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A New and Improved Gold Rush

One decade after the first gold rush, the mob is back
again in Serra Pelada. People are coming daily by the truckloads from all
over Brazil. Everybody likes to tell the rag-to-riches story of Índio,
a man who arrived flat broke in town and left a millionaire in the previous
gold rush. For every Índio, however, there are thousands who go back worse
off than when they come in.

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 “ŕ
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,
Joăo 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 Sebastiăo 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 Promoçăo 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 Maracană 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.

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