Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bloody battle on for Amazon's riches

September 28, 2011
Source: Sydney Morning Herald

An illegal gold dredge burns on a river near the Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado, as officials crack down on rainforest destruction. Photo: Reuters

ELTON Thompson was out drinking when he was bludgeoned to death by a miner called Frank. He was 14. Arturo Balcazar, a shopkeeper, was gunned down on a riverboat as his wife looked on. Alan Welch was 54. He was clubbed to death with tree trunks and branches after being accused of theft.

Three men, three murders but apparently one common cause: the global economic crisis that has sent gold prices through the roof and aggravated a cut-throat scramble for gold in the South American Amazon.

Across the Amazon, soaring gold prices, as investors seek a haven from the US and European economic slump, are adding fuel to a chaotic jungle gold rush. This has brought violence, disease and conflict to the mineral-rich rainforests of Brazil, Guyana, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela.

''There is a direct correlation between the price of gold and what we have to deal with these days,'' David Ramnarine, a Guyanese police commander, told a news website after a string of gold-related killings, including those of Thompson, Balcazar and Welch.

Guyana's top police official, Henry Greene, also linked the price of gold to an upsurge in killings and lynchings in remote mining camps, where prostitution, gun-slinging and drug abuse are also rife. ''It is all related and has a lot to do with the price. A lot more people than normal are going to the interior as there is a lot of money in gold right now,'' he told a website for the Caribbean region.

A story in Guyana's Kaieteur News last month warned of chaos in the ''deadly gold bush'' - the same region where British explorer Walter Raleigh unsuccessfully sought a mythical city of gold in the late 16th century.

''A toxic mix of gold, greed and alcohol has resulted in a spate of brutal murders in the interior,'' the paper reported.

In the Brazilian Amazon, indigenous communities are alarmed at wildcat miners on their lands. Nearly two decades after 2000 Yanomami Indians lost their lives during the last big gold rush, indigenous leaders in Brazil's Roraima state fear history may be repeating itself.

Impoverished miners are pouring on to their lands, leaving a trail of environmental and human destruction.

''I'm worried - my people are suffering,'' said Dario Vitorio Kopenawa Yanomami, health co-ordinator for the tribe's Hutukara association. He believes there could now be as many as 2000 illegal miners operating inside the reserve.

Activists fear the price of gold, which has been as much as 40 per cent higher than last year, is luring more adventurers, who are reactivating illegal airstrips to ferry miners in and out.

In neighbouring countries the effects are also being felt. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has claimed that leftist guerillas of the FARC group are turning to gold mining, as a result of a government offensive against its cocaine production. The rising price of gold means mining has become a lucrative alternative source of revenue for the group.

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