Brazilian creators on TikTok and YouTube are documenting a modern-day gold rush. Among them is Garimpeiro Solitário, who has become somewhat of a mining influencer. His point-of-view (POV) videos show him using metal detectors and going river-diving for gold, giving viewers a glimpse into the garimpeiro (prospector) lifestyle. Several are chock-full of close-ups of rubies, garnets, and gold. In one post, the unnamed creator claims he once earned roughly $40,000 in just three weeks of mining — the Brazilian monthly wage is $560. 

“I’m making more than $5,000 a day in nature,” he says in the YouTube video. “The amount of gold in these rivers is still unknown. To get it, you need to be brave.” 

Garimpeiro Solitário launched his YouTube channel in 2015, and now has over 200,000 subscribers. But it’s his TikTok account, launched years later in June 2021, that has quickly blown up, recently surpassing 600,000 followers. The most popular of his POV videos on TikTok has over 10.6 million views.

Garimpeiro Solitário is just one account in a much larger movement of miners turning into social media creators in Brazil. Mostly concentrated on YouTube, and more recently TikTok, there are dozens of profiles linked to the term “garimpeiro,” some of which have gained hundreds of thousands of followers.

What may not be obvious to viewers is that many of these creators are illegally digging for gold on protected indigenous land, using mining machinery that, in some cases, has largely been outlawed by the Brazilian government. According to the country’s constitution, gold mining by garimpeiros can only be authorized by the federal government, and extracting it in protected areas — or without permission — is a crime.

By opening a window into their daily lives, these illegal mining creators invite their followers to join the gold rush, with promises of adventure and riches far beyond the average Brazilian’s pay. The accounts are not only an extra source of revenue for the creators, but also provide safe havens for illegal miners to get their message out. Rest of World found at least three channels that have launched an e-commerce shop to sell mining equipment directly to new recruits. In doing so, the accounts encourage illegal exploitation of the protected lands, including those of the Yanomami people and other indigenous communities across Brazil, according to environmental experts and social media researchers. 

Rest of World reached out to several popular mining creators for comment. Most did not answer, while one creator stopped responding after initially agreeing to an interview.

After Rest of World sent links for Garimpeiro Solitário’s account to TikTok, his account seemingly was suspended or removed. The company, however, did not provide comment nor did it seem to take action on any other accounts shared that potentially violate community guidelines.

495% The increase in mining activities on indigenous land in the Amazon between 2010 and 2020.

MapBiomas Brasil

Mining creator channels date back to around 2015 on YouTube, around the time illegal mining began to increase in areas like the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, where the land destroyed by mining has grown by more than 3,000% in half a decade. Under the policies of former president Jair Bolsonaro — who entered office in 2019 and advocated for mining in areas that had previously been inaccessible — settlements grew, as did the social media footprint of mining creators. TikTok only accelerated the rise of these accounts.

Their social-media followings have opened up opportunities for mining creators to monetize their content. Detectorismo Paraná Brasil, and at least two other accounts, have launched an e-commerce shop selling mining equipment directly to viewers who are novice miners. Alongside specialized gloves and spades, the most expensive products for sale in these stores are metal detectors, selling for as much as $2,400 each.

Certain accounts even encourage miners to cross into the Amazon regions of neighboring countries in their hunt for rare minerals. Videos include step-by-step guides to successful border crossings. This content has contributed to the growing presence of Brazilian mining settlements in Suriname, Colombia, and Venezuela, according to Luiz Jardim, a professor of geography at Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF).

Some creators, such as Garimpeiro Solitário, have been criticized for promising unrealistic earnings to new miners. Garimpo Brasil, another popular mining creator, has routinely accused Solitário of lying about his income. In one clip on YouTube, he claims that a gold bar featured on Solitário’s channel can be bought on AliExpress, the Alibaba Group’s online retail service, for $2.

“What we detected during field work is that there is a tendency for prospectors to inflate their earnings,” Carolina Grottera, an economics professor at UFF, told Rest of World. Grottera helped lead, along with Jardim, a project about illegal mines in Tapajós Basin, in the Brazilian Amazon. 

“I think that this helps a lot to attract more people to the activity, under the false expectation of getting rich through mining,” she said.

An aerial photo of a mining camps in a jungle in Brazil.
Alan Chaves/AFP/Getty Images

The promised bonanza has continued to rack up views for Garimpeiro Solitário and other creators’ channels. But what these creators and their followers see as a guide to entering the world of prospecting can often be a gateway into encroachment on other people’s lands. Between 2010 and 2020, indigenous land in the Amazon taken up by mining grew 495%, according to MapBiomas Brasil, a project analyzing the region through satellite imagery. In 2020, the territories of small-scale mines in the Amazon surpassed those of industrial mines.

Garimpodeouro2, a TikTok account with 16,000 followers, hosts videos of yellow Cat excavators clearing dense forest and carving into mineral-rich soil. Other videos on the account show miners pumping water and other liquids into mining pits. Occasionally, Garimpodeouro2 uploads clips filmed from the cockpits of small charter planes to capture an expanse of green forest, littered with brown and gray excavation sites.

The use of banned chemicals and heavy machinery like excavators contributes to deforestation and affects the region’s rivers, according to Jardim. “They use mercury that goes to soil and to the water,” he said. Rest of World found at least one video, by YouTube creator Garimpo Brasil, that showed viewers how to use mercury. When mercury is used in mining, it can interact with the surrounding environment and transform into a neurotoxin that adversely affects the central nervous system. 

Several accounts purportedly show the aftermath of raids by the Brazilian federal police. “Those agents committed terrorism against ordinary people who just want to earn their livelihood,” says the off-screen voice of the unnamed creator behind Garimpodeouro2, as fire consumes an excavator. “Why is there so much persecution of small miners? Why don’t we have a right to access our natural resources?”

On his YouTube channel, miner Fabio Garimpo Junior posts similar videos of charred campsites and equipment. “Police came here, and then burned our campsite and motors. We are okay, and just waiting for them to go out to resume our operations,” he says to the camera, before naming other mining sites he suspects federal agents are targeting.

A screenshot from Youtube showing illegal mining activities in the Brazilian Amazon.

These dramatic videos are meant to paint miners as victims of law enforcement, and push back against what they call unfair portrayals by the media. Some are also a vehicle for hateful speech against indigenous communities. “Those indigenous [people] are bandits, thieves. Indigenous are a race of nasty people,” said Fabio Garimpo Junior in another video. The video has since been removed, though he continues to be active on his YouTube channel.

Many creators seem to have made it clear they have little concern for the harm mining has caused to the environment or to indigenous communities. Instead, they often criticize national media that focus on these harms. One video by Fabio Garimpo Junior is titled, “Garimpo is the life. We pay our bills and make leftists crazy with anger.”

This anti-media stance from miner communities has, in turn, led to a boom in self-published outlets online in Brazil, including WhatsApp “news” broadcasts for miners and Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members. In these channels, along with posts on job openings, it’s also possible to find chemical products available for sale.

The rise of mining creators is part of this media trend, with many accounts defending the right of miners to dig, and criticizing intervention by law enforcement. Under many of Garimpodeouro2’s videos, for example, is the hashtag: “A prospector is not a bandit, but a worker.”

Some of the content posted by popular mining creators arguably violates both YouTube and TikTok’s policies. YouTube’s rules on “instructional theft or cheating” say the company will take down videos that are “showing viewers how to steal tangible goods or promoting dishonest behavior,” which could include videos on how to cross borders and extract gold protected by the Brazilian government. TikTok’s community guidelines include several restrictions related to criminal activity — the platform claims it will remove content that provides instructions on committing crimes that result in harm, and content about soliciting unlawfully acquired goods. 

Both Garimpeiro Solitário, Garimpo Brasil, and Detectorismo Paraná Brasil are verified by YouTube. “There is a legitimization from social media platforms when they verify an account,” Marina Meira, head of research for digital rights nonprofit Data Privacy Brasil, told Rest of World. She said research shows that content posted to verified accounts circulates more widely on most social media platforms.

YouTube and TikTok did not respond to questions about the Brazilian mining content hosted on their platforms. 

Moderation of this content requires an awareness of local laws, including the mining restrictions on indigenous land, according to Bruna Martins dos Santos, an independent researcher on platform governance and a member of digital rights organization Coalizão Direitos na Rede. “The fact that [illegal mining influencers] continue to be verified and are not subject to stronger moderation does confirm the fact that sometimes, these platforms don’t really take care about local contexts,” she said.