More than a year ago, four dirt-poor farmhands entered the rainforest near Apuí, a godforsaken one-horse town 460 kilometers (286 miles) southwest of Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Neguinho, Paulo, Agenor and Tibúrcio were clearing some of the rainforest by the Rio Juma because they wanted to build a little farm and breed cattle. Rearing livestock for slaughter is almost the only way to make any money in the Amazon.
As they poked around by the river bank, a few nuggets of gold gleamed between the stones. The four swore not to tell anyone about their discovery. For months, they dug about secretly -- and they would probably have gotten rich if they had just kept their mouths shut: "I'm swimming in gold!" one of the four boasted in an Apuí bar in December of last year.
That was the starting signal for the greatest gold rush in the Amazon rainforest since the legendary run on the Serra Pelada in the neighboring state of Pará. That was when more than 20,000 "garimpeiros" (as the gold-diggers are called) excavated an enormous hole into the rainforest in the mid-1980s. Brazilian star photographer Sebastião Salgado's archaic-looking pictures made the human ant heap famous across the world.
1.5 tons of gold found so far
Now adventurers and soldiers of fortune are streaming into Amazonas from all over the country. News of the discovery has spread like wildfire. More than 6,000 garimpeiros are already digging away in the "Eldorado de Juma," as site where the gold was discovered is called. More are arriving every day. They claim to have discovered 1.5 tons of gold in the river already. But no one knows for sure.
First, people came from Apuí, 80 kilometers (49 miles) away. Workers suddenly stopped showing up at the Incopol sawmill, the largest lumber company there, prefering to dig for gold in the rainforest instead. Cattle farmers found themselves without their cow herders. Bricklayers and plumbers were suddenly missing from construction sites. Even the deputee mayor, Aminadal de Souza, abandoned his office and followed the gold's siren call.
Now business is booming for bush guides and boat owners, tradesmen and prostitutes. There's only one currency by the Rio Juma: gold. Two sandwiches cost one gram (0.035 ounces) or about 35 real (€13 or $17). A can of Cola costs half a gram. A pair of soccer shoes goes for the exorbitant price of up to 30 grams. With the studs on their soles, these shoes are ideal for the swampy terrain in the rainforest.
Those who are clever are making more money than they ever have before. Andréia Gobbi, who manages the largest supermarket in Apuí, visited the gold diggers and found that they were missing one thing: women. She joined forces with her brother, a veterinarian, hired 25 girls from Manaus and opened up Andrea's Nightclub. The "program" with a lady in one of the 20 rooms costs four grams. "We're going to earn a lot of gold," the enterprising couple gushes.
Andrea's Nightclub -- a welcome break from plastic tents
The nightclub is the only diversion available to the garimpeiros. They stand by their pumps and churn up the ground from sunrise until dark. They sleep in hammocks in sheds made of plastic sheets and cut-down trees. An infernal stench of human excrement hangs above the camp. Malaria and diarrhoea are rampant. Those who don't know how to watch out for themselves fall victim to the "pistoleiros."
One of the unwritten rules by which the gold diggers live is that whoever arrives first is the boss of that particular claim. But the owners of the most profitable claims are often driven away by force of arms.
The smartest of them hire bodyguards and let others work for them. They rent their claims and receive half of the yield. The "requeiros" are at the very bottom of the hierarchy. They dig through the mud left behind by the others, hoping the boss of the claim may have overlooked a few nuggets.
A man called Zé Capeta is currently in charge of the "Eldorado of Juma." He proudly presents a document certifying he owns the land where many workers discovered their first gold nuggets. Zé Capeta may be a small farmer who can't read or write, and the sales contract for the land isn't worth the paper it's written on. But he was one of the first to get here and will probably also be one of the first to get an official permit to dig here.
Eldorado today, slum tomorrow?
Such a permit is literally worth gold. The government has decided to "legalize" the mine by the Rio Juma in order to prevent total anarchy from breaking out. It has now sent 88 policemen, health experts and doctors to the "Eldorado de Juma." They've been charged with maintaining order and preventing the spread of epidemics. The gold diggers will have to form a cooperative and register their claims.
In this way, the government hopes to curb the depletion of nature on this strip of land and prevent violent feuds breaking out between the soldiers of fortune. The environmental damage is already considerable: More than 40 square kilometers (15.4 square miles) of rainforest have already been cut down by the garimpeiros. They keep cutting new paths into the vegetation and the quicksilver they use to separate the gold from worthless ore is contaminating the area's rivers. The number of shootings and murders has risen. The collapse of the gold digging society seems inevitable.
The local preacher, Brother Itacir Fontana, and the mayor of Apuí, Antonio Roque Longo are two prominent citizens of Apuí who were opposed to the gold digging from the very beginning. Now they are seeing their worst fears come true.
Itacir tried -- in vain -- to deny the news that gold had been discovered. He called a nationwide radio channel and told the reporters there that everything was just a bluff. His own interests are enough to make him reject the gold rush. He's lost more than half the members of his congregation. Only old people and children continue coming to mass in his church. The others have left for the gold mine.
Mayor Roque Longo has an inkling as to how the gold rush will end: Most gold diggers will remain poor. They're spending their gold on liquor and women, and they're a burden on the city administration. "The conditions in which the garimpeiros live are inhuman," he says. "Soon we'll have an enormous social problem." Then the gold diggers will be lining up in front of his town hall and begging for alms. And the "Eldorado of Juma" will be transformed into a gigantic slum under the rainforest skies.