Canada is not the only nation discovering new wealth in vast, untapped gold reserves. An estimated 500,000 Brazilians are combing the rugged Amazonian interior in northern and western Brazil, looking for gold in the mud and gravel of river bottoms and in the thin soil of the jungle floor. But while Canadians usually pursue gold with the organized support of mining conglomerates, legions of Brazilians have simply descended on their gold-bearing regions, many digging through the earth with their bare hands.
Although the Brazilian gold rush is at least a decade old, the country’s recent economic downturn has accelerated the desperate search for gold by poor, independent prospectors. Towns with populations as large as 66,000 have sprung out of the wilderness, complete with airstrips, banks, hotels—and brothels. In the area of Alta Floresta, a small
settlement has burgeoned to a city of 121,000. Last month 80,000 miners took $4.92 million worth of gold out of the area. Many inhabitants of the makeshift jungle towns use gold dust as currency. A 100-mile plane trip costs about 1.16 ounces of gold. A pack of cigarettes is about 0.018 ounces.
Brazil is now the fifth-largest gold producer in the world, but the cost has been high. The independent miners are in constant conflict with mining companies, local Indian tribes and the government. In Serra Pelada alone, about 1,000 people have died since 1980, 400 from caveins and 600 from shootings. The use of mercury to separate gold from silt has poisoned rivers and caused blindness. But with 86 per cent of Brazil’s total gold production already to their credit, it is unlikely that any force will easily dislodge £ the miners from their frantic $ pursuit.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.