worrying gold rush in the Amazon

Seen from the sky, it looks like a gigantic armada. By the hundreds, the wooden boats go up the Rio Madeira, aligned in an almost military formation and occupying the entire width of the river. The dredges, topped with colorful little houses, lined with generators, cables, pulleys and long pipes, advance slowly on the river with muddy tones. A typical flotilla of miners, the artisanal miners of the Amazon.

These disturbing images have toured Brazil in recent days. Three hundred to six hundred boats, or some two thousand gold miners, according to specialists, are currently sailing on the river in search of gold in the heart of the great forest. Their date of arrival is uncertain; according to residents, it dates back to a dozen days. This staggering concentration of boats was quickly called ” district “ or from « condominium flottant ». Some evoke the madness of a film worthy of Mad Max and all predict an environmental cataclysm.

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Originally, as often in the Amazon, there is a rumor: that of a monumental “vein” of precious metal, discovered at the mouth of the Rio Madeira.. “Over there, they make a gram of gold an hour!” », Gets carried away a gold miner, in an audio recording broadcast on the social networks of the region and obtained by the daily newspaper The State of São Paulo. Quickly, the barges are loaded with food, gasoline and men. On the way to the gold rush.

Illegal gold digger boats on the Madeira river, November 23, 2021.

The activity is carried out in broad daylight. Yet it is totally illegal and devastating. In order to extract the precious metal, the gold miners plunge long pipes 20 or 30 meters below the surface, sucking up whatever is at the bottom of the stream. The sludge thus drawn is filtered and purified using mercury in order to isolate the gold from the algae, soil and stones. The “waste” is thrown back into the river, which is then ransacked and polluted.


Gold panning is far from being a novelty on the Rio Madeira, this immense stream of 3,300 kilometers which finds its source in Bolivia. The activity has been practiced on a large scale in this part of Brazil since the 1980s. “But the economic crisis and the explosion of poverty, along with the soaring price of gold [augmentation de 52 % du prix du gramme en trois ans à la Bourse de New York], quickly convinced new gold panning candidates to embark on the adventure “, details François-Michel Le Tourneau, geographer at the CNRS and specialist in gold panning.

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