8 January 2013

The Road to El Dorado







Photos from Mads Nissen's photo documentary Fever, Gold Fever - see the rest of the set here

In the past 10 years, the price of gold has risen to five times its value.  Throughout the global financial crisis, throughout all the economic uncertainty in the world, gold remains a constant yellow beacon of wealth.  As a result of this, gold mining has become the career of choice for those desperate for a fast track to riches.  So desperate, that they are willing to mine illegally.

South America’s largest illegal gold mine, Eldorado do Juma can be found in the heart of Brazilian Amazon Rainforest.  This unique habitat was once untouched by human hand, but now it is a permanent campsite for poverty-stricken Brazilians who hope to strike the means to a better life.

The Amazon Rainforest is divided by The Transamazonica Highway, which is lierally the road to Eldorado do Juma.  75% of all clearings in the rainforest are less than 30 kilometres from a public road, however garimpieros (Brazilian for gold prospectors) also access new, untouched mining sites via rivers.

Eldorado do Juma was initially discovered by three men in 2006, who swore a pact of secrecy.  This pact was broken and a blog post sparked an influx of thousands of men willing to dismantle hill and rock, piece by piece, in the hope of finding gold.  Slurries of dirt are strained and filtered, then washed with mercury until the heaviest metal; gold, is left.  The mercury used in this process is destroying the once pure rainforest.

For many of the garimpieros the search for the gold has little rewards.  Some go for weeks without finding anything of value, risking their lives by digging mountain tunnels by hand.  Some of the men have been mining for decades.

While most garimpieros have moved away from their families in their hunt for gold, a few bring their wives and children.  While the men toil in the mines, where finds are rare, the women are forced into prostitution to eke out a meagre existence.  The standard price paid to a prostitute in the area equates to one gram of gold.  The men who live alone occasionally send money to their families back home, however many lose contact completely as they move constantly to the next big mine in the gold rush.

At the height of the mine’s productivity, 300-400 kilograms of gold were extracted each week and roughly eight thousand garimpieros worked in Eldorado do Juma.  It is easy to see the appeal of such rewards, when a city job would pay significantly less than the spoils of prospecting.  Today, however, the only thing most miners take away from Eldorado do Juma is malaria.

This post was inspired by Mads Nissen's photo documentary Fever, Gold Fever.  See the rest of the set here.

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