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Sue Branford in Brazil. Post 5: São José, Pará, September 12 2013.

Sue Branford and Nayana Fernandez are still in São José with the Garimpeiros

We’re still in São José, a community of garimpeiros beside the River Pacu, a tributary of the River Tapajós (see Post 4). They are in a serious conflict with a mining company called Mineração Ouro Roxo (“it even stole our name”, moaned one garimpeiro). The company arrived in the region a few years ago waving documents which, it said, gave it rights to the land on which the garimpeiros had been working for years. This is what has caused the tension.

The garimpeiros mine the gold by digging galerias (horizontal tunnels). It’s hard work and, although the garimpeiros have become very skilled at identifying areas with gold, it’s entirely unpredictable which galeria will have rich pickings. This helps to explain the lure of the garimpo – you go on hoping that the next time you will bamburrar (find a lot of gold), so time and again you return.… In some ways garimpeiros are as addicted to their mines as gamblers are to the casino.

Nayana Fernández is lowered down one of the mine-pits.

Nayana Fernández is lowered down one of the mine-pits.

The garimpeiros haven’t the technology to go any deeper than 50 metres, and they are happy to allow the mining company, with its more sophisticated machinery, to explore the gold that lies deeper than that (where, the garimpeiros say, there is a vast amount).

They also respect the rights of the mining company to an area it bought a few years ago – “no one goes there”. They just want to be allowed to keep on mining in a fairly small area, known as Paxiúba, which the company hasn’t bought but over which, it says, it has obtained mining rights from the DNPM (the national department of mineral production).

But the company wants them to leave. It has sent document after document to the authorities, alleging that the “so-called community” is only a small group of criminosos who try to pass themselves off as representatives of the community so that they can get rich at the expense of the others. It also claims that the garimpeiros are causing massive environmental damage: they are like “locusts, who only leave devastation in their wake”.

We hired a couple of the numerous moto-taxistas in the village to take us to the company’s mine. Its operations and installations are surprisingly unsophisticated and precarious. At the moment it is only processing curimã, kind of gravel from which most of the gold has been extracted but which still contains some of the metal. It can be extracted by mixing it with cyanide, a highly toxic chemical. The mine manager, Francisco Pereira Viegas, assured us that the process was very safe.

A company storage pit for curimã, containing cyanide. Photo: Lorenza Sganzetta

However, we saw various large holes in the ground lined only with black plastic. According to company employees, the curimã is mixed with the cyanide in these holes. The environmental authorities have told the company that the black plastic should be replaced by high density polyethylene. Not only is the plastic still there, it’s also torn in some parts, allowing the liquid to leak into the soil. Former employees told us that safety precautions were minimal, and that a man who had fallen into the cyanide had almost died.

A detail: all this is happening within one of the federal government’s conservation units, the Area of Environmental Protection (APA) of Tapajós.

According to a company document, the company’s main representative in the region, Dirceu Santos Frederico Sobrinho, has one share, out of a total of 613,668. Who own the rest? Sr Viegas told us that he thought the company was controlled by Venezuelan and Canadian capital, but he wasn’t sure. So we have another job on our to-do list: find out who owns it. Can anyone reading this blog help?

In March 2010, on the basis of accusations made by the company against the garimpeiros, the DNPM banned them from continuing work in Paxiúba, and in April they were expelled from the mine by the DNPM with the help of the Federal Police. Strangely, out of the hundreds of garimpos in the Tapajós valley that are operating illegally, this is the only one we know of where the DNPM has taken such action.

The mine remained closed for two years. On 12 June this year, however, the garimpeiros, convinced of the underlying justice of their cause and desperate to get back their livelihoods, restarted their activities in Paxiúba, where they’ve been working ever since.

The company has reacted rapidly. It has obtained a provisional order from a state government court ordering the garimpeiros to leave the area. The order hasn’t been delivered to the garimpeiros yet: the official from the justice department is waiting for police support. We don’t know how the garimpeiros will react, but the situation is worrying.

So what’s the way out for the garimpeiros? Their future depends on their being recognised as having collective, not individual, interests. Better still, that they are seen as a ‘culturally differentiated’ group with their own relations with their territory. In other words, that they are recognised as a “traditional community”. Traditional communities and the people in them have had their rights recognised in the 1988 Constitution in Brazil and in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation.

The insistence with which the company’s lawyer has been denying that they are a traditional community shows clearly that this is what worries them. In one of the many documents he has drawn up, the lawyer ties himself in knots in his determination to hammer home this point, asserting on one occasion that they are a “a restricted and individualised group of garimpeiros who, defying solemnly orders expressed by the competent authorities, insist on the repeated practice of various crimes”.

We have been in São José for almost a week and we have rarely seen a community that is so united, cohesive and with its own characteristics. On 14 September an assembly was held, with almost 300 people present, in the community hall (which operates as a brega when it is not needed for these activities). We saw the group’s enthusiasm and its consensus when people raised their arms to turn down the company’s proposal to provide them with some services in return for the land in Paxiúba.

Undoubtedly, the mining carried out by the garimpeiros has an impact on the environment and should be regulated. However, to us their struggle seems just, another case of the gap between what is legal and what is legitimate in this complex Amazonian world.

Having a beer in one of the bars around the square (the football pitch) after the meeting, we listened time and again to a handful of songs (“Será que o homem chora?” was a favourite) blasted out at such a high volume that conversation became almost impossible. Just the basics – the two young women in our group were propositioned, politely but not so subtly, by various hopeful garimpeiros: “will you sleep with me?” The men resorted to curious arguments – “Look, I have air conditioning” – but didn’t insist.

So life goes on in this unsophisticated but likable village. But for how long? We have the uncomfortable feeling that, sooner rather than later perhaps, a time bomb will explode…

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