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Brazil Journey Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 17:27 GMT 18:27 UK
Gold diggers celebrate rights victory
Aracruz: An 87 year-old Tupiniquim Indian leader says he can't write and won't vote Canudos: Paulo meets island-dwelling Marciano, who follows a 19th Century messianic leader Salvador: Traditional street vendors want a president who will give them a monopoly on bean fritters Pernambuco: A community descended from escaped slaves fights for access to its own land Eldorado dos Carajas: Where land reform has brought soaring crime Serra Pelada: Small-scale gold diggers win a 10-year mining rights battle Brasil Novo: A remote jungle town longs for electricity and a surfaced road Santarem: Canvassing votes by river boat at the heart of the Amazon jungle Belém: The city where a councillor with one arm is spearheading the fight for disability rights Belém-Brasilia highway: Two days with a trucker on Brazil's damaged and bandit-ridden roads Brasilia: The scavengers who live off the capital's waste Sao Paulo: The city 'island' dwellers who will have to travel for four hours to vote

Report six: Serra Pelada

As Brazil gears up for presidential elections in October, BBC Brasil's Paulo Cabral travels through remote mountains, arid countryside and deep jungle to find out what 21st Century politics mean in the Brazil that normally goes unreported.

The gold prospectors of Serra Pelada have been given back their mining rights after a 10-year legal battle.

When gold was found at the Amazonian outpost in the 1980s, "garimpeiros" - small-scale, self-employed gold diggers - flocked to work one of the richest deposits of alluvial gold ever found.

The area was controlled by the then state-owned company, Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD).

Garimpeiro Etevaldo Arantes
Etevaldo arrived at the height of the gold rush
But in 1984 the government granted the garimpeiros rights to 100 of the 10,000 hectares held by the company.

Seven years later, the rights were revoked. But the garimpeiros fought back.

Now, a decade later, the Brazilian Senate has approved a decree giving them access to their original 100 hectares - although much of the most easily accessible gold is long gone.

"The important thing is to have the gold garimpo [mine] back," said Joao Lopes, President of the Mining Cooperative of Garimpeiros of Serra Pelada.

"It's no use saying that we don't have the technology or even the money to explore that land, because we can do some partnerships," he said.

A CVRD spokesperson said the company "respects the Senate's decision".

The legal battle between the company and the garimpeiros froze virtually all mining activities in the area.

"Only some clandestine, subsistence mining operations continued," said Sebastiao Curio, mayor of Curionopolis, the city where the Serra Pelada garimpo is located.

A lake in the Serra Pelada region
The garimpeiros say they will respect the environment
Curio, then a colonel in the army, was responsible for the organisation of Serra Pelada in the early 1980s. After leaving his post, he maintained his connections with the mine and is still regarded as an important local leader.

With the bill approved, the garimpeiros are beginning to prepare themselves for work.

And the Cooperative of Garimpeiros promises that they will respect the environment this time.

The badly-planned 1980s exploitation had serious environmental consequences, including deforestation and water pollution from the mercury which is used in the mining process.

Alternatives to mining

"It's true that our activity affects the land and has an environmental impact," said Etevaldo Arantes, a garimpeiro who arrived in Serra Pelada, aged 17, in 1981 at the peak of the gold rush.

Presidential election
First round: 6 October
Run-off: 27 October
Key candidates

Key presidential candidates:

Jose Serra - ruling centrist coalition
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - Workers' Party
Ciro Gomes - centre-left Labour Front coalition
Anthony Garotinho - Socialist Party candidate
"But what the government should do is to train us to prevent this from happening, not give the land to others," he said.

There is still strong local resentment towards CVRD because of the company's state-backed efforts to expel garimpeiros still living on the land in the mid 1990s.

But most of the easily accessible gold has already been mined and CVRD has no current plan to explore its section of the region further - although it says it wants to keep its rights to the area for research purposes.

"Mining activities have been stopped there, and I don't think there is any economic reason for new explorations of the area," said Mauricio Reis, the director of CVRD.

"We are promoting health, education and agricultural programmes that could give the miners a survival alternative to gold mining," he said.


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20 Aug 02 | Americas
19 Jul 02 | Americas
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