Brazil’s Emeralds

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Research and field work focused on case studies of the three regions that make the strongest material and labor contributions to emerald mining in Brazil; Carnaiba and Socoto of the Pindobacu/Camp Formoso Region in the state of Bahia, Nova Era and Itabira of the Itabira Region in the state of Minas Gerais, and Campos Verdes and Santa Terezinha in the state of Goias produce more than 95% of Brazilian emeralds and virtually all of the best quality emeralds of the nation.  The overarching purpose of the investigation was to illuminate the dynamics of emerald production in Brazil with the hope that the emerald economy can eventually play a more important role in local development.

Socio-Economic Conditions
In all three regions, most of the good quality gems are exported before much value is added to them.  Only rudimentary markets exist locally to commercialize gems and very little tax is paid to regional governments on gem production.  The major portion of emerald mining is done on a small-scale through informal production methods like part-time laborers, sale and donation of waste schist to be washed by families and travelers, “garimpeiros” (Brazilian word for small, independent miners who often work only for themselves) and cooperatives employing workers through informal contracts.  Almost all of the people employed to work in the actual mines are men, typically around 25-30 years of age with a low level of education.  The populations of mining communities fluctuate seasonally and with unpredictable economic booms and busts.  In boom times, a population may rise rapidly creating a higher demand for municipal services.  However, investment in public services and formalization of mining operations is rare in part because the mining workforce is so mobile that the population can decline just as rapidly as it rose with news of a boom elsewhere.  There is no incentive for governments to invest in emerald production since it does not generate revenue locally.  Emerald production does not appear to significantly improve quality of life at the local scale. 

Small Emerald Mine Development, Function and Risks
Emerald discovery in Brazil is done the old fashioned way: by finding rough gems on the soil surface of pocket by chance.  After discovery, the process of mining begins by digging an open pit that is gradually enlarged as emeralds are removed.  Risks of landslides and environmental degradation due to erosion and deforestation increase with the size of the pit.  Eventually, miners dig tunnels beneath the pit to search for elusive emeralds.  The legal method of tunneling requires technical, geological surveys to determine the position of the emerald vein.  The more common, intuitive method used by garimpeiros and small operations is to follow the layer between the overlying schist and the underlying bedrock granite.  Tunnels dug in this way are rudimentary and often unstable.  No studies are available on the most efficient and safe ways to tunnel.  A mixture of schist, soil, granite and other rocks is removed from tunnels and pits for washing so that the emeralds can be seen and removed.  Though this process is often done by machines in mines run by large companies, in small mines it is generally done by hand on site or sold to community members and outsiders for washing when probability of finding gems is low.  One of the greatest barriers to adding more value to gems before they leave the hands of artisanal and small miners is the difficulty and lack of capacity to assess the value of rough emeralds.  Emeralds are notoriously difficult to value before they are cut because of the nature of their impurities.  Small miners usually receive only low prices for their gems because they have little knowledge and power in the market.

Environmental Aspects of Small Emerald Mines
Soil erosion, deforestation, and pollution of water and soil often occur as a result of small-scale emerald mining.  These impacts are relatively simple, easy to control, and non-toxic.  Deforestation results from clearing land to mine; erosion results from abandoned mining pits; and pollution is due mainly to washing schist near streams and scattering debris from the schist into soils.   Implementation of policies to control these problems has had patchy success for a variety of reasons, including the limited capacity of the mining agency (DNPM), the number of informal (unregistered) mines, pressure from unionized garimpeiros, lack of capital in the small mines, and a lack of cohesion in gem mining policies between different states.  As of 2005, state environmental agencies have begun to crack down on enforcing clean-up policies.  The creation of a series of common washing sites for schist buyers in Campos Verdes indicates that municipal government agencies are making some investments toward reducing pollution due to emerald production.  An environmental NGO in Campos Verdes has become involved involved in environmental education for small miners and others in the emerald chain.

Concluding Recommendations
Small-scale and artisanal emerald mining is widespread in some of the poorest regions of Brazil and the potential for economic and social development connected to this industry is high.  With attention to formalization, organization and learning, there is room to boost job creation, skill building, health conditions, municipal services, and business growth in mining regions while preventing long-term environmental degradation.  The following recommendations constitute a starting place from which to potentially improve impacts of emerald production on local development:

  • Improve conditions for partnership between small mine owners and investors
  • Increase public benefits from emerald production (taxes) for local governments in mining regions
  • Formalize mine labor contracts, legalize the profession of garimpeiro, and strengthen mine labor unions
  • Provide incentives for voluntary amelioration of environmental degradation due to emerald production
  • Create opportunities to add value to emeralds before they leave mining regions


Watch The Emerald City on Google Video.

Focusing on the mining town of Campos Verde, Brazil, this short film highlights the costs and benefits of emerald mining and marketing.  While there are negative environmental impacts from the mines, modernization and research have revealed positive practices and a cascade of sustainable development effects from the emerald business in Campos Verde and other market towns. Filmed by Saleem Ali in conjunction with his attendance at the 5th Annual General Meeting of Communities and Small-Scale Mining (CASM), a multi-donor technical assistance facility that aims to reduce poverty and improve quality of life in mining communities, the film depicts the complexity of environmental and social issues involved in gemstone mining and proffers ideas on how to establish sustainable livelihoods for rural communities in Brazil.

For more resources on Brazil, please visit the Links page.

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