French military search out unlawful gold diggers who’re destroying the Amazon

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Issued on: 11/18/2021 – 11:08 amChanged: 11/18/2021 – 11:06 AM

Saint-Laurent du Maroni (France) (AFP) – Deep in the jungle of the French overseas territory of French Guiana, the army is waging a battle of attrition with illegal gold diggers who have destroyed thousands of hectares of precious Amazon rainforest.

French Guiana, roughly the size of Portugal on the north coast of South America and almost entirely covered by forest, has a long history of legal and illegal small-scale gold mining.

But high gold prices have accelerated the scramble over the precious metal, as thousands of miners from neighboring Brazil flock to the border to try to make money.

Their activity has left treeless brown wounds in the landscape littered with pools of water poisoned with mercury, which is used to mine gold from the ground.

Catching the illegal miners known as “garimpeiros” in the act is an almost impossible task, but France is determined to try to protect its little corner of the Amazon.

Bury evidence

On a small tributary of the Maroni, the main waterway that leads north through Guyana to the Atlantic, French troops raid an illegal mining site.

But when they arrived in the canoe with their weapons ready to fire, the miners sank into the forest after a tip from lookouts.

The troops manage to arrest two undocumented workers at the construction site, but they were not caught in the act and released.

French troops are outnumbered by illegal gold diggers in French Guiana, with nearly 1,000 soldiers versus up to 9,000 prospectors. jody amiet AFP

Five soldiers in work clothes then scramble down an embankment into the water-filled pit to look for hidden equipment.

Taking care not to splash the toxic liquid on their faces, they fish out a motor and two mechanical pumps that destroy them.

As a sign that the area could be reactivated soon after the troops have withdrawn, two men and two women in rubber boots linger nearby in the forest.

“If we destroy your material and you come back anyway, it will show that this is an important site for you,” said Staff Sergeant Olivier, whose full name has been withheld for security reasons.

A child’s shoe and a doll thrown on the floor suggested that this small community of outlaws included children.

But in some places the Garimpeiros, who buy equipment from Chinese traders with the gold on the other side of the Maroni River in Suriname, are accused of bringing prostitution and violence into the forest.

“I saw a four-poster bed, mosquito net and condoms strewn all over the place,” said Laura, a military policewoman, in an abandoned location.

Rivers poisoned

Authorities in French Guiana estimate that 400 hectares of forest are destroyed by illegal mining each year, threatening biodiversity in this relatively pristine part of the Amazon basin.

Arnaud Ancelin, assistant director of Guiana Amazonian Park, a 34,000 square kilometers of rainforest sanctuary, said the runoff from some mining sites created mercury-containing mud streams “that block the gills of fish” and threaten the survival of their predators, including the otter.

The use of mercury, which has been banned in French Guiana since 2006, also poses major health risks for indigenous Indians, who eat a diet rich in fish.

With 8,000 to 9,000 illegal miners believed to operate in around 150 locations across the territory – up from 110 a decade ago – the nearly 1,000 French troops deployed to combat the prospectors are struggling to keep up.

Tons of gold

The garimpeiros are the smallest links in a chain in which those who stick their hands in the mud receive starvation wages while those responsible for transporting the gold race up and down the river in motorboats.

Since January, authorities have confiscated three kilograms of gold, a fraction of the roughly ten tons believed to be illegally mined each year.

Since January, authorities have confiscated three kilograms of gold, a fraction of the roughly ten tons believed to be illegally mined each year. jody amiet AFP

“We only catch the little guys,” said French Guiana prosecutor Samuel Finielz of the AFP news agency.

Since January, authorities have confiscated three kilograms of gold, a fraction of the roughly ten tons believed to be illegally mined each year.

However, Finielz insists that the effort will help ensure that the Amazon corner of French Guiana suffers the same fate as Brazil, which has been massively deforested.

“We manage to curb illegal mining and in some cases reduce it,” he said. “But we don’t manage to put an end to it.”

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