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Serra Pelada Gold Mine

Last Updated: 4th Feb 2020

By Luís Costa


Serra Pelada (or in english 'Naked Mountain') is a brazillian village and district of Curianópolis municipality, southeast of Pará state. Both village and district have the same name because all that area was known by it´s geological formations rich in precious metals, the Pelada hill, an extension of Carajás mountain.

During XVII and XVIII centuries Brazil was known by the big existing gold explorations located throughout the country and explored by locals and foreigners (mainly portuguese settlers). After that period, it was believed that there would no longer be any major gold deposit in the country.

However, according to historical documentation, in December 1979 a farmer working for Genésio Ferreira da Silva (landlord of Fazenda Três Barras)found some stones with gold in an alluvial area near a banana tree in the stream 'Grota Rica'. For two weeks, three teams of miners, under the command of Genésio Silva, took turns extracting, collecting a relative amount of gold. The camp set up by the workers was initially named Grota Rica.
In January 1980, a gold buyer spread the word about the mining area in Marabá, where Grota Rica was previously jurisdicted. About a thousand 'garimpeiros' (gold explorers) quickly arrived at the site. This sudden arrival of so many people made it difficult to allocate everyone in the banks of the river, many being forced to mine on a hill without vegetation nearby, nicknamed "Serra Pelada".
At first the only way to get to the remote site was by plane or foot. Miners would often 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 (9 mi)—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. Each miner had a 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) by 3 metres (9.8 ft) claim.

The amount of gold found on the hill was even greater, causing the number of people at the site to rise to five thousand in March 1980. The camp had become a village, finally receiving the name Serra Pelada.

Such flow of people made the municipal authorities of Marabá to take actions, who requested federal intervention in the area, claiming the impossibility of managing the place.

Huge nuggets were quickly discovered, the biggest weighing nearly 6.8 kilograms (15 lb), $108,000 at the 1980 market price (now $335,123 in 2020).

Located 430km south of the mouth of Amazon river, the mine was made infamous by still images taken by Alfredo Jaar and later by Sebastião Salgado and the first section of Godfrey Reggio's 1988 docummentary Powaqqatsi, showing an anthill of workers moving vast amounts of ore by hand. Because of the chaotic nature of the operation estimating the number of miners was difficult, but at least 100,000 people were thought to be present, making it one of the largest mines in the world.

In 1984 Serra Pelada reached its peak in relation to the number of people, with eighty thousand residents, which by comparison, surpassed the almost sixty thousand inhabitants registered in the municipality of Marabá in the 1980 census. However, in that same year, production it drops to 3.9 tons and the pit reaches 200 meters deep (24000 m2 crater), making manual activity impossible. Since the previous year, there have been several disturbances by the prospectors fearing the rumors of the closure of mining.
Early in the history of the mine, the Brazilian military took over operations to prevent exploitation of the workers and conflict between miners and owners. Before the military takeover basic goods were sold for hugely inflated prices by the mine owners; water cost $3 a litre ($9.31 in 2020). The infamous Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura (known more by his nickname Coronel Curió) managed the mine for a brief period.

While the military government banned the presence of women and alcohol at the actual mine, the nearby town provided space for women and banned objects. Thousands of women and underage girls engaged in sex work in exchange for gold. Around 60–80 unsolved murders occurred in the town every month. All these problems combined with allegations of corruption of public authorities resulted in the mine closure in 1992.

Article has been viewed at least 834 times.

Discuss this Article

4th Feb 2020 13:23 UTCAndrew Debnam

Thank you for posting, The photos really help tell the story

4th Feb 2020 14:39 UTCKyle Beucke

Thanks, very interesting article!

4th Feb 2020 18:25 UTCRick Dalrymple Expert

I love mining history, even the dark sides. This was fascinating. 

4th Feb 2020 20:28 UTCLuís Costa

Thanks for your comments.

I forgot to mention that there is a movie about this called Bald Mountain if you're interested (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2140381/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) 

22nd Feb 2020 11:17 UTCMario Pauwels

Thank you for bringing this intriguing story back under our attention Luís. There are also several photo-books published about the Serra Pelada gold rush. And the photos speeks in all the publications for themselves how difficult life was those days on 'Naked Mountain'...

Best regards, Mario Pauwels

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