Every day, hundreds of men -- and some women -- cover the dusty pot-holed streets of this little god-forsaken town some 400 miles south of Belém do Pará. Self proclaimed would-be garimpeiros like 49 year old José Roberto Parello, who has a Law degree, have come to Serra Pelada to seek riches from the soil, just like thousands had come one decade before for the same reason.
"I have gold in my blood," says Parello. "I need it to survive." No wonder. Expert sources have predicted that just some 1,200 feet beneath the surface lies the second largest gold vein in the world, calculated at about 150 tons. This is more than triple the amount that had been excavated years before at the same site, some 40 tons or so.
The new gold rush has been triggered by a recent announcement by Companhia Vale do Rio Doce -- a Rio based enterprise -- that a "super-vein" had been discovered some 650 feet below the surface of the older Serra Pelada mine. What followed next was pandemonium and a virtual stampede.
The now impoverished town of Serra Pelada had seen this type of invasion before: in the 80's, an army of over 80,000 people took over 120 foot hill and replaced it with a 300 foot deep hole.
But that is only part of the story. Most of the hundreds of garimpeiros that have arrived so far are free-lancers, fortune seekers out on their own. Most believe that they have a right to stake their claims "à la 1849" California gold rush. They're wrong: Vale de Rio Doce's financial muscle is. And confrontation is already abounds. Just recently over 500 aspiring garimpeiros blocked Serra Pelada's dusty main road for over 24 hours, demanding that the company be kept out; military police officers were called in to quell the outbreak, and a "resistance movement" was immediately formed.
Although probing equipment has been placed, it will be the Brazilian courts which will have the final say in the matter, particularly on whether or not Rio Doce -- a state-run enterprise -- should be privatized.
Last February, Roberto Carosi, the legal representative for the Sindicato dos Garimpeiros (Mining Prospector' s Union) and who himself had previously worked for the Rio Doce consortium, filed court documents challenging Rio Doce's claim to the prospecting enterprise. According to Carosi, these rights had been granted in 1988, under article 174 of the Constitution, to a group called Mista de Garimpeiros de Serra Pelada.
On the other hand, the Coordinating Superintendent for Vale do Rio Doce, João Lima Teixeira states that the legal title belongs to the firm: "It was granted by the Ministry of Mines and Energy in 1974," he says. The town is within the municipality of Curionopólis, the name having derived from a congressman named Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura nicknamed "major Curió" and who governed the region with an iron hand. This latest episode brings the town of Serra Pelada full circle from where it was just 10 years ago, when the exploitation of the gold mine peaked.
Meanwhile, the legal hassles continue. A judge within the local jurisdiction sided with the Rio Doce consortium, and the Attorney for the garimpeiros has appealed to the Appeals Court in Belém, advancing that it would go to the Supreme Court if need be. In fact, Rio Doce has chosen to take the back door as well, by purchasing all the surrounding land near the mine site -- some 7,000 hectares -- and closing the access,
"They are trying to kill us by asphyxiation," says Fernando Marcolino, president of the Sindicato dos Garimpeiros. The land purchase was carried out by Companhia de Promoção Agrícola, which, according to Marcolino is nothing more than a front company controlled by Rio Doce.
The men who live and have passed through Serra Pelada are rough and tough; but does that make the women any more fragile? Women like Maria dos Santos and Ana Maria de Souza Castro are as tough as any man. Having migrated to Serra Pelada from Piauí during the heyday of the 80's in a truck, she found out that women were forbidden in the camp, and although her husband had been working in the mines, the Brazilian military had kept a tight lid on access to the site, purportedly for security reasons. She was only able to stay three days then.
Says Ana Maria, "When I was able to get off the truck, I looked around for my husband and could not identify him from amongst all those men covered in mud." It was only in 1985 that Ana was able to move into town. "Entry of the women was permitted, but not for cachaça (sugar cane liquor)," she adds.
Part of the opening was due to the steps taken by a woman named Jacinta, who worked clandestinely as a garimpeira. Wanting to "get legal" she approached the military authorities wishing to register. Upon being told that "as a woman" she couldn't, she requested to see the precise orders to that effect. No one had any idea where they were, or even if they truly existed. After that, it was a flood of females.
Even then, women were never annoyed by anyone. "The unwritten law was that everyone there -- even women were just like any other guy until second notice", adds Ana Maria.
In spite of all the wealth that ran through the hands of thousands of mine workers and the government, the 40 tons of gold extracted from Serra Pelada did not leave any permanent local wealth. The huge hole, the equivalent size of two Maracanã Stadiums (a soccer stadium in Rio with room for 200,000 people) put together, is now a small lagoon. No improvement to the infrastructure was ever carried out either. The town lacks water and light, and most homes are made of simple wood frames.
Serra Pelada, in spite of its brief fame, remains an example of a more primitive Brazil. "No one should try to stampede back over here," says Marcolino. "We lack the infrastructure to receive so many people. But garimpeiros from all over the country continue to arrive.
Says Luis Gonzaga, ex-garimpeiro who now owns a local hotel; "People will kill or die for that gold." Gonzaga is also under fear. Having arrived in 1984 and later remaining there, he lodged most of the government technicians assigned to the site. The garimpeiros have harassed him since.
But common sense is not very common here. Cases like that of José Marino dos Santos, who arrived dirt-poor and left a millionaire, have prompted many to have delusions of attaining unfounded wealth. José, also known as Índio, was able to exploit almost a ton of gold. He eventually lost it all in a maddening rampage of spending, having on one occasion rented a Boeing jet, just to visit a girlfriend in Rio.
There is another Serra Pelada too. Those are the locals who have more faith in God than in the mines. And that's the reason why the local Assembly of God and the Catholic Church are always full.