Sue Branford in Brazil. Post 4. São José, Pará, September 10 2013.

Sue Branford and Nayana Fernandez, have moved on from Jacareacanga to São José on the river Pacu, a tributary of the Tapajós river.

Life in a garimpo

I am in a fascinating place. We took a small boat from Jacareacanga down the river Tapajós, then up a tributary to the east, the Pacu, until we reached São José, a currutela (village of garimpeiros – gold-panners). A journey of about four hours.

We stepped off the boat and soon found ourselves in the middle of the community  –  that is to say, a football pitch surrounded by simple wooden houses, each with a corrugated roof and a veranda, which seems to be the busiest part of the house. I’m sitting at a table on one of these verandas writing this blog as dawn breaks.

São JoséSo is it a typical village on the Amazon frontier? In many ways, yes. The village was founded by rubber-tappers many decades ago and, as rubber-tapping died away, it was refounded by garimpeiros in the 1960s. We’re at the heart of the gold rush in the Tapajós valley, a fever that reached such proportions that the airport of Itaituba, a small town on the Tapajós river, became for a while the busiest airport in the world.

Thousands of garimpos were opened beside the Tapajós. None of them was on the scale of Serra Pelada, that massive mine made famous by the photographer  Sebastião Salgado, but, taken altogether, these smaller mines provided much more gold.

Many of the garimpeiros made money – at times a lot of money – but in the garimpo culture to be rich is not to accumulate, but to spend. To spend   extravagantly in nights of heavy drinking and whoring, to spend so much that little, if anything, remains. We’re hearing time and again stories of men who became so rich through the kilos of gold they mined that they bought planes and mansions, but today are so poor that they can scarcely afford to eat. Most garimpeiros don’t believe they wasted their lives; for many of them, coming from very poor backgrounds, it was, for one brief moment, a dream come true. And that’s what counts.

Today São José has lost the exuberance it had in the 1980s and the 1990s, but it remains a garimpo town. All the shops around the square sell goods at inflated prices (up to R$10 for a kilo of onions), with scales at the check-out to take payment in gold. And its brothels, called bregas, have survived, though with fewer customers than in the past. Four of the eleven establishments around the central square are brothels. During the week bored girls hang around the bar, often serving drinks and helping out in other ways, but at the weekend the bregas come to life as the garimpeiros arrive from the mines nearby and spend their hard-earned cash.

At the same time São José is also a real community, with families, a school, a health post, several churches and its own community organisation that has established its own norms and regulations, which people respect and enforce. According to the inhabitants, this is a peaceful place with hardly any crime and no drugs. It’s a pleasant, tolerant village, one of the friendliest places I know. Prostitution is seen as a job like any other. Both the recently elected president of the community and his predecessor run brothels. There are no beggars in the streets, and people help out if a family is facing hardship. Recently, after a house burned down, the community got together and rebuilt it in a few days, for nothing. “I’d much rather live here than in São Paulo”, one young garimpeiro told me.

What makes this particularly interesting is that for most Brazilians a garimpo connotes crime, disorder and violence. Indeed, in the 1970s three or four people were shot dead in a weekend in São José. Like the other garimpos, it was the wild west.

Why is it so different now? I get many different answers. “It was the arrival of the families that made the difference”, says one. “Today there’s less gold so a garimpeiro can’t ‘botar tudo na beira’ or ‘fechar a zona’ (expressions for extravagant spending on prostitution)”, says another. Today São José has a military police station with four soldiers, and some think this helped. “They’re a corrupt lot, they do a lot of harm to the community, but they make potential criminals think twice.” Others think it was the conflict with the mining company, which arrived a few years ago and has caused huge problems for the community, that has brought the community together. I’ll be talking about this conflict in my next blog.