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The story of Serra Pelada, a giant gold mine in Brazil that turned into hell

“Extraordinary and tormented vision of the human being: thousands of men sculpted by mud and dreams.”

Seen from afar, all the people concentrated on its sandy and reddish grounds look like little ants working at the same time. It is very reminiscent of that walled and lawless dystopia called Kowloon, but much worse. We are talking about Serra Pelada, a place where gold turned into a kind of “hell on Earth”.

The history of Serra Pelada dates back to 1979 and begins with a boy whose luck led him to find a piece of gold of approximately six grams hidden in a river. Apparently the small Brazilian town had something that made it very attractive: a gigantic gold mine located about 430km south of the mouth of the mighty Amazon River.

The word soon spread of the little boy’s finding. His discovery led to one of the wildest and most violent gold mining excavations in all of history, as a rumor began to spread that there was more gold in a rural area near the lake in Pará. The site was to be open to the public, which meant that anyone could go exploring the bowels of the river in search of gold. After that, there was no going back.

In a few weeks the place was crowded with seekers who thought to get the most out of Serra Pelada and guarantee a livelihood and a better future for their families. The work was not easy, but men came from all over Brazil. They earned between 2 and 3 dollars a day and had to dig the mine plots by hand, but not before having to go down and climb again hundreds of meters of ladders and ropes.

A true bottomless pit

All those who went to Serra Pelada with the idea of finding gold easily found themselves in a veritable abyss full of mud and with strenuous and increasingly long hours of work. The miners had to carry heavy bags with up to 100 kilos of sediment with them down wooden stairs that were placed on top of the rubble in order to get around them. If they were lucky, there would be some shiny pebble among all the mud.

Getting there was not easy at first. As it was a remote area, it was only accessible by plane or on foot. The miners had to pay large sums of money to taxi drivers who would take them to a dirt road so, from there, they would walk almost 20 kilometers to get to Serra Pelada.

Excessive violence

At first they managed to find large pieces of gold. On one occasion, the miners found one weighing almost 7 kilograms, which was worth about 100,000 dollars at the exchange rate in the early 1980s market. But, beyond the valuable stones, the Serra Pelada lands were full of violence. The city that rose to its surroundings became known for its murders and the low quality of life provided to its inhabitants.

Of many miners who ventured to Serra Pelada, nothing was ever heard from again. Those who dared to seek fortune in its muddy sands risked the violence surrounding the rural town taking their wealth and even their lives. Murders were the order of the day.

A famous Brazilian, Sebastião Salgado, decided to travel to the Serra Pelada mines to portray what was happening there. On his tour he managed to take some of the most shocking images ever recorded on this site: overcrowded, dirty workers, tired and involved in the chaos of finding gold, which very few actually managed.

“My hair stood on end ”, was the first thing Salgado said about the place where the development that humanity had experienced seemed to have slowed down. He also commented that although he had traveled to many places during his career, he never saw one like the chaotic Serra Pelada. According to the photographer, “no one was taken away by force, but once they arrived, they all became slaves to the dream of gold and the need to stay alive. He assured that once he was inside, it was impossible to leave.

Salgado said that whoever came to the mine could find an “extraordinary and tormented vision of the human being: thousands of men sculpted by mud and dreams.” There were no words, but murmurs and the sound of picks and shovels. Everything was done by the tired hands of the miners, there were no machinery, only the dream of finding gold.

Exhausting effort

Frustration and exhaustion showed on the faces of the workers, who, finding nothing, thought that the best option was to dig deeper. The problem with that idea was that as its holes deepened, it also increased the danger of the mine, as its fragile clay walls collapsed, burying the bulldozers and their gold in its depths.

Those who managed to fill their sacks with sediment still had another arduous task ahead of them before they knew if some bright nugget would peek out of the ground: scaling the mine walls with the load of mud on their shoulders up flimsy wooden ladders and hundreds of ropes.

The discovery of gold in the Serra Pelada was not the same as in other areas of the planet. This gold deposit was enriched near the surface as a result of the circulation of rainwater. These deposits, exclusive to the entire vast area of the Amazon, are known as “supergenic enrichment”, which is why the case of Serra Pelada has not yet been fully explained.

Although there are several hypotheses, one of them is that the rainwater came into contact with the decomposing organic matter of the Amazon rainforest, acquiring acidity. That acidic water, in turn, becomes a kind of ionic network that attracts gold; that is, it can bind to it and be transported by molecules that penetrate the soil and accumulate to form a gold-enriched soil. One of the largest gold stones has been found in this dangerous area.

And while the miners were searching the land for gold nuggets, the town that rose around them was rife with women, alcohol and high murder rates. In its pick of activitity, the town saw 60 to 80 murders a month, all of which were unpunished.

Months after the Serra Pelada gold rush began, the Brazilian Army took over the area and took over operations. The objective was to avoid the exploitation of workers and conflicts between miners and owners. The government of the South American country offered to buy the collected gold, which, officially, was just under 45 tons. But it is estimated that 90% of the gold found in this kilometer-long hole was smuggled.

At present, Serra Pelada is still considered a dangerous area, due to the high levels of contamination that remained as a result of mining operations. Today in this desolate place the hell that actually sparked the search for gold does not appear to have been unleashed.

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