The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the Amazon, the coronavirus fuels an illegal gold rush — and an environmental crisis

A miner gathers gold last month in the Itaituba region of Pará state, Brazil. (Lucas Landau)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Alessandro Souza is a gold hunter. He chases it deep into protected Indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest, traveling days by foot and canoe, and doesn't emerge until his pockets are full. Sometimes he's gone two months. Sometimes six. The only certainty is that he'll be back, because hunting gold is his business, and business is booming.

“Today’s market quote,” Souza messaged his WhatsApp group, Goldminers Without Borders, one recent day: Gold was going for nearly $1,800 an ounce. Souza posted an arrow pointing skyward.

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The novel coronavirus has devastated Brazil, infecting more than 4 million people and killing over 125,000. It’s also fueling the largest gold rush in the Amazon in years — with the potential for long-lasting consequences to the rainforest.

Driven by the skyrocketing gold prices, surging unemployment and lax enforcement by a distracted government, people are traveling from all over the country to hundreds of illegal mining sites, invading protected Indigenous lands, stripping swaths of forest bare, poisoning rivers with mercury and laundering illegal gold through mineral shops. And they’re largely getting away with it.

Much of the activity is concentrated in the vast and under­policed state of Pará, where Souza lives in the remote mining hub of Itaituba, and where gold exports have risen sharply this year. As Brazil shifted its attention to the pandemic, state exports have more than quadrupled, rising to $245 million during the first six months of this year. Deforestation associated with mining on Indigenous lands, where such activity is illegal, has reached record highs.

In interviews, law enforcement officials, Indigenous leaders, federal inspectors and even gold miners say the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has ­neglected its responsibility as steward of the Amazon. At a time when scientists say the forest is being dangerously destabilized by deforestation, Bolsonaro has pushed to scale back enforcement and legalize mining on Indigenous land.

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Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has deputized the military to crack down on environmental destruction, but it has been ineffective. The government’s chief environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, has been constrained by budget cuts, unfilled vacancies and Bolsonaro’s criticism. It has scaled back the destruction of mining equipment found at illegal gold digs — a tactic advocates say is a key deterrent — and reduced operations to curb criminality in the Amazon.

“This moment is different,” said Sérgio Leitão, the executive director of the Choices Institute, an environmental organization tracking gold mining during the pandemic.

“The valuation of gold, the amount of manual labor that will work for almost nothing, the reduction in enforcement, and a government that is supporting the legalization of more gold mining. This is a perfect storm.”

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles initially agreed to be interviewed by The Washington Post but then canceled. The Defense Ministry defended the government’s response.

“The country is unjustly accused of not taking care of the region,” the ministry said in a statement. It cited its recent ­enforcement operations and stressed the complexities in patrolling a forest “of continental proportions.”

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Few know better than Souza. He has scoured for gold all over the Amazon, unlicensed and on protected land. Poverty and bureaucracy, he said, have left him without a choice: “We don’t have other options.”

So he does his best to avoid getting caught. His next dig would be so deep into Indigenous forest — six days by canoe and foot — that he didn’t expect to run into anyone else. Just forest and gold.

'The rivers aren't the same'

Illegal gold mining accounts for only a small fraction of deforestation in the Amazon — far less than agricultural practices — but its effect is more insidious. Mercury is an essential tool in the process, used to collect and purify gold traces found in the soil. Its toxicity seeps into the soil, air and water. Maritime ecologies have collapsed. Indigenous communities have been poisoned. Years after mining, the earth remains barren and lifeless.

“It ends up killing nature,” said Marilene Nascimento, a cook at illegal gold-mining sites outside Itaituba. “The rivers aren’t the same. The fish die. For years and years, they don’t come back to normal.”

After years working on digs, Nascimento has grown ambivalent about her work. She can’t forget the environmental devastation she has seen, and last year she swore she wouldn’t go back. But then the pandemic hit, other work opportunities dried up, and a friend was calling, asking if she wanted to make some good money. Nascimento would get 30 grams of gold for one month of working as a mining cook.

She did a quick calculation using that day’s gold prices, and was stunned. She’d make more than $1,200. Far more than last year. And 10 times what she could earn in the city.

“It’s hard to see nature being destroyed,” Nascimento said. “But you make so much money.”

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The forest has long been a safety net for Brazilians. During the economic downturn in the 1980s, as many as 100,000 people descended on the mine known as Serra Pelada. Another wave followed during the global financial crisis in 2009. And again in 2013. The gold miner became a Brazilian archetype: He wandered into the forest with little more than a hammock and hope.

But that’s not today’s miner. In the last decade, the enterprise has been industrialized and professionalized. Well-financed networks equip miners with expensive, heavy construction equipment such as bulldozers and other vehicles. Remote digs have WiFi, cable television and gas stoves. Even some Indigenous people, lured by the technology, have taken it up.

Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018, has promised to expand mining even further. The son of a Serra Pelada miner, he says miners aren’t criminals, but workers struggling to survive. He has welcomed them into meetings and criticized Ibama for destroying their equipment. Last year the agency burned only 72 heavy mining machines — about a third of the number destroyed in 2015. Officials who oversaw one operation were fired. The military canceled another, blocking Ibama from using its helicopters.

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Senior Ibama inspectors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and policies have emboldened gold miners and made their own work all but impossible. When investigators are allowed to go out, they say, illegal miners mock them. They say that nothing will stop them. That the gold is coming out of the forest, one way or another. That Bolsonaro is on their side.

“We’re getting so much political pressure,” one of the officials said. “It’s practically impossible to head out into the field. We’re being assailed constantly. . . . People aren’t being punished.”

Miners find a champion

That’s common knowledge in Itaituba, a mining town of 100,000 deep in the Amazon where gold is so omnipresent that it’s used as currency. Businesses along Rua do Ouro — “Gold Street” — buy illegally mined gold, authorities say, then launder it into export markets. The mayor, a miner himself, recently erected a monument to gold mining. Local journalists don’t even pretend to be objective.

“More than 70 percent of the mining is illegal,” said Mauro Torres, the editor of a local news site. “But I’m on the side of the gold miner.”

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Miners congregate by the thousands on publicly accessible WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages and, without apparent fear of authorities, openly discuss illegal mines, gold, prostitutes and their fealty to the president.

“With every video of Bolsonaro, I’m more proud of my vote,” reads a typical tribute.

Many miners see Bolsonaro as their champion. He has defended them against environmentalists, nongovernmental organizations, Indigenous advocates, pressure from foreign leaders, and the government itself.

For years, they say, Brazilian authorities encouraged mining in the forest. The right to mine is enshrined in the constitution. But then the government made registration so arduous and protected so much territory, miners say, that honest workers were made into environmental criminals.

In Bolsonaro, miners say, they finally have a president who sees it as they do. Gold mining is a lifeline. And that has never been so clear as during the pandemic, when it has buffered them from the economic fallout.

“There’s no poverty in Itaituba,” said José Antunes, a prominent local lawyer who represents miners. “There never was. People come here to escape poverty.”

That was the hope of Ronaldo dos Santos, 30, who traveled 1,000 miles from Lago das Pedras, in the state of Maranhão, to reach the gold mines of Itaituba. It was either that, he said, or watch his four children go hungry in Brazil’s poorest state. Now, he says, he could make thousands of dollars per month, mining gold by day, sleeping in a forest hammock by night.

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He doesn’t worry much — not about environmental damage, the law or invading Indigenous land. In fact, he said, mining there is better. “Indigenous land is where you get the good gold,” dos Santos said. “Easier to find.”

That was where Souza was heading. He wasn’t looking forward to it. He hated being away from his children and wife for months. But he said he had little choice.

“If I stayed in the city to try to find work, I wouldn’t be able to put my kids through school,” he said. “There’s no work.”

He wished he could tell his family how long he’d be away.

“The miner knows that he is leaving,” Souza said. “He doesn’t know when he’ll return.”

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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