Brazilians toil for gold in illegal Amazon mines

CREPURIZAO, Brazil, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Informal mining in Brazil is seen by many as a scourge polluting the Amazon rainforest, poisoning indigenous tribes and robbing the nation of its wealth.

For others it is a way of life.

Brazilian garimpos, or wildcat mines, are operated by small crews of men, often caked in red-brown mud and working with rudimentary pans, shovels and sluice boxes that have been used for centuries.

More sophisticated operations use water cannons and boats sucking mud from the bottoms of rivers. Regardless of the method, searching for gold and other minerals like cassiterite and niobium is dirty, dangerous and often illegal.

"Looking for gold is like playing in a casino," said a 48-year-old miner.

Miners asked not to be named, saying they feared the police as much of their work is illegal.

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Illegal gold mining taking toll on Amazon rainforests
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Illegal gold mining taking toll on Amazon rainforests
Wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, carry a diesel engine towards a river at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, works at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, uses high-pressure jets of water to dislodge rock material at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, uses high-pressure jets of water to dislodge rock material at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The shadow of a wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, is seen at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, rub mercury that has coagulated into tiny particles of gold in a basin at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, stands on mud at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, watches another worker at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, uses a stick as an accelerator for a diesel engine, used to extract mud at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, works at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man gets out of a canoe filled with diesel containers to be carried to a wildcat gold mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, work at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, pours water containing mercury to separate gold from grit and other minerals at a wildcat gold mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, works on a sluice box where the heavier gold is caught after sucking up mud, at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man uses a welding torch to refine gold in a village of wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Sluice boxes are seen at a wildcat gold mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, carry a diesel container at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, jokes with a woman at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, rests in a hammock inside his makeshift home at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, showers at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The wife of a wildcat gold miner smiles as she shows off gold stars attached to her teeth at a wildcat gold mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, eats inside his makeshift home made of wood and plastic at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, holds up gold before selling it in a village near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Gold is weighed at a wildcat gold mine, also known as garimpo, at an area of deforested Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The owner of a pharmacy poses inside her shop in a village of wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, rests in a hammock at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at a deforested area of Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Pigs are seen in a village of wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, near Crepurizao in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 1, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, builds a makeshift home at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at an area of deforested Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People watch TV inside their house in a village of wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 1, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman uses her mobile phone in a village of wildcat gold miners, or garimpeiros, near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 1, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, eats outside makeshift homes, made of wood and plastic, at a wildcat mine, also known as garimpo, at an area of deforested Amazon rainforest near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, smokes inside a village bar of wildcat gold miners near Crepurizao, in the municipality of Itaituba, Para State, Brazil, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce SEARCH "WILDCAT MINING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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He started in the wildcat mines as a teenager in the area around Crepurizao — a ramshackle frontier town of 5,000 with a dirt landing strip that is a gateway for informal mining in the region.

Garimpos are in the spotlight as Brazil debates opening an area known as Renca in the northern Amazon forest to mining, which has met with stiff resistance from environmentalists.

Mines and Energy Minister Fernando Coelho Filho argues that licensed mining will be an improvement over the estimated 1,000 people currently mining in the reserve illegally.

Crepurizao lies hundreds of miles south of Renca, but gives a window into life in the garimpos caught up in the debate.

Living in makeshift homes of wood and plastic, miners in the area ship some 60 kilograms (132 lbs) of gold per month, according to traders.

That much pure gold is worth millions of dollars on the global market, but high costs and layers of traders in the local market leave most miners living on the brink of poverty.

Basic staples can cost four or five times the price in the nearest city, an eight-hour bus ride away.

Fuel stations, a general store, a bar, an evangelical church and prostitutes vie for the income and attention of the miners, known as garimpeiros, when they aren't working or lazing in hammocks.

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The fight against illegal mining in the Amazon
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The fight against illegal mining in the Amazon
An illegal gold mine is seen during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A helicopter patrols an illegal lane used by miners during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency is seen next to an illegal gold dredge burning down at the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An Yanomami indian (R) stands near an illegal gold mine during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A man successfully flees in a boat next to an illegal gold dredge on the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
People successfully flee with groceries and fuel on a boat on the Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Gold prospectors are detained by agents of Brazilâs environmental agency on the Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 16, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An illegal gold mine burns during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Uraricoera River is seen during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An illegal gold dredge is seen burning down at the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A village of indigenous Yanomami is seen during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency patrols the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agents of Brazilâs environmental agency shows ammunition found in a camp used by gold miners during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency detains a man at an illegal gold mine during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A man flees successfully near the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Yanomami indian children are seen near the Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 16, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A gold prospector is detained by agents of Brazilâs environmental agency on the Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency detains a gold prospector who works as a diver in the illegal gold dredge on the shores of Uraricoera River, during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency takes cover as an illegal gold dredge burns down at the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency inspects a miners camp on the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency burns a miners camp on the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A mining ferry burns down at the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
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MOST UNLICENSED

There are 2,113 licensed garimpo sites in Brazil, according to ministry data, but environmental experts and two government officials, who asked not to be named, said far more small-scale mines skip the licensing and ignore regulations altogether.

In Crepurizao, where mines often cluster close together, it was unclear which operations were licensed.

The total area worked by garimpeiros in Brazil is thought to be small. But chemicals like mercury, which miners in Crepurizao dump to separate gold from grit, can leave a large footprint of contamination.

In March last year, a government-backed study of indigenous villages in the northern state of Roraima revealed alarming levels of mercury.

One group of villagers had more than double the level of mercury considered to be a serious health risk - such as damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, heart and reproductive process - detected in their hair.

The Mining and Energy Ministry said a new oversight agency created in a decree by President Michel Temer, now pending congressional approval, would allow more effective government coordination and inspections to restrict illegal mining.

Congressman Leonardo Quintao, who sits on the committee considering the new agency, said it will be able to raise more funding for oversight. He said the regulations target licensed miners, while illegal mining remains a matter for the police.

Still, one Ibama enforcement officer, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said the government had left miners like those in Crepurizao in a precarious limbo.

"You can't just pull them out of the garimpos and the cities that are living off gold. And the government does not offer them structure and decent conditions," said the officer. "So they're stranded there without the minimum conditions for survival."

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