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The Gold Mines of Serra Pelada

In the early 1980s, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado travelled to the mines of Serra Pelada, some 430 kilometers south of the mout...

In the early 1980s, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado travelled to the mines of Serra Pelada, some 430 kilometers south of the mouth of the Amazon River, where a notorious gold rush was in progress. A few years earlier, a child had found a 6-grams nugget of gold in the banks of a local river, triggering one of the biggest race for gold in modern history. Motivated by the dream of getting rich quickly, tens of thousands of miners descended into the site swarming like ants in the vast open-air pit they had carved into the landscape. Salgado took some of the most haunting pictures of the workers there, highlighting the hazardous conditions in which they worked and the sheer madness and chaos of the operation. 
One of the most vertigo-inducing photograph of the series showed hundreds of workers swarming up tall ladders, scaling the cliff-like sides of a hellish hole. Later, when talking about the captivating images, Sebastião Salgado had said: “Every hair on my body stood on edge. The Pyramids, the history of mankind unfolded. I had travelled to the dawn of time.”

During its peak, the Serra Pelada mine employed some 100,000 diggers or garimpeiros in appalling conditions, where violence, death and prostitution was rampant. The diggers scratched through the soil at the bottom of the open pit, filled it into sacks each weighing between 30 to 60 kilograms, and then carried the heavy sacks up some 400 meters of wood and rope ladders to the top of the mine, where it is sifted for gold. On average, workers were paid 20 cents for digging and carrying each sack, with a bonus if gold was discovered. Thousands of underage girls sold their bodies for a few gold flakes while around 60–80 unsolved murders occurred in the nearby town, where the workers lived, every month.

Three months after the gold’s discovery, the Brazilian military took over operations to prevent exploitation of the workers and conflict between miners and owners. The government agreed to buy all the gold the garimpeiros found for 75 percent of the London Metal Exchange price. Officially just under 45 tons of gold was identified, but it is estimated that as much as 90 percent of all the gold found at Serra Pelada was smuggled away.

Mining had to be abandoned when the pit became flooded preventing further exploration. Geological surveys estimate that there could still be 20 to 50 tons of gold buried under the muddy lake, which the pit has now become.

In 2012, after remaining largely untouched for the last 20 years, a Brazilian cooperative company was granted an exploration license for the property in a bid to develop Serra Pelada.

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