Monday, December 26, 2011

The Last Great Gold Rush

It's called Serra Pelada.

As a generator of wealth, it can’t compare with South Africa's Witwatersrand.

Ferreira's Camp, (shown above, in a photo from 1886) became the site of modern Johannesburg, and the source of 40% of all the gold ever mined from the earth.

And it isn’t as famous as the discoveries that brought the “forty-niners” to California…

…or the frenzy, in 1897, that provoked a stampede along the Chilcoot Trail into the Yukon River valley.

But it was a great gold rush. And, to date, it is still the last.

Serra Pelada (the name, in Portuguese, means “bald mountain”) is in the Brazilian State of Pará.

And it was there, in January of 1979, that a child found a 6 gram nugget of gold on the property of a farmer named Genésio da Silva.

Within five weeks, 22,000 people had descended on the region.

Pretty impressive, considering the fact that da Silva’s farm was in a rainforest, some 430 KM south of the mouth of the Amazon River, and that the only way to get there was by plane or on foot.

Earth-moving equipment couldn’t be brought-in, because there was no road. The same applied to construction materials.

Everything had to be done by hand.
The extraction of the gold; the building of a makeshift town; everything.

The finds multiplied.

One was a nugget of 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds). And, when word about that leaked out, the influx of miners doubled. And then doubled again.

In the end, they numbered more than 110,000.

Fights broke out.

The government stepped in and tried to impose some order.

Each miner was entitled to file a claim for a two by three meter plot (6.6 feet by 9.8 feet).

Syndicates were formed, with several men working each plot.

By May, there were 4,000 such claims.

The government banned women and alcohol at the actual site. Causing the nearest settlement, until then an isolated village, to morph into a center of “stores and whores”, where thousands of underage girls worked for flakes of gold, and 60 to 80 murders occurred each month.

Half a billion dollars worth of gold was extracted within the course of the next five years.

But then it ran out.

Today, the 300 feet-deep pit, once the largest open-air gold mine in the world, is a polluted lake.

And Serra Pelada has become a community of no more than 8,000 people.

Most have no other place to go, or cannot afford to leave.
But there are some who linger-on, still hoping to make their fortune.

In a out-of-the-way place one of its residents now describes as “a hospital for people who suffer from gold fever”.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Well, this is disturbing, the poverty and desperation that drove the miners to converge in Serra Pelada originally and the poverty that still exists there today.

    On the holiday about peace on earth and good will to humanity and on the verge of the new year, I would wish that everyone could have a job and a decent standard of living be it in South Africa, Brazil, Haiti or right here in the U.S.

    My best wishes to everyone who is aiming for those goals and working to improve the lot of humankind.

  2. "...and a child shall lead them."

    Hmmm, sounds like the title for a tale of a different Silva.

  3. There's something about "get rich quick" schemes that seem to sour, (even though these guys really worked hard). As always, your pictures tell a remarkable story.

  4. I am new to this topic... Please can anyone clarify my below doubts
    1.Why there are 1,10,000 people piled up like ants.

    2."Serra Pelada gold" was under government jurdiction or it was for public.

    3.Does all the gold went to government or boom in invisible pockets

  5. Milan M:

    1. The people are piled up like ants because each individual claim was small. (Only two by three meters = 6.6 feet by 9.8 feet). And those claims were often worked by "syndicates" composed of several people.

    2. The strike was administered by the government, but anyone who got there in time was able to file a claim. So it was, in that sense, "public".

    3. All the gold was supposed to have been sold to the government so they could take their share it taxes. But, in practice, it didn't work out that way. People in the region began to use the gold to pay for goods and services. And it became, for most, the preferred method of exchange, since it retained it's value in a time of high inflation. Which the country's currency did not.