When Brazilian military helicopters swooped over the Maicuru Biological Reserve in the Amazonian state of Pará in October, they discovered an illegal mining operation that was surprising in its sophistication.
There was a system of motors to heave gold out of deep caverns where it had been found and landing strips carved out of the surrounding rainforest to take the cargo away.
“This location is only accessible via plane, there’s no other way. So to structure an operation there, first you need to build an airstrip, and then have aeroplanes,” says Gecivaldo Vasconcelos, the federal police chief of Santarém, a sweltering port town along the banks of the river. “This demands an investment, it is not small scale.”
In the 1980s, towards the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the Amazon witnessed a ferocious gold rush that attracted thousands of poor people who dug for the metal with shovels in a vast open pit.
The medieval scenes of brutality from the wildcat mining and the wanton destruction left in their wake shocked the world at a time when the fate of the Amazon rainforest was first becoming a global issue of concern.
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