Young prospectors pause midday at Las Cristinas
Young prospectors pause midday at Las Cristinas, the mine called Los Cuatro Muertos, for the people killed when a mud wall collapsed. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)
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Seeking heaven in the stubborn earth

From the savanna to the jungle, people struggle to squeeze life from a swath of South America

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / September 26, 2004

LAS CLARITAS, Venezuela -- The pump sucked water from a pit and shot it into a wall of packed red earth with enough force to send the wall tumbling upon itself.

Clumps of the fallen mud hurtled through a hose, cascaded across scraps of filtering carpet, and finally spit, into the withered hands of a lean man, bits of gold.

Noon sun baked soil and skin. The man, and all in this crush of picks and pumps and slap-shack lean-tos, had scrambled to the jungle outpost to stake a claim in El Dorado's newest gold rush. The miners labored in the thick of forest, but also at the edge of another world, of cool and solitude, a sprawling divide between one South America and another.

Just down the road from the open-pit mine, green-leaf sweat gives way to towering savanna. It runs southward a hundred miles, then descends into Brazil, where lowland savanna finally yields to yet more jungle -- the Amazon.

This ancient ground has long nurtured natives, enchanted explorers, taunted colonizers, and defined the boundaries of Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil. Still an intersection of remote terrain and the will to live within it, the savanna is the first of four geographic and cultural divides the Globe will journey across this fall, in a series that will circle the planet, to Africa, Asia, and the Arctic.

South America may seem a conquered continent. Yet deep within, newcomers and old continue to stake modern claims, for ore and souls, for power over people and land.

To hear of such a place is one thing. What would come from following serendipity and instinct, journeying across the divide and into these lives?

But first, the gold rush.

It appeared in the black buzz of a Monday night in the tired village of Las Claritas. Shadowy forms, some plump and plodding, most lanky and loose, milled outside roadside shops and bars. The next morning, pickup trucks shuttled men, women, and children west along a rocky road to the gold mine that they all, remembering the day one high mud wall fell too far too fast, call "Los Cuatro Muertos," The Four Dead.

The mine was conceived as a vast operation, digging deep to tap one of the world's largest gold deposits, and controlled, as is so much in South America, by foreign interests. Crystallex International Corp., a Canadian company, in 2002 obtained long-disputed rights to the Las Cristinas mine, as it is officially known, in hopes of harvesting a half-million ounces of gold a year, beginning in 2006.

But in southern Venezuela, more than a century of mining has left behind holes of poverty. So as Crystallex lawyers battled and engineers plotted, independent miners came, picks and pans in hand, to clamor at the gates. President Hugo Chavez, a champion to many in Venezuela's poorer classes, did not stop them.

Four thousand swarmed at the chance, an ant farm of backs hunched against the heat.

Inside the mine's open gate, three laughing miners, arm-in-arm and singing boldly, sauntered past guards, two of whom loosely held sawed-off shotguns. A woman sold soft drinks and lemon cake from a makeshift shop. A mother, father, and their children, ages 17, 13, 12, and 6, clustered near a wide pit and shared bowls of chicken smothered in a rich sauce.

Fifty feet below, Alejandro Ortuez, at 29 already a 17-year mining veteran, stood waist deep in water and rolled small wads of mercury through silt to capture flecks of gold. Working 24-hour shifts for the owner of the water pump, Ortuez would earn perhaps $75 a week; enough, he said, "for family, for beer, for dropping some panties."

The pump rattled on and another mud-spattered miner, ripples of lean muscle in his own shade of brown, slid into the water behind Ortuez. The man wore the mischievous smile of someone about to enjoy a swim. He dunked, rose, and pressed his fingers across his forehead. He dunked again, deeper and longer. The water rippled in even rings and then, in the center, calmed.

An ancient land

Back on Route 10, a trucker with square shoulders and a round face promised that his rig, with its powerful engine and steel flatbed, could handle the climb out of jungle and into the divide.

The truck swayed through the last, dense squeeze of the forest and growled up a series of switchbacks, slowing at a rock face in which many see the image of the Virgin Mary. The switchbacks climbed more than 2,000 feet in elevation, and then, suddenly and only 30 miles from Las Claritas, Venezuela's Grand Savanna opened beneath a chill wind.

As it runs east to Guyana, south to Brazil, west toward the Pacific, the highland canvas is cut by forested valleys, spiked in red cliffs, and splashed with torrents of water. But here at its northern edge, meadows of green and brown crested from low ridge to low ridge. Dozens of parrots, rounded heads tucked hard against the breeze, flew west, toward rain.

The savanna is set atop a geological foundation known as the Guyana Shield, born more than 2 billion years ago. Over hundreds of millions of years, layers of rugged red sandstone eroded, shaping the region's massive table mountains. Only 900 years ago (Or was it 9,000? The experts debate still.), the indigenous Pemon people began roaming the savanna as nomads. Only in recent centuries did outsiders, including Capuchin monks, follow, boating up the Rio Caroni.

Today, much of the savanna has been tamed -- by Route 10's two paved lanes, a string of power lines loping toward Brazil, and a modest military base -- and contained within the bounds of Canaima National Park, which draws tourists in search of table mountains and Angel Falls, the highest in the world. It is home to few, descendants of the Pemon who wandered so long.

Past the military base, where a helicopter settled after sweeping across the lowest of ridges, a rutted road ran west, toward Kavanayen, a town of stone houses and settled souls. The truck bucked and braced. After more than an hour, flashes of lightning captured the outline of a high, long "tepui," as the table mountains are called. At arm's length, clouds of fireflies sparked.

"When I was in Las Claritas, a spirit showed itself to me," said a quiet voice from the gathering darkness. "It was good . . . because it didn't do anything bad. It was like the wind. It came, moving tree branches, then left. Only once."

It was twilight the next evening and Gregorio Espaa, the boy behind the voice, sat with six friends at the edge of a dusty walkway. For 45 minutes they had sprinted and shouted across the village square, chasing a soccer ball that struck, occasionally and accidentally, the high, steel cross at the center of Kavanayen.

Their conversation would quickly accelerate toward banter about the Cartoon Network, Univision, MTV, and the other channels that arrive through the satellite dishes rising above the corrugated metal rooftops of the village. But it began darkly, as Gregorio, a steady 14-year-old with short-cropped hair, laced his leather shoes.

"Sometimes an evil spirit shows up among us, just like one of us, and then he disappears," Gregorio said. "And that spirit makes you sick."

That morning, as with every morning, this farming village, anchored by a stone mission, church, and schoolhouse, awoke to the toll of a bell and the slow stroll across the square to Mass, where hymns were accompanied by acoustic guitar.

An hour later, children wearing white, collared shirts stood in tidy rows before the school and lifted their voices in song:

Here in the savanna,
Here we the Indians,
With our feet on the soil,
And our face to the sun . . .

Beyond the village, a deep valley brimmed with white fog. Buzzards soared on columns of air. To the west, profiles of several tepui brightened with the rising sun.

Such rhythms, especially in the cold clarity of morning, beat on as if Kavanayen had sprung from the savanna itself. But it was only about a century ago that Capuchins, contracted by leaders of the young Republic of Venezuela to contain and "civilize" native peoples, built the mission on a desolate bluff. The monks solidified their stake in later years, with the school, a grid of streets and, most recently, dozens of homes made of heavy stone blocks.

Some traditional homes remain, and in one low, earthy dwelling, an evening fire roared and an old woman tended a pot of boiling yucca. Nearby, the soccer boys continued their sidewalk conversation.

"What do they make in the United States," one boy asked.

"Bombs," said another, rolling onto his side with laughter.

Two of the boys, Gregorio, and Danlly Lopez, 13, did most of the talking. Danlly kneeled in the back of the group, his silhouette a study in straight-backed confidence. Danlly said he hoped to become a soldier. Gregorio said he would like to be a lawyer, or a farmer. All seven boys confirmed their attendance at weekly Mass.

If the boys' souls were the gold the Capuchins sought, they had been claimed. Almost.

As night fell fast, Gregorio turned again to the savanna, describing the boys' forays into its solitude. They always travel in groups.

"If we go alone," Gregorio said, "the spirits will get us."

Diamonds in the rough

Father Eleazar Meyor drove the mission's pickup truck into the next day's shrouded dawn. He kept a punishing pace along the dirt track from Kavanayen back to Route 10, then turned south to Santa Elena de Uairn, a border city that now, with its Internet cafe, serves as base camp for Grand Savanna tourists.

Before reaching Santa Elena, Meyor pulled off the highway at the crest of a hill. A rocky, red gully descended toward stands of palm trees. Single stumps, relics of gradual harvesting, were scattered at the edges. Far to the east, a series of tepui trailed south toward Mount Roraima, a tabletop so vast it hosts its own ecosystem and marks the triple border point between Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil.

A string of power lines sliced the landscape stretching toward Mount Roraima. The lines, fiercely opposed by native communities, were designed to deliver cheaper energy from Venezuela's hydroelectric dams to Roraima, the Brazilian state isolated from the rest of its country by Amazon forest. Venezuelan leaders hoped such cooperation with the continent's largest nation would, among other things, ease their country's entry into Mercosur, a South American trade alliance. It did not. Even the creep of simpler technology -- such as the paving of the highway's two lanes across Roraima and on to Manaus, a teeming city of 1.5 million people -- has done little to bridge the distance between modern nations.

After one border station, where Brazilian guards checked yellow fever vaccination cards, then another, where they stacked confiscated cans of bootleg gasoline, the highway twisted and fell from the highlands through forested foothills into Brazil, where it is known as BR-174. More savanna opened, this time thirsty and pancake flat. Cattle grazed. Spikes of hardwood trees framed pastures. The two lanes split the horizon, a shimmering asphalt river running into Roraima and, eventually, its capital, Boa Vista.

Late on a Saturday afternoon, near the center of spoked streets that angle toward the banks of the Ro Branco, not far from a store that sells machetes for clearing land, all was quiet outside a colonial home with leafy courtyards and a sign, on the front, that read, "Brasil Family Big House."

Inside, downstairs, walls of a private gallery were hung with, among other items, four works by the painter Augusto Cardoso. One, in riots of bright color, portrayed a parrot and a fish fleeing a fire; another depicted naked native women lying in hammocks. Near the paintings stood a collection of goblets carved from Purple Heart wood and baskets woven by members of the Yanomami tribe, whose lands lay west of Boa Vista.

Amazonas Brasil, the owner of the house, idled in the gallery, seeming at once impressed and bored with his collection, culled from the people and land of Roraima, a diamond-shaped state covered by savanna in the north and rain forest in the south.

"What's interesting to me is to have a cultural expression of Roraima," Brasil said. "If I like it, I'll buy it."

Brasil's ancestors, too, had a penchant for acquisition. One grandfather colonized the territory, helping to clear it of indigenous tribes; the other founded Boa Vista, which became the territory's capital in 1943.

The native people, of course, are not all gone. Some have integrated into Boa Vista, which has surged in past decades from 30,000 to more than 200,000 residents. Others live on heavily regulated enclaves that cover nearly half the state. The Macuxi and several other tribes are still struggling with judges and political leaders to remove ranchers and farmers from their traditional lands along the border with Guyana.

Amid such battles, a man like Amazonas Brasil, a retired state finance official with a soft belly and fine, white beard, would hardly seem vulnerable.

But as Brasil settled on a corner couch, he recast the scene.

"There is a problem," he said. "There are three big areas in the world without people: Antarctica, the bottom of the oceans, and the Amazon. But the Amazon is the richest of all. It has a marvelous biodiversity, all the minerals in the world, and a lot of drinking water."

Brasil shared his theory: Powerful foreign interests want to lock up Roraima's deposits of gold and tin ore, copper and diamonds, so that they will be available in the future. Private cartels, he believes, secretly finance groups helping native tribes regain land and rights. The United States and other governments, Brasil said, pressure the Brazilian government to give land to the tribes. Then Roraima's riches, sitting unmolested by native stewards, will be ripe for exploitation in years to come.

"It is like a trick," Brasil said. "The land I own is my land. The land an Indian owns is owned by the federal government. In the future, these lands will be in the international interest."

Roraima's tribal leaders and their allies dismiss talk of international conspiracy. Such theories, they say, are just scare tactics used to keep them from regaining a share of the land.

But as Brasil made his case, he did not raise his voice, nor shake a fist. He slowly walked from the couch to his corner desk, where he drew two documents from a file. He held out one, a transparency charting mineral locations throughout Roraima; then the second, a map marking the boundaries of land protected for the tribes.

He laid the transparency across the map. The tribal borders enclosed nearly perfectly the pockets of Roraima's mineral wealth.

Deep into the Amazon

South of Boa Vista, BR-174's flat run across the savanna collided with the green wall of the northern reaches of the Amazon rain forest.

At the river port town of Caracarai, the highway rose above the Ro Branco and cut toward Manaus, the Amazon capital roughly 500 miles south.

The Ro Branco, already wide and strong, angled on its own course into the jungle, where, after 350 miles, its waters would merge with the Ro Negro, and later the Ro Amazonas.

Minutes before a Monday midnight, a long, flat boat motored from Caracarai into the river's current. The lights of the port dwindled to darkness.

Six hours downstream, the sun rose through a muggy prism. A second boat, a small junk, puttered faithfully, shuttling locals between the few meager villages perched on the Ro Branco's banks.

Near one settlement, a doctor told tales of crocodile bites, the worst of which come when the crocodile strips muscle from knee to ankle. Those who survive such wounds, like those who survive the jungle, become existentialists, expecting, and getting, little that they don't win for themselves.

As the boat pushed deeper into the Amazon, the savanna lingered, a kind of refuge, its expanse having offered relief, at least, from the crush of the jungle.

The next morning, the boat turned upstream on one tributary of the Ro Branco, then another. There, at a gentle bend in the Ro Amajau, it anchored in Canauini, a young settlement cut from the forest, where howler monkeys greet the break of day.

Beyond the dusty riverside flats of the village, past stands of brush and down a narrow footpath, ash caked a jagged swath of earth 50 yards wide, 300 long. Coals smoldered and flames leapt from the center of a tree fallen upon the ground.

Back by the riverbank, women gathered beneath a canopy and squeezed ground manioc to rid the root of its poison. In a neighboring hut with slatted walls and filtered light, a mother of 12 fought the pain of an infected bowel; three of her children lingered in malaria's dull embrace.

Canauini's first settlers had arrived four years before from a village deeper in the jungle, along a small river that ebbs to rock bottom during dry season. Twenty-one families, all related, had since joined them. Tethered canoes floated beside a bank of stumps and scrub, and a church, Assembly of God, rose behind stilted huts.

Beyond the church, near the scorched plot, a farmer's shack held a scattering of tools: a hoe, a hammer, a post-hole digger, and a broom. Scallions grew in pots on a table. Mango, papaya, sweet peppers, and passion fruit rose from nearby soil.

A man approached, his sloped shoulders covered in a worn Parmalat soccer jersey, number 9. The man, Luis Nazario Pereira, moved easily, comfortable on the land. Pereira said he had spent many of his 30 years in Manaus, cutting a living from the seething sawmills. Then he married, and, after his wife gave birth to their first child, came here to stake his own claim.

He had cleared the land simply: cut the small trees, then the big. Waited 60 days, then burnt it all. Cut the big ruins into pieces, then burnt it again.

Five years before, drought and runaway slash fires combined to burn millions of acres of savanna and rain forest in Roraima. Posters had since been hung in schoolrooms to warn of fire danger, in hopes that children, at least, would teach their parents not to burn fields.

Pereira fingered the leaves of a plant that would grow pineapples in six months, and a palm, which would bear fruit in six years, and a second man, old and slight, arrived. He carried an empty white sack and offered a wide, gummy smile.

Pereira followed this man, Basilio Almeida, his father-in-law, across the charred field and into the high stand of forest. A flock of birds chattered above. A nut fell to the leaf-covered floor.

The men climbed aboard two wooden canoes and paddled beneath low branches into a still creek. It opened onto a cove, a backwater of the Ro Amajau.

Almeida stopped to check a net and withdrew one silver fish, the size of a hand. Then the two men angled their canoes onto the river, tracing a circular route back to Canauini. A stingray, caught on a trap line, floated on the surface, alive but barely.

Almeida, at 70 a father of 21 children, crouched tight, his paddle knifing into the graying flow. He sought someone to watch over his people, someone to guard this homestead carved from the tangle of jungle.

"Luis is my son-in-law. But I see him as a son. My son," Almeida said. "He is a little short, but he works hard. He has two kids, but they are never sick, because he provides for them."

An hour later, after night had fallen, Almeida donned pressed trousers, a plaid shirt, and loafers and walked alone toward the Assembly of God church.

The huts of the village huddled in weak, shaking light. In one home, a child wailed as a hand rose and fell and, to the cadence of a shouting adult, delivered blows.

Almeida stepped into the one-room chapel, where ceiling fans turned beneath a tin roof and unshuttered windows invited the croaks and calls of night. A crowd of more than 20, some women, most children, took seats on hard pews. A girl in a polka-dot dress drifted to sleep and, guided by the gentle arms of an adult, slumped to the concrete floor.

Arao, a timid 11-year-old boy, rose to lead a song.

Almeida reached into the air and joined others in their shout: "Glory to God!"

The preacher, a stocky man with a tightly-knotted tie, took to the pulpit and talked of fish and fruit and the richness of the earth. God, the preacher said, was a good farmer.

"Glory to God!"

The preacher criticized outsiders, those who lectured against slash-burning, who dared to tell these people how to live in this place. He promised that Armageddon was on its way, that one day all this land would burn.

"Glory to God!"

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