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  • Writer's pictureGoran Yerkovich

Are you a Slave to your Job? The Hell of Serra Pelada

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

In January 1979 a local farmer, Genésio Ferreira da Silva, discovered he was sitting on one of largest deposits of gold in the world. At his remote Brazilian farm 430 kilometres (270 miles) south of the Amazon River, nuggets of gold began washing up on shore. Eventually, one huge nugget, as big as 6.8 Kg (15 lbs) and worth over $300,000 USD would be found on the farm.

This beautiful gold, filled with so much hope and promise, was found in the tranquil town of Serra Pelada, Brazil.

When it all happened, word spread quickly. Brazilian's from far and wide trekked to the remote site.

Almost overnight the gold rush was born. Brazil's Eldorado was Serra Pelada.

Men arrived in droves. Well over one hundred thousand. To this remote place by whatever means necessary.

Hope was in the air.

But what began as HOPE and PROMISE quickly descended into something more of the opposite for those who dared to enter.

A nightmare was born.

Welcome to the Hell of Serra Pelada, where men became slaves without even knowing it.

What started as a 150 meter high mountain filled with hope and promise eventually descended into a 140 meter dirt pit filled with an almost unprecedented hell of despair, danger, and murder.

By the time it was all over, Serra Pelada's name would be transformed to a place of unimaginable infamy.

Serra Pelada descended to a place of hell.

Over one hundred thousand men are believed to have worked in the mine. Without rules or regulations. All in search of hope. In search of gold. It all became a reality that to this day is still difficult to fathom.

In these photos there is something primeval, visceral and brutal taking shape. Something no one intended and yet it was. For all to experience and see.

The images taken by Alfredo Jaar and Sebastião Salgado forever immortalize Serra Pelada for what the mine became instead. A place of lost souls, where only a lucky few found incredible wealth.

The rest toiled until near death. With broken backs and destroyed spirits, to a place all together different.

Take a moment to look at these photos. Study them.

At first glance, they seem too unbelievable to be real. Like something from a Hollywood epic, depicting the building of some great pyramid in ancient Egypt. Slaves. Masters. And everything in between.

At first glance it appears as if these men worked not by choice, but by the rule of some great merciless Pharaoh or Ancient King.

THIS, all of this, could not have been done by CHOICE?

Or could it?

The most striking fact of it all, was that YES, each man that descended into Serra Pelada did it of their own free will.

When the mines were first opened the mine workers had no government to protect them. No laws. No police. No rules. This was free market at it's most extreme. It became a survival of the fittest. Daily fights for dirt plots, positions, and supplies, quickly escalated to murders. It's estimated that unsolved murders ranged from 60 -80 in the town every month.

Those that were the strongest survived and continued on.

The incentive was, if you found gold in your bag that you lifted from the depths of Serra Pelada, then you'd keep a percentage. Small squares of dirt were sold to the miners for harvest. But they'd need to do all the work themselves. And then make the long dangerous climb out of the pit with thousands of men above and below them.

So toiling in filth, lifting dirt by hand, dragging themselves and the dirt over tired backs, one by one they climbed dangerous rickety thatched wooden ladders to the mines summit.

Their hope was to discover if THIS time, in their pile of dirt, they'd FINALLY find fortune and FREEDOM.

But most never did.

Most continued day after day finding nothing but more dirt, pain and a seemingly one way ticket back into the ever deepening pit. They dismantled one mountain just to build another.

This is the hell of Serra Pelada. A place that for some would become routine for those who entered it each day.

But it is also an analogy, a metaphor for how many of us work today. Placing our hopes in a place that will never give us the full satisfaction we crave. A place that slowly drains our souls of hope, of promise, and of real reward.

This may not be the case for everyone. But surely it is for some.

Which begs these questions that I hope you take with you, where ever your journey may be today on this planet:

Are you climbing a mountain today filled with promise?

Are you full of hope for the day ahead?

Do you love or at least like what you do as your job?

Do you take today as a new opportunity?

Or is it all something else?

The hell of Serra Pelada is a metaphor for what we are wiling to do for money, or the hope of riches. That many of us enter into places we call work, wide-eyed and innocent. Hopeful. Optimistic.

But then one day something happens.

A mountain, the place we were looking up towards is carved out. It is gone. Left instead is a hole. Small at first, it continues to grow and grow and grow. We are digging it, lost in the process.

Forgetting that we arrived with the hope of something better. Not worse.

As we dig we descend further and further inside. We start building ladders. Longer and more precarious each time. Until one day we forget why we entered in the first place. And maybe decide it's safer to stay inside, and perhaps never leave.

Eventually the Brazilian government shut down the Serra Pelada mine because of it's incredibly dangerous and poor working conditions. And the last surprising piece to this story is that the miners inside protested it's closing. They wanted to remain. They refused to leave.