MINERS ON THE MADEIRA RIVER
A gold mining area in Brazil
is called a "garimpo." Marcos, Marlui, and I wanted to see
Tamborete, the "city of rafts," the largest of the Rondonian garimpos
on the Madeira River. Five thousand gold prospectors, called "garimpeiros,"
camped at Tamborete. Five hundred rafts were anchored in the middle of
the Madeira while the garimpeiros pumped air down to divers
who sucked gold off the bottom of the river with big suction hoses.
It was muggy and hazy. We rode
an aluminum boat with an outboard motor upriver into the
rapids of Hell's Furnace. We passed over strong whirlpools and through
narrow channels in the rocks. The boat rocked and kicked back and forth
like a bronco in the white water. Our pilot wore a bright orange lifejacket
but had none to offer us. Marlui was a little nervous because she did
not know how to swim.
One gold miner in our boat
with ragged clothes and sandals had come to the Amazon from the hot, dry
coast of Brazil in order to get rich. His name was simply "Diabo," Devil.
The only teeth in his mouth were gold, and they gleamed when the sun hit
The dangers in garimpos were
great. In Tamborete ten men had been murdered last month, and the fever
that comes from the sickness called malaria was common.
Before we reached Tamborete,
for miles along the high banks of the river we found huts and
crude lean-tos and men with spades and shovels poking at the wet gravel.
Some wore wide-brimmed hats against the brutal sun; others wore faded
green army caps with little visors. Most had beards and serious faces.
We had come at a bad time.
Spirits were low, tension high. The river had risen suddenly in the night
with the rains that fell last week upriver in Bolivia. So now the men
panning for gold might have to wait days or even weeks for the river to
drop, so they could get to the best gold-bearing gravel.
A few miles upriver we came
finally to Tamborete. Suddenly we were among the crude rafts,
called "balsas" in Portuguese. Lashed together with their yellow
and blue plastic awnings, they shimmered in the sunlight like one long
mirage. The rafts were loud with divers and compressors. Most of the divers
had an air hose for their mouth. They had no scuba gear. They dove with
a larger hose to suck up the gold-laden gravel from the bottom of the
river. One of these rafts could dredge as much as fifty grams of gold
in a seven-hour period, fifteen kilos a month. In four months, the partners
on a raft could take sixty kilos of gold from the river. Marcos photographed
the men onboard the balsas. The muck was sifted through a large sieve
called a snake, and the gold flakes were separated from the coarser sand.
A black man from the coast
told us he had come to the Amazon to get rich. He had long
fingernails, meticulously groomed, clean like pearl. His hair was wild
and bushy. He said proudly, "I am a diver." He said he dove fifty feet
down, completely in the dark. He said many divers were getting killed
out there in the river. Some had no wet suits. Most had little experience.
"Down there," he said as he
pointed to the water, "you can't see two feet in front of you, it's so
dark. With all these balsas above you, the air lines tangle up, but the
worst danger of all is when another diver cuts your air hose because he
thinks you have found gold, and he wants to get there first."
It is difficult to describe
the blast of sunlight on the Madeira River at midday. It was almost
volcanic. And the pesky "pium," little black, biting flies devoured any
bare skin they could find, ankles, neck, arms. The pium left little red
welts that itched constantly and left scabs that bled at night.
On shore, from a thousand hammocks
strung around hundreds of fires, the men talked and sang songs and slept
until it was their turn to join their partners on their raft. We met a
one-legged diver named Lazarus. We were told he was the best diver in
the whole city of rafts. On land he needed crutches to get around, but
in the water he was like a fish. He could stay down longer than any diver
in the garimpo. Lazarus had a neatly trimmed black beard and shiny eyes.
He was only twenty-six years old, but was perhaps the most dignified man
I have ever met. Every movement he made was precise. Even his gold necklace
gleamed with precision.
Lazarus' crutches leaned against
his chest as he talked about his work. He said, "When you first enter
the water, it is yellow. But very quickly the water gets cloudy and cold
and then black and blacker as you drop down. And then you can't see anything.
You work alone in the pitch blackness. When the lines get tangled, some
men panic and even die because they try to surface too fast. Some divers
sing to keep themselves company. And the current is strong. Only one line
holds you from going down to your death."
Lazarus told us he was a watchmaker
back home in the city of Ceara on the coast of Brazil.
Unlike most of the garimpeiros we met in Rondonia, Lazarus had all his
original teeth. They were good white teeth that shone brightly when he
smiled. Lazarus made us feel the excitement and the enchantment of the
garimpeiro's life. But while we talked to him, a large group of men came
up from the shore carrying the body of a diver. He was cold and white
and limp. Someone tried to revive him, but he was already dead.
That's the way it was on a
garimpo on the Madeira River. You might get rich, but there was
danger in doing so. After the gold buyers flew into the jungle in tiny
airplanes to buy gold, most of the garimpeiros would take their big earnings
to a city like Manaus or Porto Velho. They'd party for days, and soon
their earnings would be spent. Poor again, they headed back to the garimpo
and take their chances.
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