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The story goes that it all began in January 1979. Serra Pelada was, in addition to a small town, a gigantic gold mine in Brazil 430 kilometers south of the mouth of the Amazon River. In the late 1970s, a local boy stumbled upon a small six gram gold token hidden in a local river.

In a very short time, that discovery became one of the most notorious, savage and violent open-air gold mining digs in human history. A few weeks after the young man’s encounter with the piece, word spread that there was gold in a rural area by the lake in Pará, Brazil, and that the site would be open to the public for mining. And then there was no going back. .

A week later, the area was inundated with tens of thousands of potential prospectors hoping to cash in on the discovery and build a better future for their families. They came from all over Brazil hoping to find work in the mine. Workers earning between 2 and 3 dollars a day, a contract where they had to climb hundreds of meters of ladders and ropes to reach the area where the plots to dig by hand began.

However, they found themselves in a veritable bottomless pit, dripping with mud and sweat with increasingly long and strenuous work days, carrying bags of up to a hundred kilos of sediment and earth up half-collapsed stairs to sift through the rubble and, with a little luck, discovering something that was similar to the shining stone.

At first, the only way to get to this remote area was by plane or on foot. Miners typically paid exorbitant prices for taxis to take them from the nearest town to the end of a dirt road. From there, they had to walk the remaining distance, almost 20 kilometers to the site.

And yes, huge gold nuggets were discovered early on, with the largest weighing almost 7 kilograms, about $100,000 at the market price of the early 1980s. Of course, the mine was also known for its terrible conditions and violence, and the city that grew up next to it became infamous for the murder and doom of its inhabitants.

In fact, not all who ventured into the mine found their way back, and those who did risk having both their wealth and their lives taken from them due to the chaos and murder that had engulfed the rural town.

The famous Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado traveled to the Serra Pelada mines when he found out what was happening there. Salgado took some of the most disturbing and shocking images that are remembered, with the workers crowded together, on the verge of madness and chaos in search of gold that very few could find. When he arrived in the area, the photographer told the media:

“All my hair stood on end. The pyramids, the history of humanity that we had managed to unfold. I had traveled to many places, none like this. Swept by the winds that carried the hint of fortune, men came to the gold mine. No one was taken by force, but once they arrived, everyone became a slave to the dream of gold and the need to stay alive. Once inside, it became impossible to leave.”

Anyone who arrived there for the first time could confirm an extraordinary and tormented vision of the human animal: thousands of men sculpted by mud and dreams. All that could be heard were quiet murmurs and shouts, the scrape of blades powered by human hands, not a hint of machinery. It was the sound of gold echoing through the soul of his pursuers.

There came a time of such exhaustion for many, especially those who found nothing, that they thought their best option was to dig progressively deeper. The problem was that the deeper their holes, the more dangerous the work area became, as the flimsy clay walls that formed between neighboring plots often fell on the bulldozers, burying them with their gold underneath.

The discovery of gold in Serra Pelada was also unlike any other area on the planet. There was evidence that the gold was enriched near the surface by the circulation of rainwater, something that is unique to Amazonian gold deposits. For that reason, the process of supergene enrichment is still not fully explained.

And while on earth they were literally dying for gold, the mining town lived on women and alcohol, along with an ever-increasing murder rate, 60 to 80 unsolved deaths per month.

Several months after the discovery of gold, the Brazilian army took over the operations to prevent the exploitation of the workers and the conflict between the miners and the owners. The government agreed to buy all the gold found. Officially, just under 45 tons of gold were identified, but it is estimated that up to 90% of everything found was smuggled out. It is believed that there are still between 20 and 50 tons left in the area.

Photos of Sebastiao Salgado

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