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Brazil's new leftist government attempts to crack down on illegal gold mining

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Illegal gold mining is big business in Brazil, raking in more than $2 billion per year. It's also damaging the Amazon rainforest and poisoning Indigenous communities. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The heart of Brazil's tainted gold industry is here, deep in the Amazon, in the town of Itaituba, nicknamed gold nugget city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

KAHN: The city's official anthem praises its gold past. Its heroes are prospectors who worked the land with just a pick and a promise of riches. A statue of a pioneer panning for gold graces the city's tiny plaza on the banks of the broad Tapajos River. Itaituba's 62-year-old mayor embodies its lore.

VALMIR CLIMACO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "There were only two streets in the city when I arrived," recalls Valmir Climaco, sitting in his City Hall office. That was during Itaituba's gold rush of the 1970s and '80s.

CLIMACO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "It was a lot easier back then to make money," he says. Mining was so good, he sent for his 13 siblings, then for his mom and dad.

CLIMACO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: But while legal areas for mining have dwindled over the years, the gold industry continues to grow. In fact, the last 10 years has brought another rush to Itaituba, although this one has been more criminal and cruel. Fueled by soaring global gold prices and lax environmental protection under Brazil's previous far-right president, the illegal trade has also been aided by a clever bill slipped through Congress 10 years ago. Dubbed the good faith law, it gave gold buyers and sellers easy cover to trade in illegally mined gold. It also made Itaituba ground zero for gold sales.

Junior Cesar Gomes watches as a blowtorch is ignited in the back of a small shop where he works. Freshly mined gold is heated, cleaned and weighed here.

JUNIOR CESAR GOMES: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Gomes says his dad was a prospector for 40 years, but he's never mined. Dozens of these gold shops line the streets of Itaituba. Prosecutors, lawmakers and activists say they are the first and most critical stop in Brazil's gold trade and often the murkiest. Since passage of the good faith law in 2013, gold buyers only need the seller's good word that everything is legit. No proof is necessary. Gomes insists he does more.

GOMES: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Driving that point home, he even rejects two customers while I'm visiting. Their paperwork didn't check out, he says. Earlier this year, Brazil's Supreme Court suspended the good faith law and told the government to write new rules. They did, but the bill has stalled in Congress, and illegal gold operations continue, say activists, now outproducing Brazil's legal mining.

LARISSA RODRIGUES: It's huge.

KAHN: Larissa Rodrigues of the environmental think tank Instituto Escolhas says as much as 54% of gold mined in Brazil, more than $2.5 billion in 2021, was tainted. She says the good faith bill helped profits boom and illegal operations proliferate, many now with ties to organized crime.

RODRIGUES: Because everyone involved in illegal trade was protected and, with this protection, felt they could invest more, they could go forward with their illegal activities.

KAHN: They invested in expensive, heavy equipment, replacing men with picks. River dredging and clear cutting that took wildcatters a month could now be done in a week. Deforestation exploded, leaving behind gouged-out slurry pools tainted with mercury, used heavily in the mining process, polluting many of the Amazon's rivers.

Alessandra Korap knows this well. There are few fish she'll eat these days. She's cleaning a pile of the big-bellied fish in her small Mundukuru (ph) Indigenous community outside Itaituba.

ALESSANDRA KORAP: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: This species only eats berries, not other fish, so it has the least amount of mercury, she says while washing the smell off her hands. Korap walks to the banks of the Tapajos River and looks out. She says her community is under siege.

KORAP: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "We see so many planes and trucks going in and out of Indigenous lands and through our rivers. It's so easy for them," she says. She applauds the stepped-up enforcement by leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He's vowed to end Amazon deforestation by 2030. At City Hall, Itaituba's Mayor Valmir Climaco says he's worried the crackdown is hurting his town's livelihood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLIMACO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "Look, he says, "if the prospector follows the law, I don't see anything bad." And like many in Itaituba, he wants to make sure the 20 million people who work throughout the Amazon can earn a living. But activists and authorities say many officials in the rainforest encourage illegal deforestation and mining. Several of the mayor's operations have been investigated. He was convicted of illegal clear-cutting in 2019. On a recent night, the gold nugget city's riverfront is bustling with carnival rides, games and food stalls.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

KAHN: Daniel Moreira Araujo is on a break from the gold mine he works, which he says is legally permitted.

DANIEL MOREIRA ARAUJO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Agents are out all around us, burning equipment, he says. Given the rainforest's thick terrain, it's easier for officials to ignite the huge dredgers and backhoes instead of removing them. More than 2,000 have been burned so far this year. The 22-year-old says the enforcement is intimidating. Salomao Silva, with his wife and children, says the crackdown has hit Itaituba hard.

SALOMAO SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "We are living in a new era, and we get that laws have to be followed now," he says, especially as Brazil is facing intense international pressure to save the Amazon. But, he adds, he's worried about what that new economy is going to look like.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Itaituba, Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.