Genesio Ferreira da Silva rolled around the mottled yellow gravel bits in the palm of his hand and, for a moment that December day in 1979, thought he was a rich man. Gold, and plenty of it, lay there for the taking on his farm in the Brazilian Amazon.
Word went flying through the rain forest. In a week four intrepid garimpeiros -- gold miners -- picked their way to Ferreira's farm. In a month, there were 500, and by March, 5,000. Ferreira couldn't stop the miners unless he shot them, and far too many were pouring over the barricades for that. So he cleared a crude airstrip, opened up his farm, and settled back to collect a 10 percent tribute on each miner's take.
That cut alone would have made him a grand fortune. But in April 1980, the government seized control of the now teeming gold fields, taking 250 acres of Ferreira's ranch and cutting off his 10 percent fees.
It was a fitting beginning for the find that would become known as Serra Pelada, the "bare sierra," whose bounty has ignited the imaginations of thousands of claim stakers -- and deluded 10 times as many as it has rewarded.
In the beginning, when it was a mere clearing in the brush, they called it "Babylonia," after the ancient Middle Eastern empire. Now it is Brazil's biggest single gold mine, producing one-fourth of Brazil's 50 metric tons of gold per year.
From the first few pioneers, the miners have grown to number between 50,000 and 100,000, depending on the seasonal rains. Their dreams of a quick strike have become, for many, a prolonged and arduous way of life. Miners at Serra Pelada pick away daily in the often 100-degree heat, cheek-by-jowl in the 250-foot-deep, half-mile-wide cavern, driven by a promise as precarious as the conditions they risk 10 to 12 hours a day.
Twice the hole has flooded, and this year work has been paralyzed for nine months. Mud slides are a constant threat and have taken many miners to a sudden death at the bottom of the gaping pit.
Adventurers, entrepreneurs and drifters, the garimpeiros dream of becoming owners of a piece of the mine, or of settling down with a family on a plot of farmland and laying down their picks and shovels forever.
The scar in the middle of Genesio Ferreira's ranch has become a frontier town, served by daily business-hour shuttle flights from three cities in the Amazon region. The mine has been ceded to a cooperative of prospectors, and the town now boasts a health clinic, high school and movie theater, a post office with daily mail call and even a traveling drama troupe.
The drug stores, snack bars, tool and clothes shops that hug the main commercial strip move about $50,000 in merchandise every day. The government savings bank, Caixa Economica Federal, opens 50 savings accounts a day. Every morning miners line up to melt down their gold, weigh it and then deposit the cash. Since 1980, the Caixa Economica has bought nearly a million ounces of gold from Serra Pelada miners.
About the only things missing from Serra Pelada are liquor, gambling and women -- a recipe for trouble, according to government authorities who police the mine town. Although it has had its share of brawls, most officials marvel that this encampment of high rollers, where fortune rubs shoulders with failure, has not exploded in its four years of existence.
A select group of wealthy investors controls the lion's share of Serra Pelada's 4,000 stakes measuring 2 by 3 yards and separated only by lengths of rope. They live miles away in the comfort of the cities -- Maraba, Imperatriz, Belem, or even Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo -- and contract thousands to do the work.
Hundreds of the miners hold fractional claims, from 5 percent down to less than 1 percent of a stake, but often end up selling off their claims bit by bit when times get tough. Thousands more are day workers, formigas or ants in the prospectors' argot, paid about 10 cents for every 35-pound sack of dirt they haul to the lip of the mine.
An elite of garimpeiros has struck it rich. Julio de Deus Filho last year pulled out a 136-pound nugget, which he named Canaan, after the biblical promised land, and sold to the government for a million dollars. Manoel Pereira da Cruz left his job as a government bodyguard in Brasilia and bought into several stakes at Serra Pelada. Today, his finds have bought him 7,000 head of cattle on 12,500 acres of ranch land, and he walks Serra Pelada's dusty streets with the stride of the government ministers and diplomats he used to protect back in the Brazilian capital.
But if Serra Pelada has been generous to a chosen few, it has been niggardly to the masses. Three years ago, Antonio Barroso left a dusty farm and a hungry family in the parched state of Maranhao, in Brazil's Northeast. Now, he said, "I've been digging for 20 meters straight down, and I haven't found a thing." Leaning on a shovel, shin deep and shoeless in the muddy water at the bottom of the mine pit, he added, "But I have good hopes. I'm staying here until the end."
That end may be at hand. The mine owes its existence to a fragile political pact struck between a great minerals conglomerate, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, and politicians who fear the social eruption that could occur when Serra Pelada's tens of thousands of fortune hunters are expelled.
Like Antonio Barroso, the vast majority of the Amazonian garimpeiros are from the drought-ravaged Northeast. To them, buying a small piece of a stake, or even hauling dirt for daily pay, is worth it. And it is precisely this spirit that has served as a great safety valve for the Brazilian government. Across the Amazon's gold country, 350,000 miners are sifting stream bot