ITAITUBA, Brazil: The wiry figure of an illegal gold miner wields his machete to cut a path through virgin rainforest, opening the way for his partners heading to a gold mine deep in the Itaituba region of the Amazon, between two protected forest reserves.
Dercilio Franchini, 52, and his partner Ze Preto, 64, have been working this small, illegal mine for months.
Its one of hundreds dotted through the tropical forest, part of a gold rush that started in 1984 after the precious metal was discovered in the region. After the federal government built a highway cutting through Para state, miners, loggers and ranchers flooded into the region.
Franchini has been gold mining for over 30 years and makes between $1,000 and $1,500 a month, far above the average wage of a Brazilian worker.
He says the area affected by his mine is relatively small, about 360 square yards (300 square meters). And he argues the forest he and other miners cut into recovers within two years, but concedes the use of mercury to extract gold, and the blasting of soil to get at the ore damages the terrain.
Im a father, I have kids studying, Franchini said. Well continue to work, because I have to survive, I have to provide for my family.
The National Mining Agency estimates around 30 tons of gold worth some $1.1 billion are illegally traded in the state of Para annually. That is around six times the amount legally declared.
Environmental activists say the lure of such riches has encouraged illegal mines like Franchinis, adding to the growing deforestation in the region and poisoning the land with toxic chemicals and runoff.
Even legal mining is largely unregulated, according to Eco Watch and other activist groups, with those operations tending to be much larger and thus more destructive. And Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is pushing a bill introduced in February of this year to open more land to mining, including in indigenous areas.
Environmental activists say that measure could lead to exponential growth of already growing deforestation in the region.
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According to the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Enviromental Information Network, a monitoring group, more than 450 illegal gold mines are active in the rainforest, with thousands of applications for legal mines pending if the Bolsonaro bill is approved.
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