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Garimpeiros The Wildcat Gold Miners of the Amazon Rainforest

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Exhibition Poster

Introduction

Garimpo is a Brazilian Portuguese term meaning a small-scale, informal, and often illegal gold mining camp. The wildcat miners who work in the mines are known as garimpeiros. Across the centuries, garimpeiros have scoured the most remote reaches of the Amazon rainforest in search of gold. The garimpeiros were first seared into the global imagination through Sebastião Salgado’s 1986 photographs of the massive Serra Pelada gold mine, which he described as an “extraordinary and tormented view of the human animal: 50,000 men sculpted by mud and dreams¹” In recent decades, the garimpos have continued drawing a steady stream of men and women risking injury and incarceration in search of riches, or at least a life that is better than what they left behind. What used to be a low-tech operation powered by muscle and small generators has been transformed by powerful hydraulic pumps and heavy-duty excavators that make it easier to clear the forest and dig down to the bedrock, where tiny specks of gold settle. The garimpeiros unearth the gold that shines across the world, but they have the dirtiest of reputations. Gold mining is responsible for 10% of Amazonian deforestation, and the mercury and cyanide used to extract gold contaminates rivers and endangers the people who rely on them². Recent reports identified miners as the assassins of an uncontacted indigenous group³. The gold mines can be photographed and described in a way that follows the expected tropes of villainy and destruction, but in this exhibition we aim for a deeper understanding of the garimpo and the daily life of the garimpeiros.

1. The Gold Mine Portfolio. Sebastiao Salgado. The Peter Fetterman Gallery.

2. Alvarez-Berríos, Nora L., and T. Mitchell Aide. "Global demand for gold is another threat for tropical forests." Environmental Research Letters 10(1) (2015).

  1. "Uncontacted" Amazon Tribe Members Reported Killed in Brazil. New York Times. Sept. 10, 2017