August 01, 1988 12:00 PM

It is early Sunday morning, and Ismael Pereira is peering up through the dusty shadows at a wall of rock looming 600 feet above him. Short and muscular, the 56-year-old Brazilian prospector watches intently for falling dirt and gravel, the first sign of a massive rock slide. “I work in fear,” he says, wiping the sweat and grime from his brow. “Last year, right next to me, eight guys were killed when the cliff gave way. I saw the rocks breaking their heads, arms and legs. I ran, I escaped, but who knows about the next time? Down here, death chooses anyone, at any moment.”

Toiling alongside 10,000 other ragtag garimpeiros—prospectors—Pereira has spent eight dangerous years in the muddy bowels of Brazil’s largest open-pit gold mine, Serra Pelada, a half-mile-wide quarry hewn out of the Amazon jungle. In sweltering 100-degree temperatures, Pereira has been slogging through seven-day weeks in a teeming, antlike procession of men bowed under the weight of 60-pound sacks of dark, jagged rock. Awesome as a Bible epic in its scale and primitive industry, the race for riches in the vast mine is typical of the greatest gold rush the world has seen since the South African and Klondike strikes of a century ago. The eight-year-old Serra Pelada strike has spawned a frenzied search throughout the Amazon region by half a million gold-fevered Brazilians. Leaving their families behind, braving a grim frontier existence in shantytowns fraught with violent crime and tropical disease, Pereira and his fellow garimpeiros, like most of us, dream of a personal El Dorado. But, unlike many in a less desperate world, they are willing to face years of unrelenting physical labor, risking their lives daily for the lure and promise of instant wealth.

“That fist of gold is right here under my feet,” says Pereira as a claim partner fills his sack. “If I work hard, I know I’ll find the big one. God will reward me. We work like slaves, but every day we pray for the gold and the freedom it will bring.”

Amid the din of voices and a sputtering water-pump engine, Pereira hefts a load of ore onto his back, then jostles into the throng of mud-smeared bodies plodding toward one of the precarious wooden ladders used to reach the higher ledges. Muscles taut, sweat streaming down his face and body, he clambers up the slippery rungs until he reaches a terrace where he heaves his burden onto a waist-high stack of hundreds of similar sacks. Here, an official from the miners’ cooperative carefully notes Pereira’s first delivery of the day. Later, the gold-bearing ore will be hauled by truck to the cooperative’s sluice works for processing.

Pereira makes an average of 40 hauls a day from his 5-foot by 5-foot claim to the drop-off site halfway up the giant pit. He knows that the more loads he hauls, the greater will be his tiny share of whatever gold dust or nuggets he and his eight partners find that day. “Years ago I was a wild guy, drinking, smoking a lot and wasting my strength,” he says with a swagger before an amused group of younger men. “But no more. I’m a grandfather. I just work and work, say my prayers at night and stay out of trouble. I guess now my only vice is hope.”

Once a field hand from Brazil’s impoverished Northeast, Pereira, the father of six grown sons, first came to Serra Pelada, or Bald Mountain, in 1980, the year gold was first discovered by a local farmer. Although heavy rains, flooding and frequent pit-wall cave-ins have prompted many discouraged garimpeiros leave, Pereira insists that he’ll remain, despite his meager average earnings of about $400 a year. “I’ve been lucky before,” he explains. “One day in 1983 my take of gold was enough for me to buy a house and a little piece of land. So it can happen again.” Last year alone, such determination by the hardy, fiercely independent backlands miners helped Brazil become the world’s sixth-largest gold-producing nation, with garimpeiros hauling out about 70 tons of gold, worth $1 billion, compared with 13 tons recovered by industrial mining companies.

Like many prospectors, Pereira’s crew uses only hand tools such as picks, shovels and sledgehammers to break up the rock in ore-bearing veins. He and his partners have had to dig straight down hundreds of feet into the uneven, ledgelike surface of the ever-deepening pit, careful not to encroach on adjacent plots. Pereira bought the mining rights to his tiny claim from the government, and in return he and the crew must pay the state 8 percent of whatever gold they find. Geologists have assured the miners, who receive little or no technical support from the government, that the site still contains much more gold.

As Pereira starts back down the pit, a chorus of shouts breaks out below. Two men are fighting, and suddenly all work halts as hundreds of cheering miners push closer for a better look. “Mike Tyson!” someone yells. “Let’s see a knockout!” Within moments, two T-shirted policemen have pulled the fighters apart and are settling the plot dispute with a tape measure. “We laugh,” says Pereira, “but men are killed over such things. Down here, gold is worth more than life.”

While waiting for the commotion to subside, Pereira explains that every day he takes a sackful of what he thinks are the best gold-bearing chunks of rock back to his shack in town. There he pulverizes the rock, using a heavy, steel-headed stake, then separates tiny flecks of gold from the gravel by swirling the mixture around in a metal pan filled with water. Though this year he has yet to find any nuggets bigger than a match head, a typical day nets him a few grams, a dollar or so worth of gold dust. After he has collected several ounces, which he carries in a pouch cinched around his waist, he has the dust melted and shaped into a tiny bar. This he trades at a state office for money, which he spends on food or deposits in the bank. Unfortunately, he confesses, he has had to leave the support of his wife to their six sons; for the past two years he has been able to save only enough for two round-trip bus fares home.

By late afternoon, Pereira is resting against a makeshift storefront on the rock-strewn main street of Serra Pelada. The town is accessible only by airplane or by a two-day, bandit-plagued road trip from the Amazon port of Belém. Joking with other garimpeiros, Pereira, a weight lifter since he was 15, turns down a young challenger who thinks he can outlift the old man. Tilting his ragged cap at a rakish angle, Pereira says he has lifted enough for one day; all he would really like is a cold drink. Because alcohol is banned in Serra Pelada, one man holds aloft a pop bottle, pretending it’s a cold beer.

“Well, at least they gave us back women,” cracks another man, referring to the government’s decision two years ago to allow women—ranging from wives to hookers—in a town of 60,000 men that was once deemed too lawless for the presence of females. “They think we’re all bad guys—thieves, liars, murderers,” says Pereira. “But that’s not true. The troublemakers are outsiders.”

As if in confirmation of Pereira’s contention, the weary men watch silently as a garimpeiro’s body is carried to the shack that serves as a mortuary. One of the stretcher-bearers says that the man was knifed to death, apparently by an outsider who made off with the gold-dust bottle the young miner kept in a waist pouch. Looking back, the stretcher-bearer shouts, “The bottle was empty! That’s what his wife says.”

That night, in his neat, Spartan shack, Pereira shares a meal of rice and beans with a friend, telling him how eager he is to return to his wife, Rosilda, 48, and his fruit orchard, 200 miles away in the town of Sailandia. Though he may return empty-handed this year, he feels he is lucky because at least he is still healthy and strong. “I could save money and walk home,” he says, “but bandits would probably kill me. They think we all have pockets of gold. If that were true, I wouldn’t be a slave in this prison. I’d be with my wife, just resting, hanging in a hammock. Now that would be perfection, because Rosilda is still a very pretty woman.”

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