issue 239 - January 1993
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 Amazônia.
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 Carajás 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.
Then the gold of Serra Pelada ran out. By the end of the decade the mine was abandoned. More gold was found, much deeper into the Amazon rainforest, on the territory of the Yanomami Indians. The invasion of their lands and the spread of diseases against which the Yanomami had no resistance became a focus of international concern, with the garimpeiros playing the villains.
To the defenders of the environment and the indigenous peoples the garimpeiros are a plague. To those who want to see the Amazon 'tamed' they are pioneer heroes. To the mining companies they are shock troops, clearing the gold fields of inconveniences such as Indians. To themselves they are just workers, hoping to strike it lucky and make it back to the land they have lost.
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