|The Gemstone Hunters|
|Society & Culture|
|Saturday, 28 January 2012 13:52|
Photographer Ricardo Azoury explores the gemstone mines of Minas Gerais where dreams of fortune still fire the imaginations of today's garimpeiros.
Digging for treasure in the wilderness is a story as old as the New World. Gold, diamonds, colored gemstones - for 500 years generations of adventurers have scoured the backlands of this continent-sized land, fevered by dreams of instant wealth.
A few got rich. Others died trying. Scores lost everything. Brazilians call them garimpeiros. In their search for treasure, the garimpeiros blazed trails through the wild hinterlands, fighting malaria, stifling heat, torrential rains and human greed. Settlements followed and turned into cities. In many ways, the garimpeiros helped turn this country into the powerhouse it has become today. Though mechanized mining has the upper hand today, freelance garimpeiros still mine gemstones much the way they did when Brazil was discovered, five centuries ago. Their fever still burns today.
Adventurers, starvelings and madmen, the renowned anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss called them. The 18th century explorer FernÃ£o Dias spent seven years hunting for gemstones in the wild and ended up putting his own adopted son to death for leading a mutiny. Dias died never knowing if the sack full of green stones he found were emeralds or worthless rocks. His feat is remembered in an epic poem by Olavo Bilac, O CaÃ§ador de Esmeraldas (The Emerald Hunter), and on the interstate highway in SÃ£o Paulo that bears his name.