In the red-dirt hills of Minas Gerais, a part of Brazil named for the mines that provided livelihoods for generations, the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster has unearthed a new opportunity for locals stung by recession and job losses — panning for gold.
Wildcat mining is on the rise in communities devastated by the collapse of a dam that in November unleashed a deadly avalanche of sludge from the giant Samarco iron-ore mine, killing residents and destroying homes. Thousands were left jobless amid a deep national recession. But the landslide also churned up riverbeds enough to expose flecks of precious metal like those that sparked Brazil’s first gold rush three centuries ago.
While no one knows how many people are digging illegally to make ends meet, the number of complaints to the environmental military police in the city of Mariana jumped about 30 percent since the disaster, said Sgt. Valdecir Nascimento, a 24-year veteran of the unit. That tally could grow because Samarco — owned by BHP Billiton Ltd. and Vale SA — has cut 3,000 outsourced jobs in a rural area where unemployment is already more than twice the statewide rate.
“I tried getting another job, but that’s hard, so, I pan for gold,” said Davidson Gomes, 49, as he peeled back rocks and sifted through sediment with his hands at the bottom of the river running through downtown Mariana. A father of three, Gomes said he performed odd jobs before the mudslide.
The Nov. 5 dam collapse unleashed billions of gallons of mining waste that entombed entire villages in a lush valley checkered with patches of rust-colored soil and dozens of baroque-style churches erected during the previous gold boom. The spill left as many as 19 dead and hundreds more homeless.
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