Easy come, easy go no longterm investment strategy here
After our stay in the jungle with the federal police, we returned to civilization -- well, almost -- and checked into the Hotel Nacional in Pimenta Bueno. The rooms were pretty basic, but they were clean and had hot showers and cold AC. Since few foreigners come to Pimenta Bueno, Mariana and I were a bit of a novelty and became quite friendly with the staff.
Pimenta Bueno is a lot like Cacoal, except smaller and without a bobódromo for entertainment. There were just three restaurants -- a pizzeria and two joints serving beef, rice and beans; all were open-air and centered around the main square. Over the course of three weeks, we bounced from one to another in a vain attempt for variety. The saving grace in all of them was Brazils greatest gift to sweltering climates, an extremely light and crisp beer served estupidamente gelada (stupidly cold). After a long day of reporting in the Amazon, there is nothing more refreshing than a brew so cold its slushy. (Coldness is so important to Brazilian beer drinkers that the refrigerators where the beer is stocked display bright announcements of their temperature inside.) And we never wanted for company. Between the hotel staff, our friends at the Internet/gaming café acafnd the federal police, wed often have companions for dinner. We were even invited to a couple of barbecues, which, in the heart of ranch country, were nothing short of a meat lovers paradise.
A Rush For Diamonds
Using Pimenta Bueno as our base, every morning we took a shared 20-minute taxi ride to Espigão dOeste to report on the miners side of the story.
The miners life is part of Brazilian lore. The image is that of a hard-drinking, whoring, carefree spender -- when he has the money. When he doesnt, hes broker than a shithouse rat. And theres little in between. In velvet underwear or with your ass hangin out is how the Brazilian saying goes.
Miners in Brazil are the epitome of itinerant workers: They have no formal employers, many have lost touch with family and they travel from town to town, mine to mine. In 1999, the discovery of diamonds on the Roosevelt Reserve set off a full-blown rush. Thousands of miners made their way to Espigão, which, because of its location, became home to a thriving black market diamond trade. Who were buyers and who were intermediaries was an open secret. And foreigners from North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East were always showing up -- and they werent exactly looking for a jungle tour.
Brazils impoverished interior doesnt offer much opportunity. For every gem-quality stone that is found, there are thousands of small and industrial-grade diamonds that miners can collect and sell to earn a days pay.
Espigão became a shady place, full of special interests and conspiracies. It wasnt easy to find people to talk on camera, so for a while we had to content ourselves with sitting around Espigãos shops and bars listening to miners tales. Everyone had a dream of what they would do if they were to strike it rich, and everyone had a tale of someone who did. Its almost like Brazils entire community of miners has an ongoing game of one-upmanship, and the winner is whoever comes up with the most outrageous things money can buy.
We heard about one miner who dreamed of having sex in a helicopter. And when he actually cashed in on a big stone, sure enough, he rented one -- along with three prostitutes.
Easy Come, Easy Go
One miner we met, Valdivino, had little more than a hammock and the shirt on his back -- no, come to think of it, he was shirtless. He was camping at a defunct mine, earning just a few dollars a day keeping an eye on machines before they could be moved. We later learned from another miner that Valdivino had once found a very big stone on the Roosevelt Reserve and cashed it in for about $50,000, a fortune in a country where the minimum wage is about $100 a month. Flush with money, Valdivino immediately bought a brand-new motorcycle and went out to celebrate. He got drunk and crashed the bike -- and the next morning he went out and bought another one. Now, Valdivino has nothing. Easy come, easy go. No long-term investment strategies here.
Our best understanding of the lives of miners working on the Roosevelt Reserve came from Carlos Gonzales, who is featured in our broadcast story. Admittedly, Carlos isnt your stereotypical miner. He is fairly well educated and became a miner not from lack of opportunities, but by choice. In Espigão, he was known as Gaucho, a common nickname given to those who hail from Brazils southern cowboy region. But Carlos always had dreams of heading to the countrys Wild West.
Carlos was typical, however, in that he had seen money come and go. When we met him he was living in a small and simple house not much bigger than a shack. His fortunes might have improved, but the massacre had all but closed down the mine. Like thousands of other miners in Espigão, Carlos was biding his time, waiting for the government to once again look the other way.
By all accounts, the mine on the Roosevelt Reserve was the best thing that any of the miners had seen. You could find large, pure stones with a frequency unequalled by other mines. And this mine was huge.
Through Carlos, we learned how the operation worked, particularly how the relationship between the Cinta Larga and the miners worked. He told us that at first, the tribe charged for access to the reservation. Then the Cinta Larga learned how to mine and took full charge of the operation. Carlos said he would often travel onto the reserve with the Cinta Larga, passing the FUNAI checkpoints without a problem. Then he would work as part of a four-man team on one of hundreds of machines inside the mine. For every stone the team found, a percentage of its value would go to the tribe and the rest would be split among the team.
The Indians had full control of the mine, to the point that they would have 4,000 or 5,000 men working in there, Carlos said. They would ask [the miners] to stop mining, and everyone would stop. They would ask them to leave, and everyone would leave. Then wed get out here and wed maintain contact with them. ... And we would plan which day wed go back in with them, and on that day wed go in and we would work with them peacefully. There was harmony, there was a peaceful union between us.
Diamonds were the common objective. But Carlos said that miners and Indians also mixed socially, partying together in town and on the reservation.
And although most miners played and worked well with the Cinta Larga, Carlos told us, some did not. A few miners struck out on their own, sneaking onto the reserve to mine areas that had yet to be explored, and they did not share with the Cinta Larga. These rogue miners, the tribe felt, were invaders and thieves.
Collaboration Turns to Violence
During the five years that the mine operated this way, there had been sporadic violence. The bodies of at least 33 miners and Indians were recovered from the reserve during this period. But the lure of the stone always kept the miners coming back. Then -- massacre.
What if it had been 29 Indians who were killed? This was the question most often posed to us in Espigão. And the answer most often volunteered was probably true: It would have been an international incident.
But it wasnt Indians who were killed, and it wasnt an international incident. And in Espigão, there was a deep sense of injustice. Many people felt that the Cinta Larga were literally getting away with murder and that the lives of the miners were worthless. Indeed, from the beginning, miners and their supporters felt slighted. After the massacre, it took more than a week for the federal police to recover the miners bodies from the reserve. By then, many of the corpses had decomposed and were unrecognizable. What was obvious, at least from the photographs wed seen, was that they died a gruesome death. Arms, legs and necks were bound, and many had suffered multiple bullet and stab wounds.
Today, 23 of the 29 bodies recovered from the reserve are buried in a row in Espigãos cemetery. Only eight of the bodies have been identified. The rest lie in graves marked with simple crosses bearing the words Não Identificado (Unidentified).
Youd be hard-pressed to find anyone in Espigão who doesnt consider these bodies as just the beginning. Many people, Fantim included, believe the number of people who were massacred that day is closer to 100. Several miners offered to sneak us onto the reserve to show us where they thought the other bodies were buried. But no one was ever able to produce hard evidence, and a blind-faith search of the reserve would have been extremely risky. Besides, we were having a difficult enough time getting the most basic elements of the story.
Finally, Someone Who Would Talk to Us
After weeks of hanging around places where miners gathered, we still hadnt found anyone who wanted to appear on camera. Even after having witnessed the massacre, most miners still hoped to return to the mine. And they feared retribution from the Cinta Larga if they spoke about what they saw.
Then, finally, we got a promising lead. A miner we had befriended told us he knew of a guy who he thought would speak to us. We took a taxi to where this miner lived with his wife; she was the daughter of the madam at the local brothel. They lived in a little rundown house on the outskirts of town. When we pulled up, we were told to wait in the car while this miner went to go call on his friend, Gaguinho.
Upon hearing the name, Mariana convulsed with laughter. After weeks of frustration, it looked like we might have a miner who would speak on camera -- a miner who went by the name of Gaguinho, or Little Stutterer.
Gaguinho agreed to be interviewed if we did not show his face -- a deal we would later strike with another miner whom we interviewed at greater length and in greater detail about what happened.
Despite the horrific scenes they described, both miners we interviewed said they planned to go back onto the reserve.
Despite the horrific scenes they described, both miners we interviewed said they planned to go back onto the reserve. In fact, a few days after we met Gaguinho, we ran into him near the federal police base just outside the reserve. He was getting ready to sneak on. A couple days later, we saw him again, with a friend. They were hitchhiking on the road from Pimenta Bueno to Espigão. We picked them up. They had just spent two days on the reserve, and it was a terrifying experience, they said. Fearing they would be caught, they didnt build campfires, and everyone took turns keeping watch for Indians. They had enough time, however, to find a few stones to tide them over. And, they said, they were not the only miners on the reserve.
So even with the federal police operation in full force, miners are still getting onto the reserve. There are thousands of places to cross and simply no way an area of jungle so large can be effectively patrolled. Even the mine site itself spreads out over miles, and large sections are still covered by trees and thick brush. Other potentially rich areas have yet to be explored. The odds favor the miners. And as long as there are diamonds, Gaguinho said, they will keep going.
It isnt just the promise of riches that leads miners to risk their lives. There is also the reality of life. Brazils impoverished interior doesnt offer much opportunity, and mining is a way to make ends meet. For every gem-quality stone that is found, there are thousands of small and industrial-grade diamonds that miners can collect and sell to earn a days pay. Its a bit like playing a lottery with very good odds that youll win enough to scrape by and a long-shot possibility that one day youll hit the jackpot. One keeps you dreaming, both keep you coming back.Previous entry Back to top
SOURCES: Public Prosecutors Office (Rondonia); Department of Mines and Energy (DNPM); FUNAI; Brazil Protects Her Cinta Larga, Jesco von Puttkamer, National Geographic; Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, John Hemming, 1978.