Gold, Guns and Garimpeiros

As jittery investors have sought safe-haven investments in gold during the recession, the metal's price has soared on world markets. Meanwhile, some 30,000 illegal miners from Brazil are building clandestine mines throughout the jungles of French Guiana, an overseas department administered by France, the current home of the EU's spaceport, and home to a section of the world's largest protected tropical rainforest. Called garimpeiros, they clear-cut trees, gouge massive pits in the forest floor, dump approximately 30 tons of mercury into waterways each year, and also set up Wild West-style camps rife with prostitution, guns, drugs, and malaria. Robbery and gunfights are common, and landowners often enforce exorbitant fees with armed mercenaries.

In 2008 French president Nicolas Sarkozy launched a massive, ongoing military operation to combat the miners. New helicopters, hundreds of gendarmes and soldiers, and even an elite commando unit were dedicated to setting up checkpoints, patrolling the rivers, and launching raids on illegal jungle encampments. The effort has been somewhat successful and French forces have confiscated weapons, gold, and black-market mercury, destroyed illegal camps, and deported thousands of illegal miners to Brazil. But some experts believe clandestine mining will increase in direct correlation with the price of gold and that an overarching legal framework from both France and Brazil is necessary to deal effectively with the problem. In December, gold hit an all-time record $1,217 an ounce, an upward trend that many market watchers predict will continue.

Tarnished: The True Cost of Gold

On Feb. 14, the Pulitzer Center releases its newest e-book on the environmental and human prices of gold mining. Whether this resource is produced in a way that is fair to all is very much up to us.