Texts in quotations are from the exhibition catalog Amazônia Ocupada.
(São Paulo: Editora SESC/Editora Madalena, 2015)
The smoke of clearing fires produced this pink sunset.
Opening of an airstrip to serve a closed mining claim.
In a remote area, a solitary prospector had found some specks of gold in a stream, seen on the left lower corner. The first step was to carve an opening, or clareira, in the forest and contract a pilot to drop a motor, fuel, and some food so he could explore it. If found to be profitable, this prospector would either sell his find or strike a deal with someone able to invest in an airstrip. In those remote areas the owner of the strip would be the boss of everything, establish rules, rent parts of his territory to others, and regulate who could come in and share a percentage of all the gold found. This specific strip was located in Yanomami territory, where over 100 strips were built in less than five years after the gold rush started in the mid 1980s.
Migrant prospector along road.
One of those dream situations for a photographer: this man was walking a desert road. We stopped to talk and he signaled the direction of his destination. After talking some more, I asked him to repeat the gesture as a truck passed producing the sand cloud.
Prospector carrying sack of mud to be sifted for gold.
“Serra Pelada was a sea of mud. Everything was wet, brown earth. In the midst of this sea of mud and bodies, faces emerged. Seeing them close up and listening to them made each unique, and from each pair of eyes came a story of desire and exhaustion. The madness of gold, the dream of magical riches extracted from the land like a blessing to the fortunate, it was all noisy revelry fueled by hope.”
Panning platform for mining cassiterite, the main ore of tin, at the Novo Planeta Claim.
Settlement of prospectors.
“We disembarked in the Wild West. Around the airstrip, there were a bunch of wooden shacks with tin or straw roofs, including a warehouse, supply shed, dorms, a bar, a nightclub. The roles of judge, sheriff, aid provider, and soccer team captain belonged to the claim’s owner. He ruled over those who came to try their luck in that forest space. A few grams of luck are worth more than years of toil with a hoe in the arid land of Brazil’s Northeast.”
Even though he didn’t speak Portuguese, I became friendly with this Uru-eu man and he took me to show where and how he hunts. We walked through the forest among patches of light and dark shade. At the moment he pointed his bow to the sky, I had this insight of how much all around us was his. The land where they lived for centu-ries, where they knew every species of plant, animal, every stream, every sound. And I could foretell the destiny of all that being transformed by my own presence there.
Mining claim airstrip.
“Closed mining claims are those in inaccessible regions that can only be reached in small and precarious airplanes. The airstrip owner controls all life, imposing his law upon all. Open mining claims are in regions without owners, which anyone can access by boat or road, such as Serra Pelada.”
Two attendants behind a roadside bar.
Salesian nun and young Ticuna woman.
Many of my beliefs had to be reassessed. While I opposed the ‘acculturation’ of indigenous people, I also saw so much degradation of those without the capacity to deal with the dominance of white culture that I came to understand such practices as some times being the lesser disgrace. A famous curator said he wouldn’t exhibit this image because he didn’t know what was going on. I agree. In this image protection and dominance are two sides of the same coin.
A boy sets fire to felled trees and brush to clear for farming.
Laborers using slash-and-burn technique to clear forest for farming.
Young laborer at a sawmill operation.
Logger with tropical hardwood tree trunks.
This Yanomami youth was shot by miners while retrieving an arrow from a tree top during a hunting expedition with a friend. Bush pilots contracted by the prospectors flew him to Boa Vista, the capital of the state of Roraima, to receive medical treatment. An Italian priest caring for the boy, Carlo Zaquini, asked me to photograph the boy quickly because the local authorities were trying to hide the fact that prospectors were invading Yanomami territory. The contradictions of the scene were so striking: everything was so clean, the young Yanomami so delicate, the sheets colorful, but right in the center of the image this huge scar. It was a huge metaphor and testimony for the whole situation. The boy survived and returned to his village.
Mining claim leader with list of team member nicknames including “Mosquito,” “Lame Dog,” “Lucifer,” “Little Eye,” “Sad Life,” and “Santarém.”
Prospector selling gold nuggets.
Prospector couple laden with gold jewelry.
“Something that has always impressed us: in most images the pioneers stand tall, proud of who they are and what they do. Men and women characterized by their lack of fear and by their choice of adventure, of the unknown. People who have left be- hind a life without a future, becoming authors of their own destiny.”
A Ticuna man at the offices of the Instituto Socioambiental, a non-governmental organization. He had traveled a long way down Rio Negro and was standing in front of a mural of newspaper articles.
Prospectors sell gold.
“Gold invaded everything, changing the landscape and mingling realities: forest and town, traditional weapons and fast cars, the wristwatch and the seed bracelet, rituals and macaroni dinners, porridge and corn meal. But here, mixture is not a synonym for equality and harmonious relations. On the contrary, violence has become part of daily life, including vicious games of social hierarchy that impact locals, migrants, the new riches, the promises, and a lot of deception.”
–Lilia Moritz Schwarcz
Woman in a floating brothel.
A large amount of gold was found at the bottom of the Madeira River. Massive barges were built with dredges to suck the mud from the river and process it. A whole floating town was built with markets, bars, gas stations, and a brothel. As many other pioneers who were proud of their role in occupying Amazonia, this woman wanted to have her picture taken. She directed the scene and decided she wanted to be smoking while writing in her diary.
Saturday night at the dance.
Zezão (Big Joe) with a kilo of gold.
A legend among miners, Zezão did not know how to read or write, but owned the Rosa de Maio claim, which yielded vast amounts of gold for 35 years. He acquired mining claims, farms, airplanes, and heavy equipment without ever writing a bank check. Stories like his inspired thousands of other poor men and women to leave everything behind in search of success.
Senhor Altamir, owner of the river barges on the Rio Abunã, displays a kilo of gold.
Every prospector had to display some gold such as watches, bracelets, rings, even teeth, as proof of their success. Two words expressed contrasting experiences: the bamburrados were those who found gold and made a fortune, while the blefados (from the English word “bluff”) were those who had no luck. As most men failed the dream of riches, to display gold was a way of showing social standing.
Family meal for rubber tappers with roasted paca (a large rodent) and manioc flour.
Family of settler farmers from southern Brazil along the Cuiabá-Santarém road.
“Along the Cuiabá-Santarém there are many stories of abandonment. After opening the highway in 1970, the government promised support and distributed lands to those willing to settle along the roadside. When the project and the highway were dropped, the southerners from Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná, who formed the bulk of those who exchanged their possessions for a tract of land, found themselves completely isolated. However, there they remained, living alongside a highway that was only passable in dry weather, days from any urban center, and with nowhere to go, insisting in their dreams.”
“The boy seated on the sandy ground raises a finger to his mouth and, without meaning to, draws our attention to indigenous body art: a delicate line divides the forehead; on each cheek thicker lines; ritually informed marks indicate the boy’s place in the group. But the boy seems occupied with another activity–eating. No trivial detail: what we see on the enameled plate (another cheap icon of the occupation) is pasta– yet another demonstration of how culture isn’t a game of purity or a pact with immobility.”
Kaiapó girl in calico dress.
The hairstyle and face painting of this Kaiapó girl follows ancestral tradition. But the wealth generated from renting tribal land to loggers and prospectors has brought her people enough money to buy property in the city of Redenção, where clothes are necessary. The red of the facial paint and the calico dress accentuate the sharp incision of history, a visual expression of the clash between two worlds, two cultures.
Rubber tapper extracting natural latex from tree.
“Apparently dispossessed and abandoned to luck, rubber tappers, riverbank dwellers, and isolated indigenous peoples display a vast knowledge of the forest and live in harmony with it.”
The wife of a rubber tapper.
This archipelago consisting of over 400 islands in the Rio Negro is protected within the Anavilhanas National Park and managed by the Chico Mendes In- stitute for Biodiversity Conservation.
Prospector at Apiacás mining claim.
To extract gold from the muddy soil, miners mix it with water and mercury, which chemically binds to the gold and congeals into a solid. The conglomerate is then heated to burn off the mercury, leaving a pure gold nugget. Toxic waste water is then dumped, pouring an estimated 100 tons of mercury into Amazonian rivers each year. Mercury poisoning causes neurological damage to humans and harms the aquatic species that ingest the heavy metal. With increased mechanization in the last two decades, the use of mercury has declined.
River muddied by mining activity in Abacaxis region.
“The Amazon, with its gigantic dimensions, gives us the impression that it is indestructible, but the speed of its transformations reveal its incredible fragility.”
Prospector at open mine of Apiacás.
Single-engine airplane carrying miners flies over Surucucus Range, located in Yanomami territory.
“After takeoff the view from above was breathtaking, with the sun reflecting off the in- terminable curves of water that sliced across the deep green. When it was time to land, there was great excitement. ‘Where’s the landing strip? We’re almost out of fuel! Radar? What radar?’ The mining pilots guide themselves with compass and wristwatch. They trace their route on the map and communicate with each other via radio. When a patch of dirt appeared below us, it was time to hold tight as the pilot descended. The wings skimmed the treetops and several bumps later we arrived.”
Yanomami village in Surucucus range.
Indigenous tribal leader at the radio station.