Magazine article New Internationalist

A Plague of Heroes: The Gold Rush to Serra Pelada in the Early 1980s Created Biblical Scenes in a Gigantic Pit Gouged out by Hand, and Brought to the Surface the Violent Conflicts in Brazilian Amazonia (Photographs)

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Plague of Heroes: The Gold Rush to Serra Pelada in the Early 1980s Created Biblical Scenes in a Gigantic Pit Gouged out by Hand, and Brought to the Surface the Violent Conflicts in Brazilian Amazonia (Photographs)

Article excerpt

ONE day in 1980 a cowhand found a gold nugget in a stream. He took it for sale in a nearby town. Within two weeks 10,000 garimpeiros -- prospectors -- had descended upon the place that became known as Serra Pelada, 'Bald Mountain'. Within a year there were 50,000 of them digging a gigantic hole without machines of any kind. Just a few years previously the land had been covered by the tropical rainforest of the eastern Amazon. But the forest had been breached by roads and a railway to the huge Carajas mining project. Cattle ranchers had moved in behind them, burning and clearing the forest to form ranches the size of small countries.

You cannot say there is dignity in the labour of these men. They appear like beasts of burden, insects even, set in a fearful Gothic tableau of degradation. An apprehension of violence and betrayal lingers in their glances.

But there is also an almost miraculous capacity for order in the midst of chaos. Many of them came from the same villages and families in the impoverished North - East, where a feudal system of land ownership made them destitute. Intricate agreements regulated the way tiny individual claims could be worked and how the gold was smuggled thousands of miles across Brazil into Uruguay to the south. …

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