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Story Publication logo March 15, 2010

French Guiana's Gold Rush: The Big Picture

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As jittery investors have sought safe-haven investments in gold during the recession, the metal's...

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During a bad recession, the price of gold lifts astonishingly high as the market drops precipitously low—a pecuniary pas de deux with ripple-out effects around the world but in no stranger place than French Guiana, home of the infamous Devil's Island penal colony, the rocket-launching Centre Spatial Guyanais, and the European Union's largest rainforest. Fueled by the metal's surging price, it is in this remote European outpost in South America that a modern-day gold rush is playing out as thousands of illegal wildcat miners from Suriname and Brazil carve clandestine mines out of French Guiana's jungle.

Called garimpeiros, (a Portuguese word for prospector), the miners' impact is often apocalyptic. They burn vegetation, raze thousands of acres of trees, and cut miles of illegal roads through the forest each year. They blast the earth with diesel engine-powered high-pressure hoses and excavate pits in the jungle floor with backhoes--often weighing several tons and floated upriver on small boats lashed together. Tons of mercury, highly toxic but cheap and prized for its efficiency, gets dumped in the rivers each year. Bars and brothels strung from tree branches and tarp sprout around the mines--El Dorados raised ex nihilo from the mud--and everything from pick axes to petrol and prostitutes is paid for with raw gold. Accurate estimates are hard to come by, but approximately six of the 10 tons of gold exported from French Guiana each year is thought to be illegally mined.

In 2008, French president Nicolas Sarkozy launched Operation Harpy, deploying six helicopters, 470 police officers, 380 gendarmes, and an elite commando unit called the Groupement d'intervention de la Gendarmerie de Guyane (GIGG) to combat the garimpeiros. Since then, road checkpoints and river blockades have been erected. Gendarmes patrol the mud-brown rivers on Jet-Skis and rappel from helicopters to conduct jungle raids on illegal mines. They have burned illegal camps, destroyed mining equipment, confiscated weapons, and seized hundreds of kilograms of gold and thousands of liters of mercury— often while taking fire. In February 2010, Sarkozy announced Harpie Renforcée, a permanent, year-round operation that is probably necessary because Brazilian garimpeiros are rarely arrested and often return to mining in French Guiana.

France and Brazil have also made tentative steps to break up the supply chains and financial networks which enable illegal mining. On December 23, 2008, Sarkozy signed an agreement with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that would make trading in unprocessed gold and transport and possession of mercury without permits a criminal offense. Neither country's legislative body has ratified the agreement, however. Potentially complicating the issue is Brazil's $12 billion weapons deal with France to purchase 50 EC-725 Super Cougar helicopters and jointly develop one nuclear and four diesel-powered submarines.

Meanwhile, markets have remained unpredictable, the dollar has weakened, and anxious investors have continued to drive up the price of gold. In early 2009, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and UBS all forecast that the metal's price would surge above $1,000 by the end of 2009; in late November, gold hit $1,165 an ounce, an all-time record. India bought 200 metric tons from the International Monetary Fund for $6.7 billion that same month and this March, billionaire businessman George Soros doubled his investment in SPDR Gold Trust, the world's largest exchange-traded gold fund, to $8.8 billion--after declaring "the ultimate asset bubble is gold" the previous month. Many analysts predict the metal's price will continue to rise.

For Brazilian garimpeiros, this ensures that illegal mining in French Guiana--no matter the risk--will remain a lucrative enterprise.






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