sediments, produced by all forms of mining,
is probably the most important environmental impact of the gold
exploitation in the Amazon. Considering the presence of 0.5 to 3.5
grams of gold per cubic meter of material (2.0 gr/CM in average),
the production of 100 MT of gold in Mato Grosso alone would mean
the removal and introduction to the river system of as much as 50
billion cubic meter of sediments every year. To the sediments
originated by gold mining it shall be added the sediments produced
by diamond, cassiterite and other mining activities. Moreover,

these sediments are in excess on the already considerable sediments

originated by deforestation, cleantilled agriculture and
overgrazing of pasture land. Finally, these sediments are mostly
produced during the dry season, when the water volume is lesser and
when, under normal conditions, the water of rivers is clearer.

The sediments have several negative impacts on the river

ecosystems, such as: (i) increase of water turbidity reducing light
availability and water temperature, affecting fitoplakton and the
entire food chain, generally reducing productivity but being able
to increase it in some of its webs, through larger availability of
nutrients; (ii) unpredictable changes in fish behavior as a
consequence of water quality modifications, impacting on
reproduction and in the yearly migration pattern (known as
"piracema" in Brazil); (iii) drastic modification of river bottom
topography, as a consequence of dredges and rafts operations as
well as sediment deposits, impacting on biotopes required for fish
reproduction; (iv) serious obstacles for navigation as a
consequence of the formation of moving river banks and reduction
of the life span of reservoirs by faster siltation; and (v)
reduction of water quality for energy generation and, of course,
for human consumption.
Pollution by mercury

Mercury pollution is a very serious and the better documented

environmental problem associated with gold exploitation in the
Amazon (Boldrini et al, 1983; Lima, 1985; CONSEMA, 1986; Mallar and
Benedito, 19866; Pfeiffer and Lacerda, 1987; Lacerda et al, 1988).
The mercury is indispensable to separate the gold from other
materials after gravimetric or centrifugal preconcentration.
Mercury is mixed with this material, producing an amalgam with the
gold. By burning, the mercury is sublimated and the gold is freed.
A report by a team of the Secretaria de Meio Ambiente of Mato
Grosso (FINEP, 1987) established that, in 1985, the Peixoto de
Azevedo watershed alone, received 21.2 MT of mercury to produce
11.5 MT of gold. In five "garimpo" regions studied in Mato Grosso,
the above indicated team estimated that 36.3 MT of mercury were
utilized to produce 41.3 MT of gold. It has been estimated that 87
MT of mercury were discharged in the Madeira river from 1979 to
1985 (Lacerda et al, 1988). Other sources (CONSEMA, 1986) estimated
that 105 MT were discharged in this river during the same period
of time. The information on the proportion of mercury necessary
to produce gold varies greatly from one region to another and with

the consulted sources. Pfeiffer and Lacerda (1987) described the

entire process of gold mining through mercury amalgamation. They
have done an estimate of mercury loss for the production of 1 kg
of gold as 1.32 kg of mercury (0.72 kg to the atmosphere as vapor
adds 0.60 kg directly to the river as metallic mercury).
Differences between estimates does not change the fact that the
volume of mercury introduced into the Amazon rivers is enormous.
After pressing the amalgam to liberate the excess mercury, the
amalgam is burned in two steps. The first is in the "garimpo
office" bedroom, safe, kitchen and lab, altogether where the
first to be affected are the "garimpeiros". This first burning
liberates 80% to 95% of the mercury and a great part of it directly
precipitate into the river or stream nearby. The second burning is
made in the office of the gold merchant in the nearby town, airport
or other collection point. Again, no precaution to burn is usually
taken and, as a consequence, the urban population is often as
affected by mercury pollution as "garimpeiros" themselves. Schools
or restaurants are often one door near traders shops.

Measurements of mercury in soils and bottom sediments of the

Madeira river in Rondonia showed to be at normal levels in 70% of
the samples. In the other 30% samples, the values were superior or
very superior, especially where there is fine and organic sediments
accumulation (Lacerda
, 1987). Lacerda
(1988) found that
mercury concentration in the tissues of higher trophic level fishes
from the contaminated areas, especially those captured in the
tributary rivers, is 10 to 20 times higher than in areas free of
pollution and often surpass the maximum recommended for human
consumption (0.5 ug/g). The Madeira river itself does not present
physicochemical conditions that generally favors the formation of
methylmercury which explains why fishes, in this very large river,
still does not present high mercury concentration as its tributary
does (Malm
, 1990). These authors confirm heavy mercury
contamination in streams near mining areas. Measurements reported
by Pfeiffer
(1988) and Malm
(1990) also found high
levels of mercury in fishes and in human hair, indicating high
level exposure rate for human local population. All information
available are confirming the scenario of a generalized mercury
river pollution, already impacting the entire chain food, including
humans, as final web.

Pollution by oil

Another important river pollution caused by the "garimpo" of

any kind is oil. Motor oil changes of marine engines, bulldozers,
trucks, dredges and any other equipment, goes directly or
indirectly into the rivers. A 1989 estimate of the oil discharged
by the 6000 to 7000 dredges and ferry boats operating in the
Madeira river, Rondonia, by SEMARO authorities, amounted to 5
million litre a year (30 lt of oil every 200 hours 10 days of
work per engine, amounting 90 lt/month per boat). The number of
bulldozers, trucks, outboard motors, electric generators and other
motorized equipment operating all over the Amazon is unknown, but
there are at least 2 engines in operation for each 10
"garimpeiros". Therefore, at least 200,000 engines functioning in
the rivers and river banks of the region, in addition to engines
operating for other uses.
Other forms of pollution
Other chemicals are being utilized in some of the "garimpos".
This is the case of the sodium cyanide used in larger gold mining
enterprises in Southern Mato Grosso and in other locations to
recuperate very fine gold. In some cases detergents are also
utilized. The "garimpos" also originate other forms of pollution.
All garbage and organic residues obviously also goes directly to
the rivers or nearby dumps.

Watershed destruction and agricultural soils losses

The "garimpo" through bulldozing, as it is being practiced in
Northern Mato Grosso, in the Teles Pires basin, has another very
serious, long term, environmental impact: The destruction of entire
watersheds by excavation of every creek, stream, small and mid size
river over their entire length. The excavation, averaging 4 to 5
meters deep, include the water course itself as well as its banks
and any alluvial deposit surrounding it. The destruction of some
of the most suitable soils for agriculture is common, as "garimpos"
goes over farmland, where they simply buy the rights to exploit
gold to the farmers. Their fields remain useless for ever after
gold mining take place.

It was estimated, in November 1989, that only in the Teles

Pires basin around 50,000 ha were totally ravaged, mostly affecting
the best soils available for agriculture in a region where these
soils are very scarce. From the air, the Peixoto de Azevedo

watershed, contributing to the Teles Pires river, looks as if heavy

bombardment was practiced following each one of its tributaries.
In Mato Grosso, at least 100,000 ha were destroyed following the
same pattern. The environmental impact of this practice, both for
aquatic and terrestrial life, is enormous and probably irreversible
considering that natural forest regeneration of destroyed watershed
would be difficult, as every plant species of the riverine
vegetation ("mata ciliar") is eradicated from the entire watershed.
Fishes and other animals from the rivers are entirely exterminated
and terrestrial species depending on the riverine vegetation to
accede to the water are seriously hampered. Of course, in addition,
the water is polluted by sediments, mercury residues and, by
chemical elements and compounds removed or exposed to the water by
the excavations.

Deforestation, logging, hunting, fishing

No attempt was made to evaluate deforestation caused directly

by "garimpagem" but it is certainly very important. As indicated
in the case of the Amazon portion of Mato Grosso, around 100,000
ha have been deforested or severely degraded by gold mining. This
is obviously of much lesser magnitude than forest clearing for
agriculture and cattle ranching but it is far from being
negligible, especially as it is affecting the most delicate portion
of the forests nearby water, which is fully protected under
Brazilian forestry legislation. But in addition to bulldozing there
are other important impacts: road construction to accede the mining
areas, covering thousand of kilometers; air strips (at least 1,100)
everywhere, to service the "garimpos" and; new villages and towns.

Around every mining area there is a heavy exploitation of the

forests, resulting from logging for hardwood required for all kinds
of construction, especially to build concentration plants, but also
bridges, rafts, houses, etc. Hunting is very important. Almost
every "garimpeiro" is armed at least with a shotgun both for
defense and to hunt, in order to supply their usually unattractive
diet. This is more so for the "garimpeiros" working isolated or
exploring new areas. Fishing is a very common activity, as well,
every time they have a rest.
Invasion of indian land and protected areas.

The prospectors do not care about land titles. They go for the
gold where ever it is located. Therefore, if there is gold in an

indian reserve they just enter and establish themselves. If the

indian complain, the "garimpeiros" make every possible effort to
buy the rights to exploit the gold from indian leaders, even if
under Brazilian legislation this cannot be done. Arrangements with
indian leaders have been made in many opportunities, in some cases
trough corruption but more often only because indians do not
foresee any harm in the mining operation and because, in
compensation, they receive goods and services they require. Such
cases have been reported for many tribal groups, such as Cintas
Largas and Xingu. FUNAI, the federal indian agency, oppose these
arrangements but have very poor means to enforce the law. There is
no official data on the number of indian reserves invaded by
"garimpeiros", but at least 50% of the indian land have some form
of "garimpo" activity.

The most famous case of invasion of indian land by

"garimpeiros" occurred in the Yanomami territory, in the State of
Roraima. Since 1986, an invasion of 20,000 to 45,000 "garimpeiros"
to this by then almost virgin area of the Amazon, have produced one
of the worst cases of violation of human rights in the recent
history of the Amazon. From 4,000 to 10,000 (most probably 5,000
to 7,000) Yanomami living there, isolated from civilization, were
submitted to exfoliation of their resources, exposed to diseases
(malaria, smallpox, dysentery and tuberculosis) brought by the
prospectors and, often, murdered arguing selfdefense (Barham,
1990; Long, 1990; Kham, 1990; Sevilla, 1990; Brooke, 1990). Their
culture is being destroyed. In many ways it is genocide. Recent
government's measures to tackle this problem have been largely
unsuccessful and, anyhow, late.

Protected areas or conservation units (national and state

parks, biological reserves and other equivalent preserves) as well
as national and state forests, are not safer from miner intrusions
than indian reserves. Most of them are also being invaded. This is
notoriously the case of Amazonia National Park (Para, 994,000 ha),
Pico da Neblina National Park (Amazonas, 2,200,000 ha) and Gurupi
Biological Reserve (Maranhao, 342,000 ha). Two national forests
(Jamari and Bom Futuro) in Rondonia are being exploited for
cassiterite. In addition to invasions to existing protected areas,
mining prospectors are intruding and degrading areas which are
under study for future establishment of protected areas, due to
their biodiversity or other forms of biological uniqueness. This
is the case of most of the areas considered for future protection
in the north of Mato Grosso, a large State where very little has

been protected until now.

The problem was further aggravated when the Government, to

reduce pressure on indian lands, such as in Roraima, decided to
officially open a nearby national forest to the "garimpo",
confirming the dangerous precedent established at Jamari National
Forest, that these areas which are set aside for conservation and
forestry sustained production, can be subject to mining activity.

Social Consequences
Increased human population pressure into the Amazon

As Goodland (1990) pointed out in a recent paper, fast

population increase in the tropical rain forests is the main cause
of unsustainability of every human activity, especially agriculture
and forest exploitation, leading to massive deforestation. Nothing
has attracted as many people, as rapidly, as the 1980s gold rush.
No dreamed geopolicy strategy to populate the "empty space" of the
Amazon has such a dramatic "success", without governmental
investments and official incentives. Most prospectors just remain
as poor as they were before initiating their activities. Only one
out of ten, as a maximum, is able to make and conserve money.
Those, as usual, were since the beginning the wealthier and better
educated. As a matter of fact, it is normal for the rich and well
connected to have an investment in gold prospecting. In
consequence, when this gold rush is over, part of the "garimpeiros"
will return to their place of origin, but a very high percentage
will enlarge the already enormous shanty towns around the Amazon
cities, as it was the case with the petroleum exploration phase in
Peru, during the early 1970s (Rumrril, 1982). Others already have
developed new large slums, such as in Serra Pelada, where 25,000
children, women and men live in misery.
Disruption of the Amazon lifestyle
The traditional "ribeirinho" style of life is being entirely
disrupted by the massive presence of "garimpeiros". The
"ribeirinhos" are being engaged in ferry boat and dredge
operations, taking advantage of their knowledge of the rivers, or
become purveyors of food and other services, including
prostitution. Anyhow, there is abandon of agriculture,
recollection, logging and other activities, which they have been
practicing successfully for more than a century, including rubber
taping and Brazil nut recollection. These people, especially the
younger ones, would probably never come back to their traditional
livelihood, which has often been considered as an example of

sustainability, and they will end in shanty towns in the Amazon or

elsewhere. The useful knowledge on relatively sustainable
management of the riparian areas of the Amazon would be lost.
Abortion of rural development efforts

The Brazilian Government and multilateral agencies,

particularly the World Bank, have been promoting sustainable rural
development in the region, especially in Rondonia and Mato Grosso.
Ecological zoning, permanent agriculture, agroforestry practices,
forest management, establishment of protected areas and indian
reserves, and other deeply required measures have been applied with
great difficulty but with increasing success during the last
decade. The "garimpo" issue is becoming the main threat to this
effort, not only directly destroying agricultural fields and
engaging farmers, but trough the spreading of diseases, such as
malaria, and moreover producing an enormous increase in general
prices which agriculture cannot match, causing abandonment of
farmland. In addition, several key public officers, especially
school teachers, paramedics, policeman, bank staff, agricultural
extensionists and an ever increasing number of university
professionals, are leaving their regular jobs to engage in the
"garimpo". Medical doctors become rich attending "garimpeiros".
Spread of diseases

The role of the "garimpo" in the recent epidemic explosion of

malaria is well known. But they had the same role in the spread of
yellow fever from the jungle to the towns. The "garimpeiros",
again, were responsible for the spread of diseases among indians,
especially smallpox, tuberculosis and venereal diseases. It is
being reported, in Mato Grosso, that the acquired immunodeficiency
syndrome (AIDS) is becoming common among "garimpeiros" and starting
to spread to local population trough prostitution. In August 1990,
80 cases of AIDS were reported amidst Roraima's prospectors.
Corruption and lack of security
Corruption, crimes and insecurity are common ground in
"garimpos" and in the villages and towns affected by them. Drugs
abuse, rape and murder are so common that the authorities, usually
totally absent from the "garimpos", does not even attempt to stop.
Every "garimpo" patron is armed and usually have body guards, as
does have the gold trafficker and other participants in the chain

which follows the gold and the money from the "garimpo" to the
exterior of the country. At this point it seems every day more
evident that there are close tides with between gold traffic and
drugs, arms and endangered wildlife traffics. Working accidents
are, nevertheless, the main cause of mortality among prospectors,
especially in the case of divers.

The Future
While since early 1990 the "garimpo" activity entered in a
kind of recession, mostly as a consequence of the new government
economic reforms, there is no evidence that any major change will
be produced in the near future. The three main motors of the gold
rush in Brazil are still present: deep economic crisis and its
sequel of unemployment, inequity and lack of opportunities in
Brazilian society and, attractive price for gold, precious stone
and other mineral resources. Therefore, any mid term scenario for
the Amazon development shall take into consideration the "garimpo".
This has not been the case. All Brazilian official strategies to
develop the Amazon were taken without any concrete consideration
to this overwhelming distorting issue. Therefore, what to expect
? The gold and other mineral reserves of the Amazon are immense.
What is the most probable scenario, in environmental and social
terms, assuming its continuation ?
The cost of inaction

If nothing is done with regard to the "garimpo", the problems

previously described will continue increasing. As many of the
environmental and social impacts produced are irreversible and
cumulative, the future is indeed obscure. The worst case scenario
for biodiversity conservation is to have every protected area where
there are mineral resources invaded, and its most delicate
ecosystems such as the riparian, destroyed. It is also possible to
expect many of the Amazon rivers to be sterile, with litle or no
fisheries and, to loose an important portion of soils suitable for
sustainable agriculture. Deforestation would increase. From a
social point of view it can be expected a significant loss of life
styles appropriate to the Amazon (indian and "ribeirinho"), an
explosion of extreme poverty in Amazon cities and, the failure of
every intent to practice sound rural development, therefore
increasing deforestation. Furthermore, the "garimpo" may continue
to explosively increase the human population in the Amazon making

even more difficult to achieve sustainable development.

The impacts of the "garimpo" shall also be viewed in a more

general context. They must be added and compounded with other
social and environmental impacts in the Amazon, such as those
caused by cattle ranching, agriculture, logging, mid and large
mining and, energy infrastructure. All new policies being applied
to allow a wiser development of the Amazon are hampered by the gold
rush, including the Plan "Nossa Natureza" (1989) or the
socioeconomicecological zoning being practiced in Rondonia and
being expanded to Mato Grosso and other Amazon states.

In the improbable event that the gold prices decrease, the

only change would be that the smaller "garimpo" enterprises will
fail or will organize themselves in larger, more efficient
enterprises to lower extraction costs. The environmental and social
impacts would continue, while under some conditions larger and more
efficient mining operations may open a window for a better
treatment of environmental impacts.
Disturbing similarities: Gold and coca

Altogether, the "garimpo" issue may be as environmentally

noxious to the Brazilian Amazon as coca cultivation and cocaine
production is for the Andean Amazon. There is a stressing
similitude between both issues: Both degrade entire watersheds,
destroy relatively good soils, seriously pollute water, increase
deforestation directly and indirectly, intrude in indian
territories and protected areas, stimulate fast human migration to
the Amazon, modify the life style of local populations, distort the
efforts to make sustainable development and, spread diseases as
well as corruption (Dourojeanni, 1989). Even more, there are
indicators that both activities are already linked in some extent,
being part of the gold applied in the narcotraffic activity in Peru
and Bolivia. From this point of view, the promoted road connection
between Brazil (Rio Branco, Acre) and Peru via Pucallpa or via
Puerto Maldonado will add to the problem.
Gold rush in other Amazon countries
It is worth to mention that gold prospection activity is far
from being exclusive to Brazil. It is present since long time in
the Pachitea Province of Peru and, especially, in the Madre de Dios

Department (Dourojeanni, 1988) where dredges are starting to

operate in the Madre de Dios and the Inambari rivers, mostly owned
by Brazilian citizens (Bowen, 1990). Madre de Dios is still the
most pristine Amazon portion of Peru, where Manu National Park and
other precious protected areas are located and it is a serious
issue in Ecuador, in Nambija and Guayaimi, as well as in Bolivia,
Colombia, Guyana and, Venezuela. Prospectors from Brazil are
intruding neighboring countries, especially Venezuela, where a
Congressman denounced the transgression of approximately 4,000
Brazilian "garimpeiros" in one of the most fragile ecosystems of
the Orinoco basin (Azpurua, 1990). Feijao and Pinto (1990) indicate
that Brazilian prospectors are also moving into Guyana, Surinam and
French Guyana.
Current governmental efforts

Of course, the federal and state governments of Brazil have

not been indifferent to the issue. Several laws and other legal
texts have been issued. This new legislation and regulations intend
to regulate the "garimpagem" activity as well as the utilization
of mercury and the environmental assessments required. Many actions
have been planned and executed, often responding to affected local
population protests. Some of them were very important, others were
mostly spectacular, such as in the case of the bombarding of the
landing strips in Roraima. These actions have included: (i) the
establishment of "reservas garimpeiras" (mining reserves) by the
Ministry of Mining and Energy; (ii) many dialogues between
governments and "garimpeiros" institutions (Uniao dos Sindicatos
e Associaoes de Garimpeiros da Amazonia Legal USAGAL); (iii)
better official prices for the gold, thus reducing smuggling; (iv)
technical assistance to "garimpeiros" to deal with mercury
pollution (the State Secretary for Environment in Rondonia); (v)
limited health support; (vi) several attempt to register and
monitor "garimpos" (especially in the Rondonia and Mato Grosso
States); (vii) pollution monitoring and research; (viii) punctual
police or military actions (Bom Futuro, Serra Pelada, Yanomani
territory) and; (ix) a few studies on the global issue of
"garimpo", such as carried out by Mato Grosso (FINEP, 1987) or by
the DNPM & CPRM (1985, 1985a) on gold and precious stones and, of
course, (x) many meetings.

However, very few of the above proposed actions have been

fully or well implemented over a significant extent or period of
time. As a matter of facts, none have been really successful.

What to do
The first condition to intend a response to the "garimpo"
issue in Brazil or in other Amazon countries, is to recognize it
exists as well as its real proportions and its socioeconomic and
environmental impacts. The second condition is to accept that some
form of "garimpo" or mining exploitation will always be present in
the Amazon. It is out of order to pretend to banish mining from the
Amazon. What can be achieved is a mining development which would
be socially and environmentally sound.
The importance of zoning

Land use planning or zoning is a requisite to harmonize

economic activity with natural resources potential. It is
especially fruitful in new territories, where mistakes can be
avoided early in the process of its occupation. Zoning must
include the reality about mineral resources and shall incorporate
the planning of its utilization, as it does for other resources
such as soils and forests. This aspect was not really incorporated
into the socioeconomicecologic zoning of Rondonia, the first
Amazon State to develop and adopt such development tool, but is
being considered into current zoning efforts in other States,
especially Mato Grosso. Several measures can be adopted when it is
established that some kind of mineral resources will be exploited
in zones also suitable for other economic activities (Garrido et
al, 1989).
Mining reserves

The definition of mining reserves, among them the socalled

"reservas garimpeiras", can be useful to organize the mining
exploitation, especially if drawn responding to some of the
parameters of the zoning, where basic national or regional
priorities are established. Current mining reserves in Brazil are
drawn without due consideration to other options of land use, and
frequently overlap with protected areas or with fertile soils
suitable for agriculture. There is, as a matter of fact, a lack of
coordination between the administrations in charge of mining and
energy and those in charge of environment or agriculture. Moreover,
the information on the mineral resources is not always sufficient

to make sound proposals. More research is needed. The need of a

national mineral policy is often added to the problems which shall
be solved before taking effective decisions (Viana, 1989). Also,
the mining legislation is requiring many changes to make possible
a better management of the "garimpo" issue (Willig, 1989)

If the mining reserves are well organized, on areas where gold

or other mineral resources are especially abundant and accessible
and, where the conflicts with other land uses are minimized, much
can be done to control the environmental and social impacts
described before. Of course, one of the conditions of establishing
mining reserves is that no mining can be conducted elsewhere.
Current mining reserves are no much more than lines in a map,
unknown to the majority of prospectors and where there is no
special advantage for them to work. Ideally, a mining reserve shall
have an authority, imposing environmentally sound measures to the
mining; providing technical assistance as well as health, security,
banking and other services; buying gold production at fair prices
and collecting taxes and; providing opportunities to invest savings
in other activities. The Central Bank of Brazil and the Caixa
Economica Federal were buying gold. This is a practice to be
Registering and licensing of mining activities

Several States, such as Rondonia, have developed serious

efforts to register and license the "garimpos". In general, the
"garimpo" owners, who are making relatively important investments,
are receptive to this concept, as they prefer to follow, at least
in appearance, some of the rules than to be fully outlaw. In
Rondonia, the local environmental agency is under pressure to
approve "environmental assessments" and to provide environmental
licenses for the "garimpeiros" to operate. Of course, the
prospectors are not ready to accept that the authority tells them
where to go to mine and, anyhow, they are not seriously considering
to apply most of the recommendations. But if the government is
consistent with the concept that mining can only be practiced in
mining reserves where there are indeed advantages for them, the
registering and licensing will be easier and the environmental
assessments may become practical, when done at the level of a
mining reserve and not anymore for each one of the thousands of
minienterprises involved, which are constantly moving from one
place to another.

The mercury issue

The mercury is an imported good in Brazil. In 1989, the

Brazilian government ordered the opening of a register of people
importing, producing and trading mercury. In addition, the
government ordered that the equipment for recuperation of mercury
be licensed after proving at least 96% efficiency to recover
mercury. Of course, such legal measures have very little effect.
The register of mercury trade does not limit the amount of mercury
available and, even though some prospectors buy the mercury
recovery equipment they usually do not utilize it or they do not
utilize it correctly. A lot more can be done, through education and
extension, to explain the health and economic advantages of
utilizing such devices, not to speak about environmental impacts.
Mercury trade and transportation provide a very important
opportunity to the government to enforce regulations about
"garimpo". If gold mining is going to be excluded from an area, it
is relatively easy to stop the supply of mercury to this area,
controlling local airports or other few key points. The same
possibility is opened for controlling the supply of fuel. Mercury
is relatively cheap, being this a reason for the its careless
utilization. The country may want to heavily tax mercury to make
it much more expensive, reducing profits in gold mining if not
Organizing the "garimpo" in larger, modern enterprises
Most of the worst environmental and social impacts of the
"garimpo" derive from its anarchic character. As an example, most
prospectors move from one place to another exclusively motivated
by gossips. After heavy expenses and a lot of environmental
destruction, they realize that this was a false information and
move again. Anarchy and ignorance are also the source of an
uncontrollable human exploitation ending in very few of the
"garimpeiros" achieving the goals conducting them to the jungle,
selfperpetuating the problem. The "garimpeiros" are already
organized in local unions annd in a national federation of unions
(USAGAL). There are 6 unions, 3 cooperatives and 5 associations
affiliated to USAGAL (Feijao, 1989). "Garimpeiros" cooperatives,
in Brazil were not fully successful, as Feijao (1989) points out,
as this organizations provided little or no services for the
royalties being collected from members. However, well organized
cooperatives or societies may warrant more efficient and profitable
operations which may provide them with better opportunities to
improve their social condition. Larger enterprises would allow a

better management of the environmental impacts which, in addition,

the government will be able to supervise. A good example of
successful organization of gold miners in cooperatives was
developed in Nambija (Ecuador).

On the other hand the relationships between indians and

"garimpeiros" have not always been bad. There are a few examples
of good relationships, especially in the case of the CumaruTucuma
area where the mine Maria Bonita, among others, is administered by
indians (Feijao and Pinto, 1990). In the future it is worth to
consider options for indians to take direct advantage of the
mineral resources existing in their reserves.

Finally, to transform "garimpos" in modern enterprises, it is

a requisite to solve the numerous conflicts existing between
"garimpeiros" and legally established mining enterprises. Equity
concepts shall be applied, in addition to formal, established

Techniques for rehabilitation of "garimpo" areas and to avoid

environmental damages
The rehabilitation of the areas damaged by the gold
prospection is difficult and expensive. Some of their impacts are
probably irreversible, but others can be solved by the prospectors
with the same heavy mechanized equipments they utilized to do the
damage. When exploiting gold in river banks, they can rebuild them
as well as the original river bed, providing better conditions to
allow pioneer vegetation to establish and, water ecosystems to
recover. There are exploitation techniques which can limit original
damages which, of course, are totally unknown to the "garimpeiros"
who are not professional miners. Appropriate technical assistance
and environmental extension can do a lot to avoid and solve
problems, while augmenting the efficiency of the operation. Mercury
and oil pollution can easily be avoided if there is cooperation
from the miners and some governmental control.
Providing alternatives to the "garimpeiros"
This a very important aspect to consider in any set of actions
to avoid current trends of placer mining. Most prospectors are of
a rural origin and they have agricultural knowledge. If some
conditions are set up in order that sustainable agriculture becomes
attractive to them, they may invest some of their gains into a
farm, which is going to provide them security for the future.

Opportunities of investments can also be expanded to forest

management, ecotourism, aquaculture, etc. But a special program has
to be conceived to achieve this purpose. On the other hand, it is
important to foresee the tragic fate of such a large number of
"garimpeiros" in the Amazon if there is a breakdown in the price
of gold, which will not make exploitation attractive anymore. This
eventuality can be prevented with a process of incorporation of
former miners and their savings to sustainable agriculture in
already cleared land.
Acceleration of the consolidation and establishment of protected
To ensure the conservation of the biological diversity of the
Amazon it is essential to properly manage existing protected areas.
The protected areas, as well as the indian land, shall be forbidden
to "garimpeiros" at any cost, including severe police or military
action. What is encouraging "garimpeiros" to intrude in protected
areas is their lack of effective management and protection,
including poor or no demarcation. If such conditions are given
altogether with other measures recommended in this paper, the
biodiversity and indian heritages would be preserved. The zoning
and the demarcation of mining reserves shall take careful notice
of this requirement which, in addition, should consider the
necessity of new protected areas.
Making "garimpo" a good business for the country
Brazil, as other countries where placer mining is taking
place, can do a very lucrative business putting order in this
activity as its treasury may recover, in form of taxes, all money
required to do a wiser exploitation and, also, to solve part of its
economic crisis. The "garimpo" owners do not pay, currently, any
kind of municipal, state or federal taxes. The government shall
expand its practice of buying gold at fair prices but insisting in
the payment of taxes.
Joint efforts

To achieve such a plan is difficult for a country alone, with

little tradition of social discipline. But the risks of the
inaction are so enormous that there is consensus in Brazil that
something has to be done fast. Close collaboration among all public
sectors, at state and federal levels, is indispensable for success.
The direct participation of the "garimpeiros" in the search of
equitable solutions is absolutely essential for the success.

Isolated or fragmentary efforts as such being realized until today

only convey failures and add to growing frustration of
"garimpeiros" and of people affected by them. The Amazon
biodiversity, at added risks because mankind is as eager for gold
as it is for drugs, shall convey worldwide assistance to the
Brazilian government, as required, to make the "garimpo" an
opportunity for sustainable development instead of a threat to
human survival.

The authors are deeply indebted to Mr. Antonio da Justa Feijao,
USAGAL/FAMA's Special Consultant (Brazil), Mr. Juan Proano (IDB's
mining specialist) and, Mr. Juan Novara (IDB's natural resources
economist) for their very helpful comments to the drafts of this



(#%'0*,.8135@8:<H? A
Gold Mining
Number of
Number of
AM (Amazonas), AP (Amap
), MA (Maranhao), MT (Mato Grosso),
PA (Par
), RO (Rondonia), RR (Rozaima), TC (Tocantins).
Mining Points


Serra Pelada
West Roraima
30 45
oThe highest number corresponds to other sources.D
Alto R
o Negro
oDredges and ferry boats.,
50 100
North Mato Grosso
100 150
Pontes and Lacerda
Porto Nacional TocantinsPA/GO

Natividade Dian;
Other gold prospectors
Other prospectors
899 1014

Source: Mostly Feijao and Pinto (1990)



Type of Gold
Gold Production



Source: Feijao and Pinto (1990)
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