In the heart of the Amazon, a child’s discovery of a golden nugget sparked a gold rush that would turn Serra Pelada into the largest open-air gold mine in the world, but also a place of unfathomable violence and despair.
Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, 430 kilometers (270 mi) south of the mouth of the Amazon River, lies a place of extraordinary wealth and unimaginable suffering – Serra Pelada. In 1979, the innocent find of a small gold nugget by a local child unleashed a frenzied gold rush that would change the landscape forever. Tens of thousands of prospectors flocked to the site, turning it into the largest open-air gold mine in history. Yet, behind the glimmering facade of gold lay a world of appalling conditions, violence, and desperation that engulfed the miners and the town that grew beside the mine.
The Feverish Gold Rush Begins
Word of the gold nugget spread like wildfire, and within days, a gold rush descended upon Serra Pelada. The rush was fueled by the discovery of enormous gold nuggets, with some weighing up to 6.8 kilograms (15 lb), fetching a staggering sum of $108,000 at the 1980 market price (now $310,173 in 2016). As the riches beckoned, so did the hordes of prospectors, venturing to this remote land in search of their fortunes.
A Perilous Journey to Riches
Getting to the remote Serra Pelada site was no easy feat. At first, only planes or a long trek on foot could take the miners there. Many would pay exorbitant prices to be driven by taxis to the end of a dirt track and then walk the remaining 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) to the mine. The journey was dangerous and treacherous, but the allure of striking it rich overpowered any fear.
The Madness and Chaos Unleashed
At the peak of the gold rush, Serra Pelada was not just the largest gold mine in the world, but also the most violent. As the miners descended upon the site, conditions became nightmarish, with violence, death, and prostitution running rampant. The town that sprouted beside the mine became notorious for its murders and illicit activities.
Sebastião Salgado’s Haunting Images
Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado ventured into this hellish landscape, capturing haunting images of the miners to expose the madness and chaos of the operation. His photographs revealed the delirious pursuit of gold and the dehumanizing toll it took on the workers. Salgado described the mine as a place where dreams and survival merged into one, and every hair on his body stood on edge as he witnessed the tragic scenes.
The Enigmatic Formation of Supergene Gold
Serra Pelada’s gold deposits were unlike any other on Earth. The gold was believed to have formed through a process called supergene enrichment, unique to the Amazon gold deposits. The exact process remained a mystery, but the hypothesis suggested rainwater mixing with decaying organic matter created an acidic ligand for gold molecules, leading to the accumulation of enriched gold zones.
Unsafe Mining Practices and a Lethal Lottery
The perilous nature of the mining operation created immense safety hazards. Each miner was assigned a 2mx2m area to dig. However, they often dug down without knowing if the person in the adjacent block was alive or digging as well. This uncertainty led to the collapse of blocks, causing fatalities among the workers.
A Nation’s Treasure Lost and Contaminated
At its peak, the Serra Pelada mine employed around 100,000 miners, producing approximately 45 tons of gold. However, it is believed that as much as 90 percent of the gold was smuggled away, representing a staggering loss of wealth. Moreover, the use of mercury in the gold extraction process contaminated large areas surrounding the mine, posing significant health risks to those downstream.
A Dark Legacy: The End of Serra Pelada
Mining operations eventually had to be abandoned when the pit became flooded, preventing further exploration. Today, the muddy lake that replaced the mine may still hold 20 to 50 tons of gold beneath its surface, forever encapsulating the dream and tragedy of Serra Pelada.
Serra Pelada’s tale remains etched in history as a harrowing saga of human desperation, greed, and the high cost of fortune. The largest open-air gold mine in the world became a place of unimaginable violence, where the pursuit of wealth turned men into slaves of their dreams. Despite the wealth that flowed from its depths, Serra Pelada stands as a haunting reminder of the dark consequences that can follow the lust for gold.