Filthy lucre;The big picture

15th October 1999 at 01:00
(Photograph) - It was a gold rush. One day in the early 1980s a farmer in the north of Brazil found a gold nugget and took it to market. Two weeks later, thousands of garimpeiros (prospectors) began to excavate the world's largest open-cast mine in Serra Pelada, deep in the Amazon jungle.

Conditions were appalling. The first to arrive were given state concessions, usually to about 20 square metres of earth, and employed teams of workers, who were only allowed to dig downwards in the unstable soil. Each sackful, weighing 25 to 50 kilograms, had to be carried more than 430 metres over rickety ladders to the surface. There the owners inspected the spoil. With three to dig and six to carry, the men slaved for 15 pence a sack. If gold was found, the digging teams took a "lucky dip" out of the piles of soil.

While one worker unearthed a nugget the size of a cabbage, many were not so fortunate. Hundreds were injured in the mud or fell sick with malaria and jungle fevers; or were killed in disputes or slaughtered in pitched battles between workers and the guards who policed the mine. The human rights abuses became so bad that Serra Pelada is now closed, a ghostly memorial to gold fever.

In 1996 more gold was discovered in the area. Although the seam lay too deep to dig by hand, thousands more garimpeiros rushed to the depths of the jungle. Civil unrest has boiled over among prospectors who accuse the government of selling out to mineral companies. The state, in turn, according to Amnesty International, has savagely repressed dissent. In the mines, life is cheap. Only the gold is precious.

Photograph by Mirella Ricciardi


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