French Guayana from across the Lawa River
Garimpar: to search for
Garimpo: where one looks for gold
Garimpeiro: one who looks for gold
The gold mines aren't what you are thinking. They aren't underground, you don't carry a pick axe and a helmet. The garimpos are where the miners have dammed a creek and created large mud pits. The mud is pumped through a long pipe lined with mercury. The mercury attaches itself to the specks of gold and gets filtered out as the mud is poured into a different pit. The mercury is then burned off, while the gold remains. This is how it was explained to me. From the plane, they are exposed patches of yellow earth dotting the endless forest.
The Malaria Program was given funding to combat malaria in the gold mining regions were it still persists, despite erradication in most other parts of Suriname. Most of the people in these regions are Brazilian and are in Suriname illegally. As I've said before, I really respect that the Surinamese government is dealing with the malaria problem at hand, without letting politics and immigration policies ruin the program. French Guayana is another story.
So, what was I doing there? In the weeks before the trip, I had been working at the Malaria Clinic in Paramaribo. Let me introduce the people I've been working with: Hedley, a Surinamese doctor who runs the clinic and Helena, the only Brazilian working at the clinic. They are both amazing and it's been wonderful getting to know them. Almost everyone working at the clinic (which serves a mostly Brazilian clientele) went on this trip. We were to go to very hard to reach garimpos, test everyone present and treat those who tested positive for malaria. While I trained to test for malaria, that was not my job on this trip, (though I have been testing since we've returned). My job was to help with the intake forms, help conduct a census, interpret, teach people how to treat their nets with insecticide, take GPS coordinates and tons of pictures on behalf on the program. If I didn't speak Portuguese, I probably wouldn't have been of much use to the team. Language was a real issue on the trip, not many of the people on the team spoke Portuguese.
We flew from Paramaribo to a little island called Lawa Tabiki. I don't know if it would be on any map at all, but it was Southeast on the Marowijne River, which serves as the border between Suriname and French Guayana. We were about 20 people, carrying microscopes, malaria testing equipment, rubber boots, raincoats, life vests, hammocks, food and water for all of us for a week. Everything is outrageously expensive in the garimpos, so we didn't buy any food the whole time we were there. After testing a military post on the island we took a short boat ride to a river town called Cabana Fort or Vila Nova depending on who you asked. This was a good sized town- though I'm not good at estimating numbers of people. It was like stepping into Brazil- all signs were in Portuguese, samba was bursting out of the open bars. But the town didn't accept Surinamese dollars (SRD) or reais. Prices were set in Euros. Many people in this town, and all along the river, work in French Guayana, which is technically part of France and deals in Euros. A bowl of acai - which would normally be 2-5 reais in Brazil, maybe 3-6 USD was a crazy 7 Euros. It was the only thing I bought the whole week- but I really wanted it and it tasted perfect.
That night we spent in Benzdorp (more about that crazy place later) and the next day the team broke in two. Some stayed in Benzdorp, but I went with Hedley and about 10 others in a motorized canoe to Yawpasi, a much smaller town further down the river. Yawpasi is not really a town at all, but rather a post, a resting place for people coming and going through French Guayana- or France, as people call it here. There are few proper houses where people live permanently. There were several structures with no walls, only a thatch roof and hooks for hammocks. People spent all day laying in their hammock, waiting for whatever was coming next in their life in the Amazon. They slept completely in the open, very few people had mosquito nets or even a blanket. There were both men and women; it was hard not to speculate that almost every woman you met, both young and old, was probably there as a prostitute. If she didn't own her own business, bar or beauty boutique...why else might she be in a mining town? There were no children in Yawpasi as there were in Vila Nova, and that really said something.
Yawpasi had one of the highest number of malaria cases of any other town we visited- though I don't have the numbers yet. I feel strongly this is because so many people are coming back from Fr. Guayana infected. Fr. Guayana has a no-tolerance policy for immigrants. If they catch you you will be deported. The Brazilians know this and don't often use the medical system there. There is no anti-malaria campaign especially for them in France, no net distribution, no free testing. In many ways, I feel Fr. Guayana's policies are counter acting all the good the Surinamese program has done.
One man there was so sick his friends had to half-way carry him up the hill to the bar where we had set up. Hedley was irritated with the friends; they didn't have any intention of taking him to a doctor up the river. We just happened upon him by chance, who knows what might have happened if we hadn't.
How bad must things be in Brazil for people to travel all this way to live out in the open like this? I thought about this a lot. Most people were coming from Para or some other Northern Brazilian state. I usually think of immigrants leaving their country of origin in search of a better life in terms of material improvement. I think too of their ancestors from Europe, the original Pereira or Souza or da Silva or Araujo who left Portugal for the New World...did he have any idea that his descendants would be living in the rain forest without even a wall to protect them from the elements? These people are not natives to the rain forest, they are not indigenous to this land, they don't know how to live here without generators and imported beer. They don't even have latrines. To leave nothing to come and still have nothing....how bad must things be there? And how much money can they really make in the garimpos? Maybe it's just that in Brazil, their nothing is hopeless, but here their nothing has the potential to turn itself into gold.