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Brazil: The Devil’s Digs

3 minute read

There are places in Brazil, that troubled but rich giant, where just scuffing a shovel in the dirt might produce treasures to dream about. To prove it, communities like Diamantina, Turmalina, Esmeralda, Ametista dot the country. Last week the scene was Cristalina (pop. 3,800), an interior town some 60 miles south of Brasilia, once the center of a fabulous quartz-crystal boom and now devoted largely to agriculture and cattle raising.

Off to the Farm. Last month two wandering prospectors stumbled on a 13-lb. hunk of white crystal on a 1,900-acre farm near Cristalina and hurried into town with the news. The reaction resembled The Gold Rush. The mayor, notary public, pharmacist and priest raced to the farm with the rest of the citizens hot on their heels. Laborers in nearby Brasilia threw aside their hods and streamed down the highway; so did lawyers, senators, civil servants, housewives and doctors.

Mining engineers pronounced the deposit virtually limitless, and that spurred everyone on. According to the landowner’s rules, each newcomer was allowed to claim a 10-ft. by 10-ft. plot in return for 10% of the take. Within a few days, the farm land looked like a giant human anthill with more than 2,000 men, women and children feverishly wielding shovels.

The method was to dig a shaft straight down, sometimes 40 ft. or more, to the deposits; the diggers climbed in and out by bracing their feet and backs against the wall. As shafts went down too closely together, many collapsed; others filled with water. A shanty town sprang up next to the pasture, with a hotel, hundreds of lean-tos and tents. The local dentist kept his tools soaked in cachaga liquor; the baker sold bread at five times the normal price; and a small army of prostitutes paraded around the diggings, lining up appointments.

Candles for St. Sebastian. One digger came up with a block of crystal weighing 330 Ibs., is still dickering with buyers about the price: the high-grade yellow variety fetches as much as $94 per Ib. Another miner found a huge piece worth $3,300 and immediately hired 100 men at $3 apiece per day to help him dig. A youth deserted his job in Bahia, 400 miles away, found a fine stone that he sold for $190, later discovered that the buyer quickly resold it for more than $2,500. Luckier was the young lady who spent four days digging in the pits, made $2,700, then quitand went home a rich woman.

At dawn each morning last week, a procession of anxious diggers trudged five miles to the chapel in Cristalina to light a candle at the feet of St. Sebastian, praying that he would guide them to a rich strike. Many other amateurs, discouraged by the boomtown prices and the depth of the veins, were selling out. Said one: “God put the crystal near the surface, but the devil pushed it to the bottom.” As the amateurs quit, professional mining outfits were moving in to buy up their claims and get down to where the devil pushed the crystal.

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