He shrugged. He spoke as if the mine were a kind of charitable endeavor, helping the unfortunate. Beyond it, a denuded area, hundreds of times larger, came into view. Scores of illegal mines had carved out a vast expanse where there was no green—only mud, dirt roads, excavators, mining camps, and a couple of airstrips, from which, presumably, bigger operators were able to fly out their gold without encountering resistance. Much of the Rio Branco on either side of Turedjam no longer resembled a river; mining had turned it into a spreading mass of craters, filled with toxic lime-white water.
The forest ends at Turedjam. Three decades ago, the area where the town stands was untouched forest. The reason the Kayapo got as much land demarcated as they did for their reserves is that they were tough guys, warriors, and people were afraid of them. The first thing the Kayapo traded was jaguar skins—pilots flew in to get skins for the fashion industry.
And it progressed from there to logging and gold. A bronze sculpture of a prospector stands on one of the main avenues, and dozens of shops sell mining gear: water pumps, generators, bulldozers, hammocks, rubber boots. At Casa do Garimpeiro, two young women buy gold dust from prospectors and sell them gold jewelry, to give to their wives and girlfriends; outside is a giant glass-topped table, fashioned out of the gold-painted metal treads of an excavator.
At the entrance to the place where I stayed, plastic sculptures of leaping black panthers stood guard. Parked alongside was a truck that the proprietor employed in his side business, a septic-tank-cleaning operation. In an office on a street lined with brothels, Wesson Cleber Guimaraes, a spare-looking lawyer, acknowledged that illegal gold was the lifeblood of the local economy. Pointing to a construction-supply business across the street, he told me that its owner, who was now in jail, had been found to own forty-seven airplanes. His current mission was to help the Kayapo overcome their status as third-class citizens.
He was part of a group that had drafted a proposal to legalize gold mining and logging on the reserve. It was time, he said, for the Indians to exploit their lands to their full potential, and to benefit from them. He showed me a page filled with signatures. This was a conservative estimate, he said; the actual value could be three times that. But today they are living in misery, people in a zoo where you go and take pictures of them. A potbellied man in his late fifties, he was the president of the local Association of Prospectors, an advocacy group for gold miners.
When I pointed out that his association represented an illicit enterprise, he laughed good-naturedly; there was, he pointed out, one legal gold mine in the region, just across the river from Kayapo land. The next day, we set off to see it, speeding in four-wheel-drive vehicles on the dirt road that also led to Turedjam.
Near the bridge over the Rio Branco, we turned down a private road and into the mine.
There were sheds for workers to wash and to change their clothes, a canteen, and, beyond, a landscape dominated by huge piles of dirt and deep craters. The machines were in constant motion, working a pit about twenty feet deep. A few hundred feet away was the Kayapo reserve, its jungle hills rising from the river. In addition to miners and loggers, soy farmers and cattle ranchers have also infiltrated the area, clearing huge tracts of forest, mostly by fire.
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Guerra waved toward the jungle. He explained that when the boundaries of the indigenous territories were set, beginning in the nineties, some white settlers had been dispossessed. That would pacify a lot of people. But they should have economic activity going on: mining, logging, Brazil-nut collecting, and cattle ranching. If all that were allowed on their land, in addition to the re-demarcation of Indian reserves, it would reduce the conflicts by eighty per cent.
Down in the belly of the crater, men held the ends of giant black hoses between their legs and moved the nozzles back and forth, directing torrents of water into loose mounds of scree. Downstream, by the mouth of a larger hose, another man stood in the water, separating rocks from the flow of sediment. The flow was sucked uphill and burst onto a sluice tray, lined with a layer of felt that trapped the gold.
Inside a shed, several employees got into waist-deep water in a concrete pool and sifted the final sediments. Using handheld pans, they washed the sediment with silvery streaks of mercury, until they came up with a pinkish blob of unrefined gold. For buyers abroad, it is difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal gold. The trade in gold provides an index of global sentiment. In times of political anxiety and market volatility, investors stockpile gold bars.
Authoritarian governments see deep reserves as a sign of strength; last year, demand from central banks was the highest in decades, with large purchases from Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. Tech companies are thought to consume three hundred and thirty-five tons of gold a year. Pure gold, a corrosion-proof conductor, is used in every smartphone.
For local workers, these kinds of concerns seem remote, even ridiculous. There, he had worked in desmatamento —burning the jungle to create pastures for cattle. In , he followed talk of a gold rush to a place called Castelo dos Sonhos, or Castle of Dreams.
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In the years since, he had worked when he could as a prospector, or else on cattle ranches, on the crews that drove fenceposts. A widower with no children, Silva spent his free time in complete idleness, eating his meals in a local restaurant.
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In the indigenous reserves, all that stands in the way of the destruction of the Amazon is the ability of a few thousand local leaders to resist the enticements of consumer culture. At the mine, he worked as a despedrador —the last man in the pit, who removes rocks from the water before it is sucked into the sluice. I grew tired of that.
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He had come to the region, with his two brothers, during the boom of the eighties. Smiling nostalgically, he said that they had been successful enough to buy themselves ranches. A survey published last December by the regional environmental group R. Although conservation laws are spottily enforced, the federal police had at times worked with N.
If prospectors could work legally, he argued, they could institute safeguards in their use of mercury, and could also bulldoze their tailings and plant tree seedlings. In , a wave of new miners arrived with heavy excavators, radically accelerating the damage to the forest. Locals surmised that drug gangs were involved in the trade; no one else could afford such expensive equipment. Guerra complained that, in the past two years, as many as forty-five excavators had been destroyed.
The machines cost more than a hundred thousand dollars apiece, and losing one could put a small operator out of business. Guerra himself had lost an excavator on the reserve, he confessed; he was fighting the fine, the equivalent of about six thousand dollars. The campaign of raids had cooled the mining activity in the region. But since Bolsonaro took office the raids have stopped.
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The agencies that look after the environment and indigenous concerns are practically defunct—and, the official said, the Bolsonaro administration is trying to block funding for conservation N. This summer, when fires in the Amazon attracted scrutiny, Bolsonaro claimed that N. This kind of talk exacerbates a tradition of hostility toward anyone who resists mineral extraction.
Several of them explained that they often received threats, and had begun to restrict their movements in the countryside. Just outside the Kayapo reserve is a bar built in a roadside shack, with a jukebox and a couple of cloth-sided rooms, where prostitutes entertain prospectors who work in the reserve. At the entrance to Turedjam, another shack serves as a bodega and a rest house; the clients I saw there were invariably non-Kayapo, hanging out, avoiding eye contact.
My hosts passed by without acknowledging the place at all. How did they know who was trustworthy?