PORTO VELHO, Brazil/GUAYARAMERÍN, Bolivia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Holding a plastic bottle of toxic mercury with his bare hands on an illegal gold mining barge in the Amazon basin, the 22-year-old miner says he is well aware of the dangers of the job.
In shorts and sandals, he lights a blow torch, training a blue flame on a piece of ore which his barge dredged up from the bottom of the Madeira River in Brazil’s northwestern Rondonia state, on the border with Bolivia.
Hundreds of similar barges – fashioned from plywood and metal and powered by roaring diesel motors – troll the rivers of the world’s largest rainforest leaving trails of destruction in their wake, according to government officials.
“I know this is a bit dangerous, but what else am I going to do to make a living here?” said the miner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to his involvement in illegal activity. When asked about safety equipment he just laughed.
Tens of thousands of illegal miners – or “garimpeiros” as they are known – have poured into the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Colombia looking to strike it rich. The gold rush has decimated the forest in parts of Amazon, while poisoning people who depend on the rivers for their food with mercury and other toxins used in the extraction process.
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