BRAZIL. Aerial view of Itaituba, a city known for intense gold mining activity in the Tapajós River valley.

Itaituba: a journey into the gold laundering capital of the Brazilian Amazon

Itaituba: a journey into the gold laundering capital of the Brazilian Amazon

BRAZIL. Aerial view of Itaituba, a city known for intense gold mining activity in the Tapajós River valley.

Photo: Michael Dantas

In the midst of the explosion of clandestine mines in the Brazilian Amazon, Itaituba, on the banks of the Tapajós River, has become the country's main illegal gold laundry. A journalistic team traveled to this region to learn how gold illegally extracted from prohibited areas is laundered with documents from artisanal miners. "At least 54% of all Brazilian gold production shows serious signs of irregularities," say the experts. This report is part of the investigation The Routes of Dirty Gold, led by OjoPúblico's Cross-Border Network in five Amazonian countries and of which Sumaúma is a partner.

14 Abril, 2024

En español


*Ana Magalhães contributed to this story.


One October afternoon, in the center of Itaituba, on the banks of the Tapajós River, almost all the stores were closed; only those buying gold decided to open. The streets of this city in the Pará Amazon were a ghost town. Not only because it was burning under the most intense drought in the area in 40 years, but also because it was a municipal holiday and there were few people on the streets. 

On the same avenue where the banks are located, several establishments display signs with the words "oro", "gold" and "se compra" in sequence for blocks. Inside one of these stores that buy gold illegally, four men, wearing gold watches, gold bracelets, gold rings and gold necklaces, fiddle with their cell phones under a ceiling fan. There is an oven full of junk next to the wall and mirrored glass blocking the view of whoever is standing outside. A large white man stands up. His hair is slicked back, wet with gel, his shirt unbottoned down to his chest: "Do you want to sell metal?" he asks.

On that day, vendors on "gold street" were celebrating the impact of the war between Israel and Hamas, which had caused a 5% increase in the price of the mineral, from around USD 60.5 to about USD 64.5 per gram. In Itaituba, stores were paying USD 59. "When there was an explosion in Lebanon, people thought it was a war. In a single day, the [gram of] gold went up USD 5. 

So imagine: 1 kilo of gold is a bar that small. You had bought it in the morning and in the afternoon you had earned USD 5,000," says André, another buyer, enthusiastically. At the beginning of November, according to the Investing platform, the U.S. bank Morgan Stanley published a report alluding to the tension in the Middle East and recommended investing in gold because it is considered a "safe haven".

But immediately André's expression falls apart. His eyes narrow, he becomes discouraged. The latest operations by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) against illegal mining in the surrounding area, in addition to recent investigations by the Federal Police into the gold trade chain, have put the brakes on business, he says. 

After 627 operations unleashed by the Federal Police against illegal mines between January and November 2023, 439 arrests, 736 search and seizure warrants, USD 91.8 million confiscated and a loss of USD 1.5 billion for miners across Brazil, there was an atmosphere of uncertainty in the gold world. Sales had dropped and seizures, increased.

During the government of Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022), when the most recent gold rush in the Tapajós River began, with the support of the former president (whose father was a miner in Serra Pelada), illegal mines proliferated not only in the Itaituba region, but in other Amazonian spots. 

The area exploited by illegal mining within indigenous lands grew 265% between 2018 and 2022; in Conservation Units (natural areas legally instituted and protected by the Brazilian government) the increase was 75% in the same period, according to a recent study by MapBiomas, a collaborative network composed of nonprofit organizations, universities and technology companies engaged in socio-environmental studies. 

Almost half (40.7%) of artisanal mines in the Amazon began operating from 2018 onwards, as well as more than 50% of those within indigenous lands. The mining boom was so overwhelming in recent years that the area dedicated to artisanal mining (legal and illegal) has surpassed that of industrial mining.


 The scheme

Because they pay less taxes than mining companies, ore from artisanal mines is always in high demand. "Gold from DTVMs is cheaper than from a mining company in Minas Gerais," says Sergio Leitão, executive director of Instituto Escolhas, one of the main non-governmental organizations dedicated to researching this sector in Brazil. 

The acronym DTVMs refers to the Distribuidoras de Títulos y Valores Mobiliarios, or securities dealers, which are financial institutions authorized by the Central Bank to buy and resell gold from these mines in the country. "It only has to pay the Tax on Financial Operations (IOF), while a mining company also has to pay the Tax on the Circulation of Goods and Services (ICMS), which is much higher. It is in the interest of the companies that buy gold to source gold from these distributors." 

In addition to the metal extracted from these mines —which, according to legislation, are usually areas of up to 50 hectares where exploitation should be artisanal, but in most cases it is not— there is industrial exploitation, dominated in Brazil by large multinationals, such as Kinross and AngloGold Ashanti. In the Tapajós region, the strongest mining companies are the English Serabi Gold and the Canadian Brazauro.

Itaituba stands out in this study because it represents 16% of all the holes that miners and companies have drilled in search of gold in Brazil, according to MapBiomas. 

It is not surprising, then, that the municipality has become by far the largest collector of the Financial Compensation for Mineral Exploitation (CFEM), a compensation that those who extract wealth from the ground have to pay the national government, the states and the municipalities. 


GOLD STREET. On the streets of Itaituba, you can see goldsmith tables, gold buying shops, and even a monument to miners.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


Tiendas de oro

TRADE. Several establishments display signs along blocks that read 'oro', 'gold', and 'we buy gold'.
Photos: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


Between 2018 and 2021, there was a 475% increase in the city's revenue, which jumped from USD 2.2 million to USD 12.4 million. In 2022, the municipality produced 12.4 tons of gold, which equates to approximately USD 740 million, a figure eight times higher than the city's budget for that year. 

When analyzing the data on the origin of the ore, researchers from the Remote Sensing Center of the Federal University of Minas Gerais identified that 5.6 tons were legal, linked in the Financial Compensation for Mineral Exploitation registry to regular permits. Another 6.8 tons (55%) were considered irregular: 1.7 of which were linked in their documentation to mines that did not even exist in the territory. Seen by satellite images, the points on the map that should show gold extraction are in fact areas of dense jungle.

Investigators and prosecutors from the Federal Prosecutor's Office in Pará began to realize that there was a huge gold laundering scheme. 

Of the 5,831 gold mining permits granted since 1980, according to the National Mining Agency, 2,361 correspond to areas of Itaituba— 1,026 of those are active. However, not all of them produce as much gold as they report, an indication that bad actors may be using these licensed mines around the city as a false source for gold that is illegally extracted from other areas. The police became aware of this. Since then, Itaituba, known as "pepita city" —which in Tupí means "small stone"— has acquired a new nickname. Authorities now call it the "capital of gold laundering".

"We have data that reinforce this statement. First, Itaituba concentrated in 2021 almost 50% of the artisanal mines with permits in the country. Second, it is the city with the most gold buying centers authorized by the Central Bank. In the data we gathered at the end of 2021, Itaituba had 23 of these centers," says researcher Rodrigo Oliveira, co-author of the study Terra Rasgada, on the advance of artisanal mining in the country. 

Gold buying centers are the "local" arms of the distributors. When a Securities Dealer (or its buying center) purchases the metal, an invoice must be completed indicating the location from which the gold was extracted. When this declaration of origin is false, the legalization process is complete.

The mining boom has been so overwhelming in recent years that the area dedicated to artisanal mining (both legal and illegal) has surpassed that of industrial mining.

"In many of the operations carried out in the states of Roraima [where there are only two legalized mines], Rondônia, Amazonas and also in the Kayapó Indigenous Land [where the activity is prohibited], we identified a large flow of money from Itaituba," adds Oliveira, who is also an official of the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office.  

In addition to being Brazil's gold laundromat, Itaituba is a city whose mayor, Valmir Climaco (of the Brazilian Democratic Movement of Pará party), owns mines and a ranch where, four years ago, police discovered a plane with 580 kilos of cocaine and two rifles. 

During his first term, the governor of Pará, Helder Barbalho, of the same party as Climaco, transferred to the municipalities the responsibility of issuing environmental licenses for artisanal mines. The mayor of Itaituba went out, at that time, to hand out permits to destroy the rainforest. Since January 2017, there were more than 500 permits that were never inspected; he himself admitted it to the newspaper O Globo.

The mayor denies having benefited from illegal gold mining in the area. "No, I never [exploited gold illegally]," he told Sumaúma / OjoPúblico. "I own [mines], they are legalized, but stopped for three years because there is a lot of bureaucracy, so we decided to stop. And it's giving almost no gold. No, it's not worth continuing. Regarding the cocaine discovered in his ranch, he said: "It was the drug traffickers who landed there without orders from us and we denounced it".

Itaituba is a city of crumbling buildings, open sewers, precarious traffic signs, floods, misery and a murder every eight days, but it is full of 4x4 pickup trucks that cost the price of an apartment. It has 123,000 inhabitants, of whom only 18,000 are formally employed, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, but everywhere you look you can see men in expensive cars sporting gold jewelry, gold chains dangling from their necks, gold in their teeth.


CONTRASTS. Itaituba is a city of crumbling buildings, open-air sewers, but it's full of expensive trucks.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


On planes bound for Itaituba, jewelry is part of the travelers' aesthetics. From the window you can see mines, fallen logs and an uprooted jungle. The letters hanging on the airport's puny sign remind us that the public managers there seem to have forgotten everything, except looking after their own pockets. The bakery is called "Golden Bread". The butcher shop, "Golden Ox". On its shoreline, there is a statue of a miner.

The city attracts people from different walks of life in Brazil who go to regularize the illegally extracted gold, thanks to the large number of extraction permits that were authorized by the government, according to investigations by the Federal Police and the Attorney General's Office. 

Despite the high concentration of legalized artisanal mines in this region of the Tapajós River, the dismantling of environmental oversight during the Bolsonaro administration's and the industry's fragile regulatory framework polluted the country with illegality. What's worse: because all of Brazil's gold production is exported, Brazil is sending gold with indigenous blood to the world.

Experts from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) argue that gold production with signs of irregularities reached 30% in 2021. And, according to Leitão, from the Escolhas Institute, 100% of Brazil's gold production is exported. "Nothing stays here. About 25% of the trade between Brazil and England is gold, of which 70% is also exported to Switzerland.

In 2016, the Federal Police carried out an operation to shut down an illegal mine near the Z'oé Indigenous Land, in Óbidos, 635 kilometers from Itaituba. Three miners were arrested. Later, they said in their statement that they sold the illegal gold to the Ourominas DTVM company store in Santarém, 368 kilometers from Itaituba. The employees at the store did not question the origin of the metal, as required by law. They only asked them for the miners' IDs and Single Taxpayer Registry, according to the Public Civil Action filed by the Attorney General's Office in 2019. 


TESTIMONIAL. Luiz Domingos Soares Pinheiro is a miner and owner of a tire workshop at kilometer 180 of the Trans-Amazon Highway.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


The investigators found it odd. When the company's financial secrecy was lifted, the invoices that had been issued to the trio of miners were located. The agents traced the origin of the gold extracted from the clandestine mine in Óbidos back to a permit (i.e. a mine authorized by the National Mining Agency) from Itaituba. 

The mines referenced in the tax documents as the point of origin for that gold had not produced it. The real origins were illegal mines within protected areas. Based on this finding, investigators analyzed several gold purchase invoices and permit documentation from the company Ourominas. During the investigation, the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office concluded that the company had been acquiring gold from clandestine mines for years. By falsifying the origin of the metal on the invoices, which until then were paper invoices completed by hand, Santarém's employees transformed the illegal ore into legalized ore.

Based on this study, researchers Bruno Manzolli and Raoni Rajão, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in partnership with the Attorney General's Office, replicated the Federal Police's methodology on a national scale. 

The study, Legality of Gold Production in Brazil [published in Portuguese], revealed the way businessmen legalized gold extracted from the rainforest. The data caught the attention of the scientific and academic communities, institutions and the press. The Federal Police began to investigate further.


The store

Cameras are installed on the facade of the Ourominas store in Itaituba. The windows are tinted. The door is always locked, you have to call an employee when you want to come in. On the street, some establishments buy gold clandestinely. Ourominas is different, it is a Securities Dealer that has authorization from the Central Bank to acquire and resell the mineral. Therefore, only in one of these distributors can the "laundering" of gold be carried out, even though the facades of the stores —a conglomeration of signs in vibrant colors— are very similar.

Lately many miners have migrated to Guyana, where cassiterite is the strongest product, says a federal commissioner specialized in combating environmental crimes, who spoke to Sumaúma and OjoPúblico on condition of anonymity. According to him, others come from Yanomami territory: "The Itaituba miners have a connection with the Yanomami. There were miners who migrated from Yanomami land to Itaituba after the police operations there. Mine owners have businesses in both states, sometimes in several other regions at the same time," says the commissioner. 

Gold cannot be "washed" in Roraima, because there are no artisanal mines with extraction permits. Contacted through its press office for information on flight feasibility studies and passenger flow, Azul airline said that the flight is not direct, but with a connection in Manaus.

The gold usually arrives raw at the Ourominas company in Itaituba, says André, an employee of DTVM. Sometimes it appears brownish in color, mixed with sand and other minerals. Employees melt it and pour it into iron molds to harden it into 50-gram, 100-gram, 500-gram or 1-kilogram sticks. Then they usually check the purity and verify the weight. They then issue the Financial Compensation for Mineral Exploitation (Cfem) payment form, declaring where the gold was extracted from.


It is at this moment, according to investigations by the Federal Police, when the laundering takes place. The field on the form reserved for the gold extraction site is falsified. The police confirmed the method when they discovered that the Ourominas branch in Santarém was using a database with regular permit numbers to falsify the invoices (which they used as the origin of the gold), but the metal had been extracted from another location. The seller who went to the distributor did not have to worry about naming the source of the gold. The same store did the paperwork and carried out the fraud, as detailed in the Attorney General's Office's Public Civil Action. 

"Generally, the miner, when the area [that has a mining permit] is not his, he is in a cooperative. Cooperative X. Then it must already be registered, have all its data...", says André, in Itaituba, looking at his computer. "That's the way it used to be. But now, since they took away the good faith..."

The Ourominas employee in Itaituba refers to the suspension, by the Supreme Court, of paragraph 4 of Article 39 of Law 12.844 of 2013, which presumed the legality of the gold acquired and the good faith of the buyer. With the progress of investigations by the Federal Police, pressure from civil society and the declaration of a health emergency in the Yanomami Indigenous Land after a complaint by SUMAÚMA in January 2023, Minister Gilmar Mendes suspended this paragraph from the law in April of this year.

"Because of that article, we had a mechanism that institutionalized the laundering of resources by allowing the buyer of gold to say that he had bought it 'in good faith' until proven otherwise," analyzes researcher Rodrigo Oliveira. "How does this undermine the fight against illegal gold? They [the buyers] gave the argument that they didn't have to conduct any checks on the origin of the gold. And, as they have the presumption of good faith, in criminal terms it becomes more difficult for the investigating bodies to prove malicious conduct [with intent to commit a criminal act]," he said. Sergio Leitão, from the Escolhas Institute, adds: "In practice, this article meant an immense difficulty in punishing [the buyers of illegal gold]. How to punish those who are already saints?"

The interim decision, supported by the other justices of the Supreme Court, cites the fragment of a document drafted by the Ministry of Justice: "The presumption of legality in the production and good faith of the purchaser prevents the creation of mechanisms for traceability and accountability of the Securities Dealers."

Faced with the difficulty of holding buyers accountable, Gilmar Mendes also ordered the Lula government to create "a new regulatory framework for the control of the gold trade, especially with regard to the verification of the legal origin of the gold acquired by the distributors," as well as measures to prevent the purchase of gold from Indigenous Lands and protected areas. The case is waiting to be decided on by the Supreme Court.

In June 2023, the government sent a bill with new rules for gold trading and transportation. Other parliamentarians did the same. Since then, the bills have been stalled in the Chamber of Deputies awaiting a vote.

"Artisanal mining is no longer a rudimentary activity [as the law says], but entrepreneurial. It may have one foot in the ravine, but its head is on Faria Lima," says Leitão, referring to the São Paulo city avenue dominated by bankers and technology companies.

Inside the Ourominas store, which, like the securities dealer Fênix and D'Gold, was the subject of recent investigations by the Federal Police and faces legal battles, the atmosphere was cool and reserved. It is a large room with a kiln at the back, like those used to make ceramics, which exceed 1,000 degrees Celsius, but which is used to melt gold. A sergeant of the Pará Military Police, wearing the company's uniform, was in charge of security. 

In one corner of the store there is a bar full of bottles of brandy and whiskey with a sign that reads: "Miners don't pay here." In the background, a map occupying an entire wall shows the clandestine airstrips in mines in the Tapajós region: Garimpo do Rato, Tabocal, Cuiú Cuiú, Japonês, Dá teu Jeito, Creporizão, Piranha. On the right, on another wall, in an old photo, enlarged and framed, are the founders of Ourominas, Juarez de Oliveira e Silva Filho and Roselito Soares, still young, in front of a scale and a handful of gold.

The photo is from the 1980s. A time when they did not yet know that their company would be among the main buyers of illegal gold in the country. Nor that it would own one of the few mansions in Itaituba, on the banks of the Tapajós River. Nor could they have imagined that prosecutors would discover that 1,080 kilos of gold bought by Ourominas from Itaituba between 2019 and 2020 had reported false origins. Nor that Juarez would end up letting slip, in a statement to the police, that he sold illegal gold to HStern, one of the largest jewelry stores in the world, with almost 70 stores, as he revealed to Repórter Brasil.


TRADE. One of the gold shops in Itaituba offers free drinks to miners and displays a map with the main mining points.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma



SALE. Itaituba attracts people from different parts of Brazil who come to legalize illegally extracted metal.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


In 2021, the Attorney General's Office requested the suspension of Ourominas' activities, as well as those of D'Gold DTVM and Carol DTVM, accusing them of having sold more than 4 tons of illegal gold in 2019 and 2020. 

The companies may have to pay USD 2.1 billion for socio-environmental damages. But so far, only one DTVM was suspended based on Federal Police investigations. On November 6, the Court of the state of Pará ordered the suspension of all activities of Fênix DTVM, whose directors are friends and business allies of Valdinei Mauro de Souza, known as Nei Garimpeiro, one of Brazil's leading artisanal mining entrepreneurs and a collaborator of Jair Bolsonaro's re-election campaign.

At 4 p.m., the Ourominas employees prepared to finish the workday. André is used to organizing the gold bars and putting them on a plane to São Paulo, where the price is better. At that hour, however, he only remembered to put the tungsten bars in the safes, as there was no gold. "That's to fool the thieves," he says, since tungsten weighs about the same as gold. He puts his hands in his pockets, the same hands that work on the computer on the table, where the gold is registered.

When Sumaúma and OjoPúblico contacted Ourominas, it said it would not comment on facts "already addressed" in 2016 and did not answer the questions sent. On the other hand, HStern stated that "the precious metals and gems it uses to make its jewelry come from suppliers of excellent reputation, who work following the standards for the correct extraction of raw materials from nature." 

The company did not comment on the alleged business relationship with Ourominas. D'Gold said that it "operates with strict compliance mechanisms that prevent the purchase of gold of illegal origin. (...) No operation was or is carried out outside the current legislation," it stated in a note sent to Sumaúma and OjoPúblico.

Fênix DTVM said, also in a note sent to Sumaúma and OjoPúblico that "it continues to be fully authorized to carry out its gold trading operations, including in the state of Pará, where it had previously been suspended according to a court decision." 

According to the company, the suspension was due to "a complaint that a mining cooperative [Fênix DTVM client] was allegedly engaging in gold laundering (...) The marketing of the cooperative using this extraction permit occurred according to legal requirements to ensure the regularity of the first acquisition of gold, which did not indicate any suspicion that there might be any 'gold laundering' activity on the part of the cooperative," the text reads.

Contacted through its press office by telephone and e-mail, Carol DTVM did not respond to Sumaúma and OjoPúblico.


The mining company

The stretch of the Trans-Amazon highway between Itaituba and the municipality of Jacareacanga, 390 kilometers away, is a streak of red earth that crosses the jungle sea. In that part there is an inactive volcano. It was never known exactly whether it was its colossal force that eventually, in the distant past, brought so much gold to the surface in the auriferous province of the Tapajós River or whether it was actually the collisions between neutron stars that hurled golden meteors onto the Earth. It is known, however, that the gold is still there, intertwined with the thick mass of life that is the Amazon.

In 2001, in Itaituba, they found the fossil of a giant sloth, 6 meters long and 13 thousand years old. There are ruins of ancient civilizations. And stories of fantastic creatures, such as the Mapinguari, big foot or round leg. A giant sloth with an armadillo shell. A huge one-eyed tamanduá, open in the forehead and with its mouth on its belly. A bewitched shaman.


ROUTE. Stretch of native jungle along the Trans-Amazonian Highway between the cities of Itaituba and Jacareacanga.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


In two days on the Trans-Amazonian Highway, we saw a group of curassow birds, a morrocoy turtle, two tarantulas, an agami heron, an agouti, a squirrel, lizards and butterflies of all colors crossing the road. Standing in the middle of the road, a giant armadillo the size of a wild boar interrupts the flow of cargo vans that, for about USD 400, transport up to 1 ton of goods to the mines, invariably running over living beings along the way. By plane, with a capacity of 500 kilos, the shipment costs USD 600. That is also why a bottle of soft drink costs USD 10 at the mine, while a bottle of aguardiente costs no less than 1 gram of gold, almost USD 60.

At kilometer 1,294 a trail of backhoe advances into the dark interior of the jungle, the vegetation crushed by the weight of the steel. In Itaituba, the jungle is less feared than men. The 54-year-old miner Marinês Feitosa knows this. "I've already seen them sell whiskey in the mines for up to USD 1,000," she says. "There are miners who are the devil himself. Just recently, on [October] 1, the guy stuck a knife in the other guy right there," he recounts, pointing to a bench on the side outside the restaurant. "The knife went in through his chest and out his back. The guy ended up dying on the other side of the road."

Outraged by the scene, the miner Chico, Marinês' boyfriend, shouted: "Are you crazy! You're going to get yours". And he ran to the room for his revolver, but Marinês was already there with the door locked. "You're not coming in here," he told him. He didn't need to. Minutes later shots were heard. A friend of the dead man pulled out a gun and shot the killer in the head. "He approached him and said: 'So you want to kill? Do you think you're the only macho?' And he shot him with his 20. He died on the spot," says Marinês. The two bodies lay for 24 hours in front of the restaurant, on the other side of the road, where the dogs now rest. The Forensic Medical Institute never arrived to take them away. The neighbors had to take care of the transfer to the city. 


TRAMPLED. Trucks transporting goods to the mines run over and kill animals in the rainforest, like this giant armadillo.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma



DANGER. On route BR-230, a sign warning about animal crossings, riddled with bullets.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


Marinês owns the restaurant Amigo do Garimpeiro [Friend of the miner, in Portuguese], located on the edge of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in an old warehouse used by miners from Tapajós. She is one of the pioneers of the region. She arrived in 1982, at the age of 12. "I was raised in the mines and raised my children in the mines." Born in Marabá, she grew up in Itaituba and later moved to the little village of wooden houses, where she lives to this day. She cleans the tables, serves lunch and rents small rooms that house travelers, river dwellers, cooks, truck drivers, mechanics, prostitutes, gunmen, foreigners, fugitives from justice.... "Everything has happened here," he says. He also has two mines and buys gold. "At my counter I pay USD 44 [per gram]," he says. "In the city I sell it for 50. I have to pay cheaply, you never know if they will confiscate my gold on the way."

Of all the ore that once came out of the Tapajós basin in the last 65 years, much of it took off from the airstrip on the other side of the road, 30 meters from Marinês' restaurant. The place is surrounded by winding trails that lead to the wounds opened in the Amazon by mining. In town, the surrounding area is known for the quality of the metal. "The purity of what comes from there is good, 93, 95, 92, 94 [%]," says a buyer from Itaituba. When it reaches 99%, it is considered pure, the so-called oro mil of 24 carats.

"There were about eighty flights a day here," Chico calculates, recalling what the runway looked like three years ago. "Even after the pandemic there were still a lot of flights. Then, they started burning, burning, burning [excavators], so there's no one left to take [cargo on airplanes]. There were too many flights, now there are too few." As he speaks, two planes take off from the runway.

A truck carrying an excavator passes by. A truck full of mining equipment, with a Starlink antenna (multi billionaire Elon Musk's internet) strapped to the roof, speeds up and disappears. Road dust covers the leaves on the trees. Movement slowed, but never stopped. 

"If you compare it to everything that used to circulate here, it is 50% less, but we are working," says Luizinho, 31, who has a tire shop "in 180" and a mine 35 kilometers away. "We are working slowly. In secret. Only with a 'quatinha' [engine that pumps earth from wet gullies into a carpet where the gold is trapped]. We can't use more than one excavator anymore. Those who use them work more at night.

The purity of what comes from there is good, 93, 95, 92, 94 [%]," says a buyer from Itaituba.

Marinês also lost an excavator. It was in 2020. "I lost more than [USD] 400 thousand," he recounts. "They burned the quad, the ranch, the freezer, a ham radio, the workshop and my excavator with 4,500 hours. It was a Caterpillar, it cost me [USD] 380 thousand. Just a welding machine that I bought cost me [USD] 70 thousand." Money he earned from mining. "I already found 1 kilo, 2 kilos of gold, 5..." According to the Escolhas Institute, a lowland mine, open on the banks of rivers or in flooded areas and streams, with 18 miners, two cooks and an excavator has an estimated profit of USD 68.6 thousand a month.

To date, the destruction continues in the middle of the rainforest. Marinês now works with two of the three excavators she had. A few kilometers away, in August 2023, a miner was killed by an agent of the Environmental Institute, which provoked much outrage. 

Even earlier, during operations in Munduruku Land, a policeman could not even buy water. "The girl said they would kill anyone who sold water to the police," says a federal commissioner. The miners, like much of the region's population, tend to see themselves as workers, are outraged by repression from authorities and say they are "Brazilians trying to feed their families." 

This is only a partial truth. Most of the profits from this illicit industry and the devastation of the Amazon remain in the hands of large entrepreneurs who are outside of Brazil in some cases. Part of the reason for that is the advance of large organized crime organizations in some areas, as was evident in the Yanomami Indigenous Land.


INCOME. The Venezuelan couple Thayron Fuentes and Ana María Contreras work in the mine in Itaituba.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


Ana María Contreras

TRADER.Marinês Feitosa owns a restaurant in town and also works in mining.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma

Marinês feels her own indignation. "I don't have electricity because of this damn reserve [protected area that is near her restaurant]. Nothing happens there. You can't hunt there, you can't fish there, you can't do anything," she says. She spends USD 140 a day to power her business' two power generators with diesel, which amounts to USD 5,200 a month. "When I was born, my grandparents were already miners. I am 54 years old. Why now, just two years ago, is the world going to end? Are the reserves going to run out? Will we start polluting? Does that mean that before there was no pollution? Is it only now that we are polluting? No, don't tell me that. Enough with the jokes, my friend. This is a joke."

She prefers to overlook that the increase in the number of pits in the Amazon has just occurred in the last few years. After 2012, when the first excavators arrived in Tapajós, it took one month to open a mine. That has since dropped to just one week, according to data from the Escolhas Institute. 

A lowland mine with 21 employees and an average production of 3 kilograms of gold per month consumes 1,100 liters of diesel per day. For every gram of gold, 11 liters of diesel go up in smoke. Each kilogram of gold requires 3 kilograms of mercury. To extract one gram of gold, one ton of earth must be extracted.

When multiplied by annual production, what emerges is an environmental apocalypse. According to this calculation, 12.4 million tons of soil were removed in Itaituba alone in 2022.

Marinês doesn't care about that. But at the same time that she has machines that grind the rainforest in seconds, she takes care of a very delicate flower garden. "Don't you have orchids at home?" she asks a neighbor, while admiring her flowers near where the mining planes take off.  


The city

Miner Thairon Fuentes and his wife, cook Ana María Contreras, left their children in Venezuela. They have been in Brazil for less than a month. At 31 years old, Thairon used to work in an artisanal mine until the military of dictator Nicolás Maduro expelled all those who were not in uniform. He and his wife found work at Marinês' restaurant. Ana Maria cooks and Thairon started working in Marinês' mines.

Many Latin American foreigners have already passed through there, Marinês assures. Occasionally, in Itaituba, you can hear someone speaking Spanish or Guyanese Creole. Thairon has been through Guyana, too. "There are a lot of Brazilian miners in Guyana," he says. "Many of them had already worked here in Tapajós."

Professor Maurício Torres, from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), agrees: "It is common in Itaituba for a miner to have a brother who works in the mines in the Guyanas. Miners move around," he explains. "In Itaituba, it is difficult to find a cab driver who is not a miner." According to him, most are poor peasants, although many have 'bamburrado', as they say around these mines when someone gets rich from gold. "Today these poor miners end up being co-opted by businessmen with more purchasing power," emphasizes prosecutor Thais Medeiros, from the Attorney General's Office of Santarém/Itaituba.

In the last gold boom, during the pandemic, goldsmith Cleidson Oliveira, 40, earned an average salary of USD 2,200. At that time he even made a necklace weighing 170 grams. Today he earns USD 700 a month. "Before the police operations, we were getting much more gold to work with," he laments. The same happens to dentist Hélio Soltoski, the only one with a diploma in Creporizão, a small mining town near Itaituba, who has since stopped implanting gold teeth. He says he has been in the region for eight years and he has already performed more than a thousand implants, including on clients who asked him to exchange healthy teeth for the shine of the metal. 


WORK. The goldsmith Cleidson de Oliveira Silva shows a photo of a gold pendant in the shape of a dredge that he produced in his workshop in Itaituba.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma
TRIBUTE. The planes guarantee mining activity remains highly valued, as shown by this grave of a family of pilots who died in plane crashes.
PHOTO: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma

In the old cemetery of Itaituba, a gravedigger says that eight bodies are buried a day. "Some come [from the mines]," he says. Others die in the streets. In 2022, for example, councilwoman Odinea Peres (of the Progressives Party of Pará state) was recorded on video threatening to kill a blogger. At the end of September, blogger Hernanes Alencar, known as Zeca Tatu, was shot in the head while riding a motorcycle. 

The family is trying to understand why the commissioner of the case confiscated the corpse's cell phone and has not returned it to this day. The Civil Police of Pará did not give explanations about the commissioner's conduct nor did it answer the questions sent by Sumaúma and OjoPúblico. It only limited itself to informing that "the investigation of the case was concluded within the legal term and sent to Justice". 

Councilwoman Odinea Peres was contacted twice by Sumaúma and OjoPúblico, by telephone and by message, but did not receive any response.  


The history

Ten thousand years ago, there were already people living in what is now Itaituba. Dozens of indigenous peoples inhabited this area: the Maué, the Munduruku and many others. It was called Mundurukânia, land of the then-powerful warrior ethnic group. 

Later, in 1835, there was a rebellion called Cabanagem, revolt and riverside misery against the forces of the Portuguese Empire, which led Great Pará. The city was founded in 1856 by a military Mason. Then came the rubber fever, then the market of jaguar and other feline skins. 

In the 1950s, with the fall in rubber prices, rubber tappers began to move into the Amazon in search of gold. In the book Očekadi: Hidrelétricas, Conflitos Socioambientais e Resistência na Bacia do Tapajós, Professor Maurício Torres explains how, in 1958, a rubber tapper named Nilçon Pinheiro (also spelled Nilson) found deposits for the first time in the region of the Tropas River mouth.


CONTRASTS. In the Brazilian city of Itaituba, shops selling excavators can be seen, which can cost around USD 200.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


Michael Dantes

INEQUALITY. In this city of contrasts, a large number of people earn their living through hard work, like cart driver Juvenal Barbosa."
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


In 2008, professor and researcher Regina Lucirene, founder of the Aracy Paraguassu Museum in Itaituba, received a dusty notebook from a rubber tapper on his deathbed. It was an airplane pilot's accounts of the years (from 1968 onwards) he had flown for the miners. 

Until the end of October 2023, the document was forgotten in a museum closet. Through the 137 pages, the mystery man —there is no signature in the book— recounts the adventures he lived in the rainforest and many others he heard from his fellow miners, often through radio frequency 122.5, used "by all the airplanes that flew over the area of the Tapajós mines."

An excerpt tells the story of the family of Nilçon Pinheiro, who in 1956 received a severance from the National Petroleum Council in exchange for the land he owned in the Amazon. With the money, they left for the state of Pará in a caravan of 32 people, in search of gold. Many got sick, others quit. Stubborn, Nilçon wanted to stay even after his father's decision to abandon the expedition and move to Manaus.

Researcher Regina Lucirene says that Nilçon gained fame, but that the first to find gold was Raimundo Ramos, a civil servant who lived in Jacareacanga. They had met in town. "He [Raimundo] had found gold in that place [Rio Tropas]. He grabbed a can of Nido milk and put the metal inside," says the museologist. According to her, they gave the can to Nilçon Pinheiro in exchange for hammocks and food.

Years later, in 1983, in an attempt to empty the Serra Pelada mine, which was beginning to gain international fame, the military government created the Mining Reserve in the Tapajós valley and opened a road to isolate the miners in the rainforest, the Transgarimpeira. Later, in 2006, during the first term of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers' Party) and Marina Silva's first time as Minister of the Environment, the mining reserve area was transformed into the Tapajós Environmental Protection Area (APA), the Crepori National Forest and other conservation units.

The miners, however, stayed there.


The Baron

Forty years later, it is Saturday night in Creporizinho. This little town is at the end of the Transgarimpeira highway, which starts in the district of Morais Almeida, crosses the Jamanxim River and continues for 150 kilometers. Satellite images show the road crossing the immense jungle, the open wounds from mining accompanying the road. Seven trucks carrying century-old tree trunks pass along the road in a three-hour period. Here, gold mining never stopped. Nor has logging. In the first semester of 2023, according to the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Itaituba continued to lead gold production. Up to June 2023, 4.8 tons had been sold— 2.6 of them of dubious provenance.

The main street of Creporizinho is a row of houses made of boards and precarious tiles, with 300 miners, all men, plus about 20 women and girls. Almost everyone is getting drunk, laughing on moving motorcycles and barbecuing. Every establishment is a bar. There are a dozen cabarets. An ATV carries five shirtless young men, who giggle and sway over the bumpy terrain. They all drink. There is a group snorting cocaine on a pool table. A miner is disguised as a witch. The Red Command (Brazil's largest criminal organization) is here, warned a federal police officer in the city.

Madera Brasil

JOURNEY. A truck loaded with logs on the BR-163 (Cuiabá-Santarém) highway, in the Moraes Almeida district, in Itaituba.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


ENTERTAINMENT. In addition to the bars, this amusement park livens up Itaituba's nightlife with attractions tailored to the local taste.
Photo: Michael Dantas / Sumaúma


Six kilometers away, on the edge of the Transgarimpeira highway, businessman Valdinei Souza, known as Nei Garimpeiro, has had a farm with a private lake and a mine on the land behind his house for 20 years. He is a partner and friend of the current governor of Mato Grosso and is considered a gold baron in the area. That night, an armed guard watched the gate while a Starlink antenna offered free internet to anyone passing by on the road. Inside, a thick plank from a large tree serves as a support for the ice that guarantees the temperature of the beers. 

"You'll find about 100, 200 pilots there today. What are these pilots going to do?" he says, complaining about the state crackdown on mine planes. "The guy is used to making USD 8,000; 10,000; 14,000 or even 20,000 a month. But you can't fly in the region anymore. So he goes to the city, there's nothing to do, and then what happens? Crime [drug trafficking] comes to offer services to the guys, because they are good pilots, used to flying a lot, flying low, with old planes and operating on runways that are impossible to operate."

A month after speaking to Sumaúma / OjoPúblico, Nei Garimpeiro was the target of a Federal Police operation for having  acquired more than 300 kilograms of mercury smugglers, in his name and in the name of companies of which he is a partner, according to investigations.

When contacted again, the businessman defended himself: "I bought mercury from a company that was suitable and had authorization from the Environmental Institute and the Federal Police to sell mercury. My companies and I were authorized to use mercury and buy from this company, we did nothing that was not legal. We made all our purchases with invoices and payments from current accounts to the company's current account." According to him, in Brazil almost all the miners use mercury. "There are more or less 10,000 mines in all of Brazil. Maybe even double that: 99.5% use mercury without invoice or regularization."

The highly toxic metal leaks from the mines into rivers. It is absorbed by fish. It is making populations sick. And there are strong indications that it is causing deformities in children. The miners don't usually talk about it.


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