Like Butterflies in the Jungle: The Quest for the New El Dorado

Garimpeiros bring diesel, food, engine parts, and other goods up the Sikini Creek to be distributed to illegal gold mines throughout French Guiana. Photo by Narayan Mahon, French Guiana, 2010.

Garimpeiros bring diesel, food, engine parts, and other goods up the Sikini Creek to be distributed to illegal gold mines throughout French Guiana. Photo by Narayan Mahon, French Guiana, 2010.

Heading up river into the darkness, there was no way to tell where water met jungle and the only sound was the buzz of the pirogue's battered Yamaha Enduro 15. A Brazilian black-market transporter named Junior piloted the long, flat-bottomed boat. Another man, whose job it was to watch for things that could sink us, sat in the bow, illuminated by a spotlight hooked to a car battery. Several pirogues were ahead of us, and several more behind. Each carried three or four Brazilian wildcat gold miners and was loaded to the waterline with sacks of rice, frozen meat, engine parts, and plastic jerricans filled with diesel.

Soon I heard the low roar of rapids, and someone on the bank signaled to us with a flashlight. We steered the pirogue into a side creek and pulled in bow-to-stern with several other boats. Headlamps flashing in the dark, petroleiros jumped into the murky water and began heaving the sacks of rice and the 110-pound cans of diesel onto their backs. With small flashlights clenched in their teeth, they portaged the supplies up a steep, twisting trail into the jungle. The boat pilots then backed the now-empty pirogues into the river. Gunning the motors, they rammed the bows into the rapids while several men chest-deep in the water used ropes to help pull them through. Upriver, petroleiros were stacking the supplies on a small beach, to be reloaded into the boats.

These supplies had already traveled through at least fifty miles of Amazon jungle and skirted two military checkpoints. They would continue west up a shallow and barely navigable creek, only to be unloaded again at a drop-off point in the wilderness. From there, transporters on four-wheel ATVs would haul everything over miles of muddy trails to clandestine mining camps.

Last March, on the day I arrived in French Guiana, a spleen-shaped patch of sovereign French territory on the right shoulder of South America, the price of gold had closed at $1,124 an ounce on the world market, an increase of 70 percent since 2007. Once the last refuge of gold bugs and private-currency militiamen, the metal was no longer a fringe investment and hedge against risk but a profit-generating asset. Following the crash of mortgage-backed securities and amid the ensuing global credit crisis, Wall Street firms and other speculators piled into the market. Investment demand for bullion bars and coins exploded. Cen- tral banks around the world bought gold in massive quantities. In 2009, George Soros, who had earlier de- clared gold an asset bubble that would eventually pop, doubled his investment in SPDR Gold Trust, the world's largest gold exchange-traded fund. According to the 2010 annual gold survey by precious-metals consultancy GFMS, for the first time in thirty years demand for gold as an investment was higher than demand for it as jewelry.

The surge had fueled gold rushes around the world. Ex-militia fighters were prospecting in the Congo. Zama Zama boys armed with AK-47s and beer-bottle grenades hijacked dormant sections of active mines in South Africa. In Brazil, at least 5,000 miners flooded an area called Eldorado do Juma after a math teacher reportedly posted pictures online of miners scooping up thousands of dollars' worth of gold. In Peru's Madre de Dios region, the government passed an emergency decree targeting illegal mining after an estimated 10,000 miners razed seventy-seven square miles of jungle. Six thousand of the miners blocked the Pan-American Highway, and the resulting clashes with police killed six people and injured twenty-nine.

Here in French Guiana, some 15,000 wildcat miners armed with diesel engines, hydraulic equipment, guns, ATVs, and not a small supply of sugarcane liquor were hacking into the European Union's sole rain forest. Called garimpeiros, their impact was often apocalyptic. They demolished trees, scarred the earth with high-pressure hoses, and spewed mercury into the rivers. Malaria was rampant among the miners, violence common.

In 2008, French president Nicolas Sarkozy decided ça suffit. The miners were causing increasingly grievous environmental damage, and their presence technically constituted an invasion of France. Operation Harpie, named for a species of indigenous eagle capable of plucking twenty-pound monkeys from treetops, deployed 850 gendarmes supported by an elite commando squad, as well as what seemed to me the most unfortunately named military unit in the world, Les Forces Armées en Guyane—the FAGs. "If a few diehards do not understand that Guiana is France and that France re- spects it, we'll make them understand. The land of Guiana will not be violated with impunity," Sarkozy declared.

In short order, gendarmes in bullet- proof lifejackets were patrolling French Guiana's mud-brown rivers on sleek black Sea-Doos, while soldiers rappelled from helicopters on search-and-destroy missions. That year, the French
seized 140 pounds of gold and 700 pounds of mercury—a modest take, and as soon as the gendarmes departed, the garimpeiros returned. In 2009, Sarkozy announced that Harpie would resume for another six months. In February 2010, he issued a statement making the operation permanent.

Yet the gold-related confrontations continued. On Christmas Day 2009 in Albina, a Surinamese town bordering French Guiana, a Brazilian gold miner stabbed a local resident, prompting retaliatory riots that resulted in at least one death, multiple rapes, and the evacuation of the town's Brazilian population. Two days after I arrived in French Guiana, a flotilla of machete-wielding miners in pirogues attacked a small squad of French soldiers on the Oiapoque River, which forms the department's eastern border with Brazil, in retaliation for the arrest of fifteen garimpeiros found in possession of 617 grams of gold. The soldiers fired rubber "flash balls" and warning shots, but the miners were able to recover most of their confis- cated gold, worth over $22,000.

Despite such drama, the conflict remained obscure. What little those outside of French Guiana know about French Guiana—and most, including the French, know nothing— is that it once contained a penal colony housing an accused pimp-murderer (and later best-selling author) known as Papillon, or perhaps that it is now the site of the EU's rocket-launching spaceport. That this jungle once was believed to contain the mythical golden city of El Dorado was, to people like me, a delicious historical irony. To a Brazilian garimpeiro armed with a diesel engine and a high-A pressure hydraulic rig, it was utterly irrelevant.

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