Foreign Legion tries in vain to tackle region's biggest environmental threat
Alex Bellos, River Oyapock
The Guardian (UK)
Monday December 17 2007
Sitting in a bar near the Brazilian side of the border with French Guiana, Antonio Luis is waiting for nightfall to make his move. Once it is dark, he will be able to cross the frontier and follow one of the well-trodden jungle trails. The French want to stop him and his colleagues, he says, "but they won't manage it. The jungle is very big and us miners are tenacious beasts."
Luis is one of thousands of illegal miners panning for gold in the rainforest of French Guiana, a former colonial territory that is now treated as an integral part of France.
Up to 15,000 Brazilians are believed to be hiding in French Guiana, working in up to 1,000 clandestine mine sites. Campaign groups say that the gold rush, which started about 10 years ago, is the region's greatest environmental problem and, with the price of gold at a 28-year high, they fear it will get worse.
According to Benoit de Thoisy, a conservation biologist, more than 3,000 miles of rivers have already been polluted by displaced soil. "Also, the miners have to eat, so there is a problem with hunting. There is a depletion of large species. And they are using mercury, which is still going into the water and the air."
The Brazilians arriving in French Guiana come over the River Oyapock, which runs through the Amazon rainforest and demarcates much of the 420-mile border. Even with two French checkpoints and regular patrols of gendarmes and the Foreign Legion, the frontier is impossible to police.
Brazilian small-scale illegal miners - called garimpeiros - use unsophisticated methods that have barely changed in 300 years. The difference now is that petrol motors are used to hose down the earth and then pump up the alluvial deposit to a makeshift sluice. Mercury is then used to separate the gold.
The upshot is often an environmental horror. Mining sites resemble bomb craters, the landscape around them gouged out and burned down.
Garimpeiros work from daybreak to sundown and sleep in hammocks on site. Even though they live with the hope of striking it rich, the reality is that their lives are spent in what is almost bonded labour. The workmen are entitled to only a 30% share of the gold found at the mine. The rest goes to the owner of the motor, usually a businessman living in a city miles away.
One typical mine being operated by a handful of men was producing just 15g (half an ounce) of gold a day - almost £200 - leaving less than £10 a day each for the workers.
While in other circumstances this could be an acceptable wage, the garimpeiros never leave the rainforest, face endemic malaria and settle disputes by the law of the gun. Their wages are all spent on food, drink and prostitutes.
Ilha used to consist of a shack and restaurant for passing trade as garimpeiros headed into French Guiana and then returned to spend their money. In the last year its population has trebled to almost 1,000 people as it has established itself as the support base for the mining area across the border. The settlement has no state presence and the currency is grams of gold. Each shop has a set of weighing scales.
The population of Ilha includes many petroleiros, petrol carriers who lug 50kg canisters of fuel on their backs through jungle trails to the mines, and prostitutes. There are about 10 brothels and dozens of women.
Ilha is effectively an illegal squat situated in the Tumucumaque national park, the world's largest stretch of protected tropical forest. But the Brazilian authorities say they cannot shut it down. Martin Pourper, the head of the federal police responsible for the area, said that if they removed the people they would have to be relocated - and there is nowhere for them to go.
After ignoring the problem for several years, in 2003 the French gendarmerie launched Operation Anaconda, which organises about 100 raids a year of the illegal mining sites - sometimes using Foreign Legion and military personnel. When a site is discovered, all the motors and other equipment are destroyed, the guns and gold seized and the men sent back to Brazil.
Colonel François Müller, head of the gendarmerie in French Guiana, says that *18m (£13m) of equipment found on site has been destroyed this year. But he adds that the logistical obstacles mean they cannot be sure the men do in fact go back to Brazil.
"We destroy the equipment, the pumps, the huts but we cannot take the garimpeiros with us," he said. "There is no space in the helicopters. So we leave them a bit of money, a bit of food, and we ask them to go back to Brazil. We are very limited by our technical means. The problem is that [French] Guiana is as big as Portugal with an impenetrable forest. We have a terrain which is very unfavourable for control."
After arriving in Brazil, many garimpeiros return almost immediately to French Guiana.
Luis, who is 44, was working on a mine site when the gendarmes raided. "Everything I had was burnt; they left me with just the clothes on my back," he says. But he plans to go back since with no education it is the only type of work he knows how to do.
Ironically, the gendarmes' policy of non-violence against the garimpeiros is encouraging the Brazilians to mine there instead of on the Brazilian side of the border. "The gendarmes just destroy the equipment, and then see you on your way," says ex-miner Val Ferreira. "In Brazil, the federal police just go into a mining site once [with their guns.] Then they never need to go in again."
De Thoisy says that the gendarmerie is doing a lot - but it is not enough. "They are doing what they can with their means, but they started this action too late. The activity was too organised when the government started to be interested in the problem."
The volume of illegal gold mined is slowly decreasing in French Guiana; current estimates are that two to three tonnes are still produced every year. But Timothy Green, author of The Ages of Gold, says that the current high price of gold on world markets is stimulating increased garimpeiro activity: "You are seeing not just in Brazil but all around the world a big rise in this 'unofficial' production."
He says there is very little that can be done to prevent the destruction. "You are dealing with a vast forest land. You cannot police it. The best you can do is to encourage responsible use of mercury and explosions [sometimes used to get through rock]."
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