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."

Read more: The Gold Rush in French Guiana

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