Their bare backs glistening with sweat and sunlight, the two prospectors stand ankle-deep in the rushing jungle stream, feeding a trough with buckets of mud and silt scooped from the creek bed. All day they shovel and sift, serenaded by Brazilian hillbilly music blaring from a cassette player on the river bank.
Buried somewhere in each load of muck they lift are a few grains of gold. If all goes well, after a day of backbreaking work the two miners will be able to pour a gram or two of glittering dust into the small leather pouches strung around their waists.
But like every other prospector scrabbling for gold in the 100-odd mining camps scattered about the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, Ze Maranhao and his partner dream of something bigger. There are more than 30,000 men digging for nuggets and dust in the jungle, and every one of them is looking for the big strike, the lucky break.
Each week, dozens of would-be millionaires arrive in Itaituba, a bustling port town of 5,000 just above the confluence of the Tapajos and Jamanxim rivers, to be greeted by signs of wealth. In the windows of the shops lining Dr. Hugo de Mendonca Street, the town's only paved thoroughfare, posters proclaim "Gold bought and sold here."
The spirit is one of easy money, with whiskey and women on tap in the bars and storeowners marking up goods to 10 times their usual price. Even the town's movie theater has been caught up in the frenzy of the Amazon gold rush, it bearing the unlikely name of The Gold Cinema.,
But once the prospectors head into the jungle, they find a different picture. There, surrounded by swarms of malaria-bearing mosquitoes and suspicious fellow miners, dependent for food and supplies on the planes that fly in from Itaituba, they discover that although the risks of the Amazon miner's life are certain, the rewards are not.
The camps, one to three hours by air from Itaituba, are dotted with dozens of simple wooden crosses marking the graves of miners who failed to find the big strike. Some died of hepatitis, yellow fever, leishmaniasis or other tropical diseases; others were simply killed by fellow miners in disputes over ownership of claims.
"There's not a month that goes by without three or four guys being shot or stabbed here," says miner Joaquim Reis Barbosa. "Somebody goes away to sell his gold, and when he comes back another guy is working his claim. There's only one way I know of to settle something like that."
Amid the violence there is, of course, also great wealth. But most of it seems to end up in the hands of grubstakers -- ex-miners with comicbook names such as "Joe Parrot," "John Cow" and "Old Pops," who pay well below the international market price for the gold they buy and charge dearly for underwriting expeditions and supplying camps with provisions.
In the jargon of the miners, these men are the "owners" of the camps. While they rarely, if ever, hold legal title to the lode being explored, their supremacy goes unquestioned because they are the only ones with the capital required to open up an airstrip and fly in the men, equipment and food needed to get an Amazon mining operation rolling.
The "owners" make the best of the arrangement, shuttling the miners back and forth between the camps and Itaituba for fares of up to $150 per hour of passage. The most flamboyant of them, "Ze Arara," or "Joe Parrot," lives in a luxurious home with a swimming pool, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and maintains a fleet of planes at the local airport and a flock of pet parrots in his backyear.
"There are two things I've never seen," complains miner Jose Epifanio Ferreira, 24, a veteran of five years in the camps. "The first is a poor owner and the second is a rich miner."
Gold has become the only medium of exchange in the camps. For a gram (.035 ounce) of gold, a miner can get either a kilo (2.2 pounds) of coffee or a bottle of cachaca -- a fiery sugar cane liquor usually downed at the camp's straw-roofed "cabaret" in the company of a prostitute, whose time costs five to 10 grams of gold.
The obsession with gold is so great that miners simply throw away cassiterite, which when refined yields tin, and semiprecious gemstones such as tourmaline. "They don't see any reason to haul out a 50-kilo sack of cassiterite when they know they'll get the same money for a cup of gold," explains Lafayette de Souze Rocha, an Itaituba assayer.
Officially, some 6,000 kilos of gold leave Itaituba each year. But Yvan Barretto de Carvalho, president of the Brazilian government's Mineral Resources Research Co., estimates that an equal amount is smuggled out illegally -- either by boat or from an estimated 1,000 unauthorized airstrips that dot the Amazon region.
"Most of the contraband shipments go south to Sao Paulo," says a gold dealer who, like all his colleagues, denies any personal involvement in the clandestine trade. "But every now and then a plane sneaks in from Miami or Caracas to pick up a load out in the jungle and then heads back home without anyone being the wiser."
Government officials say they would like to put an end to this flourishing illicit trade. But the remoteness and enormous size of the mining area, when combined with the government's limited manpower and financial resources, makes the region virtually impossible to police.
"Out in the mining camps it's every man for himself," says Rocha, 64. Ordinary laws just don't mean anything. In the jungle, the strongest prevail and the rest can go to hell".
"At one camp where I work, there are a thousand men, all of them armed, plus 23 whores and two cops," reports military police officer Luiz Eduardo Barroso. "Personally, I don't like those odds.
"Just last month, there was a shootout between a miner and the police at one of the camps downriver," he added. "The miner killed one policeman, wounded the other, and then escaped into the jungle."
"We simply can't afford to hunt down criminals who run off into the jungle," says town council chairman Arlindo Braga Pereira. "Just to send a posse out in a plane to look for the guy would eat up our whole city budget for the year."
Elsewhere in the Amazon, the government has attempted to solve the problem by banning individual prospectors from mining activity and handing mineral deposits over to large, well-financed corporations with ties to multinationals. But that has merely driven more miners to Itaituba, where they talk vaguely of making their last stand.
"I've minded for tin out west in Rondonia and looked for diamonds up in Roraima," says Joao Baptista Rocha, 58. "They're always kicking the miner out of one place or another, but after this there'll be no place left to go."
"These prospectors work in a wasteful and completely irrational way," reports a government geologist. "They take the filet and leave the rest. That has got to stop."
Itaituba's days may thus be numbered, but it continues to live as if money -- and time -- were no obstacle. Diamonds recently have been reported to have been discovered upriver, and the town's population continues to swell with new arrivals -- who go straight to the bars to partake of shots of cachaca and drafts of the incurable optimism the prospectors dispense.
"I'm going to have my own fleet of planes and a bunch of miners working for me someday," vows youthful miner Ferreira as he drinks at a popular hangout. "Come back in five years and look me up."