Serra Pelada
Sebastiao Salgado, Dispute at Serra Pelada goldmine,
Brazil, 1989
Sebastiao Salgado is one of the greatest editorial photographers I have ever seen. His photos make you want to be there, even when the subject is horrific or depressing as they often are. I would have loved to have been in the Amazon during the Serra Pelada gold rush in the 80's, however, just to see the massive scale of swarming humanity. When I visited the Serra Pelada mine all that was visible was a vast, calm lake.

Serra Pelada was the largest hand dug pit ever excavated, located in southern Pará state. The gold rush began in the early 1980's and garimpeiros (miners) flocked to the site. Each person was allowed to purchase one section of land just big enough to stand in and dig, with rights extending downward as far as one could dig. With nearly 100,000 garimpeiros crushed into such a small space the place was a haven for murder.

Then came Sebastião Curió...

...an officer in the military who was sent in to bring the place under control. He founded the nearby city of Curiónopolis and ruled the mine with an iron fist. He was rumored to have killed several people, not to mention the ones who died by his orders before and after the close of the mine. On the up side he brought the carnage to a relative halt, after which he retired from the military. He then took on the job as a private citizen of running the mine and organizing the garimpeiros into a union.

The miners union is still active despite the lack of easily accessible gold. They hope to be granted access to mine, at which point they could sell their combined stakes to a company able to extract the less concentrated gold still in the ground.

I had the opportunity to speak with Curió in his office at the miners union hall when I was in the Amazon. It was an interesting experience to sit face to face with someone who is a known killer. He is very well spoken and easy to like, and as I recall served up excellent cafezinho and kept it flowing. I asked him directly what the results of mining with raw mercury had been on the streams that flow nearby, having read about increased mercury being a problem at many other garimpos. He answered flatly that there was none. I suspected at the time, and confirmed later, that this is absolutely untrue. Never trust a snake.

Apparently he never lost his touch. This article describes how he was charged in 2006, 6 years after I visited, with the death of a rival union leader. Unfortunately for him Lula, the current president, was very interested in using Serra Pelada to shore up his socialist base and this embarrassment more than likely was what allowed Curió to be charged, given the power he has in his own little feifdom.

The Amazon is full of stories, many of which end with painfully slow or mercifully quick death. Fortunately many stories are also quite uplifting. Hopefully we (the world) can keep the region intact while bringing prosperity and solid governance to the people. It is one of the great challenges of our time, but mostly ignored by the masses.