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Brazil '98: Introduction
Brazil '98: Participants
Brazil '98: Map of Brazil
Brazil '98: Itinerary
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Introduction
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Rio de Janeiro
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Rondonio
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Roads to hell
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Deforestation
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Acre
Brazil '98: Itinerary - The working day of a Rubber Tapper in Acre
Brazil '98: Itinerary - The Chico Mendes story
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Manaus
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Para
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Dam Busters
Brazil '98: Itinerary - The Gold Rush and bombing of air strips
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Brasilia D.F.
Brazil '98: Itinerary - Rio de Janeiro and the return
Brazil '98: Debates
Brazil '98: Sponsors
Brazil '98: Brazil Facts

The Gold rush and bombing of airstrips

In 1980 gold was discovered near Marabá, in Pará. Within a month 5000 small-scale independent miners–garimpeiros–had converged on the location of this discovery which had been named Serra Pelada (bare mountain ridge).
The work was brutal. Each garimpeiro claimed a spot, dug pits and extracted the gravel in the hope of finding gold. Photographs of the mines present an ‘anthill’ of men digging out the gold. They would carry the gravel in sacks to a shed to sort, wash and pan it. Within four months 25,000 garimpeiros were working the Serra Pelada mines. By 1984, the Serra Pelada gold strike was supporting between 50,000 to 100,000 garimpeiros. In the early 1980s, the main controversy surrounding mining activities was the question of ownership. From 1980 to 1984, Docegeo, the prospecting wing of Companhia do Vale do Rio Doce fought the garimpeiros for control of the mines. In 1984 a deal was struck which allowed the garimpeiros to remain working the mines.
By the late-1980s, gold mining was at the centre of a different debate, this time over its impact upon Indians and the environment. In 1987 Government studies revealed the presence of gold, diamonds, tin and bauxite in the Amazon state of Roraima. This discovery was soon followed by a gold rush in the north west region of Roraima. By the end of 1987, a period of economic collapse in Brazil, 45,000 garimpeiros, driven by poverty, had descended on this region. The gold was located on Yanomami Indian lands. The garimpeiros used the highly toxic mercury to separate the gold particles from the mud. The mercury entered the rivers and the food chain and is claimed to have led to the death of 1500 of the 9000 Yanomami. There are believed to be around 300,000 garimpeiros in the Amazon today. It is estimated that since 1980 they have poured over 2000 tons of mercury into its rivers. Environmentalists fear that this has caused irreparable damage to the forest’s ecology and its human population.
Under intense international pressure from Western governments and environmentalists, the Brazilian Government has acted to curtail this threat. It has banned the use of mercury, run education courses on alternatives and the health risks of mercury for garimpeiros and has created vast forest reserves in order to control the spread of mining. These reserves are protected under federal law and it is officially illegal to mine on them. One of the largest is the Yanomami Indian National Park. Although greatly reduced from its original 23.5 million acres, it remains a vast expanse of land, some 520 kilometres wide. In 1990, one of the first actions of Brazil’s newly inaugurated President, Fernando Collor de Mello, was to order the blowing-up of the air strips used to transport the gold mined by the garimpeiros. Airstrips were bombed once again in 1997. These actions have proved unsuccessful in stopping the garimpeiros in the Amazon as mining is the one chance that many poor Brazilians have of escaping poverty.
One of the most recent controversies over mining surrounds the largest untapped reserve of niubium in the world which has been discovered in the Amazon state of Amazonas. Niubium is the mineral used in products subjected to extreme high and low temperatures, such as aeroplanes and rockets. The Mineral Research and Resources Company (CPRM) linked to the Ministry of Mines and Power is overseeing the tendering process for the exploitation of the 2.9 billion ton reserve.
Brazil is already the largest producer of niubium in the world at 22,000 tons of niubium oxide per year. Eighty five per cent of this is exported. The market is controlled by the Brazilian Mineral and Metallurgy Company (CBMM) which has a mine in the state of Mato Grosso that produces 80 per cent of world ore production and has enough reserves to supply the world market for another 1000 years. The huge interest shown in the Niubium reserve is because it is also the site of large reserves of ‘rare earth’ minerals which are used in the electronics industry.
The tendering process is being opposed by environmentalists because the reserve site covers two environmental protection areas: the Neblina Peak National Park and the State Seis Lagos Biological Reservation. No form of natural resource exploration is permitted in the national park because it does not have an environmental zoning plan. The Brazilian Government environmental agency and the Environmental Protection Institute of Amazonas both oppose the tender.