The Mines of Serra Pelada by Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado is one of the most eminent photojournalists working today. He embarks on great photographic projects, seeking out places that are untouched by modern humanity and exposing the inhumanities it left behind. In 1986, Salgado was in Serra Pelada, Brazil to document the gold rush taking place there in the scenes reminiscent of Dante’s Hell or Purgatory.

The tale of Serra Pelada was straight out of the great 19th century gold rushes in Australia and the American west. A small nugget of gold, found by a local bathing his child on the banks of a remote river, started an uncontrolled gold rush that turned the place into a modern day Inferno. Word leaked out that there was one of the largest deposits of gold in the world in the area. Within a week, there were thousands of people; within five weeks, nearly 25,000 people were around the area. Soon the military took over operations to prevent exploitation of the workers and conflict between miners and landowners, but it too found it difficult to regulate what would eventually balloon out to be 100,000 miners.

At first the only way to get to the remote site was by plane or foot. Miners would pay exorbitant prices to have taxis drive them from the nearest town to the end of a dirt track; from there, they would walk the remaining distance—some 15 kilometres —to the site. The growing town, since it could only be made of material that was carried in by hand, was a collection of haphazard shacks and tents.

There was simply no shortage of labourers being lured by garimpeiros (gold prospectors) to the Bald Mountain. Each miner had a 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) by 3 metres (9.8 ft) claim and it had to be worked and cleared vertically; each miner was paid around 11p for each climb to the top. Directed by overseers, the men clambered up primitive ladders from the depths of the pit laden with 30-kilogram bags of dirt, the cords of which cut deep into their saturated hands. Many died in mud slides caused by heavy rain. Even the garimpeiros failed to make a fortune. Brazil was heading towards an economic recession, and the military set up a bank on the site, where gold had to be sold at the official prices.

Salgado not only documented the mines in lengthy photoessay that appeared in various magazines (The Sunday Times Magazine, May 24, 1987 (above); New York Times magazine, June 7, 1987 (below)) but also the nearby town of “stores and whores”,  where tens of thousands of girls under the age of 16 sold their bodies for a few grains of gold. It is also said there are 60-80 unsolved murders in the town every month.

 Salgado remembered:

When I reached the edge of that enormous hole… every hair on my body stood on end. I’d never seen anything like it. Here, in a split second, I saw unfolding before me the history of mankind. The building of the pyramids. The Tower of Babel. The mines of King Solomon. Not the sound of a single machine could be heard. All you could hear was the babble of 50,000 people in one huge hole. Conversations, noises, human sounds mingled with the sounds of manual labor. I had returned to the dawn of time. I could almost hear the gold whispering in the souls of these men.

All this earth had to be removed. It’s not all gold. The guys had to climb small ladders… leading to bigger ones to emerge at the top. You wouldn’t want to fall down there! If you fell from the top you’d risk taking others with you. I’d climb up several times a day but I never thought I’d fall. Nobody else fell. You were there to carry sacks, not to fall. And in my case, to take photos.

These guys climbed it 50 or 60 times a day. The only way to get down such a slope is by running. If you stop, you fall. All these men together formed an extremely organized world but in complete madness. You get the impression they’re slaves but there wasn’t a single slave. They were only slaves to the idea of getting rich. Everybody wanted to get rich. There were all sorts: intellectuals, university graduates, farm employees, urban workers. People from all walks of life were trying their luck.

Because when you’d hit a vein of gold… everyone working that little section of the mine… had the right to choose one sack. And in that sack that they chose – and this is the slavery aspect – there might be nothing or a kilo of gold! At that very moment one’s freedom was at stake. Men who come into contact with gold can never leave it.

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