Blood Gold

Indigenous people and illegal miners are engaged in a fight that may help decide the future of the planet

Wildcat mining is less pervasive than logging, but it can be more insidious. Loggers usually harvest valuable trees and leave the rest; miners cut everything. Mercury, used in the refining process, leaves rivers poisoned, and the pollution can spread hundreds of miles downstream. The allure of gold attracts fortune-seekers, who bring prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and violence. “Letting prospectors into the Kayapo reserve is like leaving your children in the protection of a drug gang,” Barbara Zimmerman, a Canadian ecologist who has worked with the Kayapo for three decades, told me. In the past few years, according to environmentalists, several hundred thousand acres of the reserve have been destroyed or degraded by illegal mining and logging.

The destruction of Kayapo land is just part of what Zimmerman calls the “sacking” of the Amazon. In addition to the mining and logging, soy farmers and cattle ranchers have cleared huge tracts of forest, mostly by fire. Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, which tracks the damage, calculates that one-fifth of Brazil’s Amazonian rain forest—the world’s largest remaining “green lung,” which absorbs billions of tons of carbon dioxide—has been destroyed since the nineteen-seventies. Indigenous reserves serve as a bulwark against destruction, green islands amid industrial soy fields and clear-cut ranchlands. But the closer indigenous people live to whites the more vulnerable they are. In these places, all that stands in the way of the destruction of the Amazon is the ability of a few thousand indigenous leaders to resist the enticements of consumer culture. In Turedjam, that battle is being lost. “It’s like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been let loose,” Zimmerman said.

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