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‘Broken Spectre’: The Terrible Beauty of Richard Mosse’s Portrait of the Amazon

The Amazon can be a dangerous place — and was especially so during the administration of the former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, when regulations safeguarding the environment were loosened, or not enforced. One recent study estimated that 99 percent of deforestation in the Amazon is illegal, much of it connected to organized crime. The remote settlements that have sprung up near gold mines are lawless, violent places, inhabited mainly by young miners who are paid in gold and supplied with drugs by cartels.

One day, in June 2021, Mosse read reports of a skirmish between Indigenous Yanomami villagers and garimperos, or illegal gold miners. The miners brought with them diseases, including malaria, which was sickening the villagers’ children. Young Yanomami women were coerced into prostitution, bringing more disease. The gold mining process involves the use of mercury, traces of which get washed into the river, harming the wildlife and entering the villagers’ food supply.

“They used to live in paradise,” Mosse said. “All of a sudden they’re living in hell.”

Mosse read about how the villagers fastened a wire across the river, blocking a boat loaded with valuable diesel on its way to the garimpero settlement. They seized the diesel and burned it. The garimperos fired back, and several villagers were killed. That night and many nights later, garimperos (or the cartels protecting them) fired automatic weapons into the villagers’ huts.

Mosse hurriedly booked flights to Boa Vista, in northern Brazil. From there, he chartered a Cessna aircraft to take him to the village. Traveling with him were his “fixer-translator” and the Yanomami’s regional leader, Júnior Hekurari Yanomami.

In the most memorable and impactful scene of the film, one of the villagers, a woman named Adneia, directly addresses the camera. At first, her fury is aimed at the Brazilian president: “Bolsonaro, you parasite. You keep sending the gold miners to our land. It’s sickening. It’s disgusting, you foul man.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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