Perhaps I should have been more careful. Last year I decided that every Christmas I would tell a winter's tale or two. Through a long history of doing stupid things, I've accumulated a stock of gripping yarns. But I failed to explain myself. Some people interpreted the tale I told last Christmas as making a political point about Travellers I had no intention of suggesting; a point that is in fact the opposite of what I believe. So please read what follows as a story and no more: true to the best of my knowledge and memory but without a polemical purpose.
I was told this tale by a gold prospector in the garimpos of Roraima: the illegal mines excavated among the river gravels in the forests of northern Brazil. He and his friends swore it was true. Though parts of the story must have been filled in later, in the light of what I had seen I found it easy to believe.
To say that the mines were lawless is not quite correct. They stood outside the laws of the state, but had established their own codes, which were informed by power and honour and greed and lust. Every week, thieves were taken into the forest to be shot. Duels were fought on the airstrips, in which men took 10 paces, turned and fired: the miners circulated wild west comics and acted out scenes that might once have been mythical, but there became horribly real.
To illustrate the point, before we get to the tale itself: one evening João – a remarkable man from the north-east of Brazil, who, after leaving home at 14 then spending 10 years crossing and recrossing the Amazon on foot, had found work as a minder for two prostitutes – took me and his charges to a bar at the end of the airstrip village in which I was staying. The bar and the strip of dirt were owned by Zé, a man who spent some of his vast earnings on causing trouble: roaming around with his band ofpistoleiros, starting fights and roughing people up. Zé, in whose house I was staying (by his choice, not mine) was said to have killed five men, starting with his business partner: by this means he had acquired control of the airstrip, and the extortionate fees for landing and leaving.
The bar was a flimsy shack in which a ghetto blaster was turned up so high that you could scarcely hear the music. Ragged men swayed and lurched and sprawled across the more sober prostitutes. On every table there was a bottle or two of white rum and a revolver. The men who had stayed in their seats drummed their fingers nervously on the tabletops, halfway between their drinks and their guns. The door was shoved open, and Zé and his thugs walked in.
His was at all times an arresting presence: charming, mercurial and terrifying. A machete scar ran from one cheek, over his nose and across the other cheek. He wore a sawn-off denim jacket and two revolvers on his belt. He opened his arms and announced, in a voice loud enough to carry above the music, that he would buy drinks for everyone. Zé moved through the bar, slapping backs and shaking hands, flashing his gold teeth. João's eyes darted around, watching people's hands. Bottles of cachaça were passed down from the bar.
Suddenly João shoved me so hard that I almost fell off my chair. He grabbed my arm, managing at the same time to seize the two prostitutes, and propelled us towards the door. As we hurtled out of the bar it erupted in gunfire. Amazingly, only one man was killed: he was dragged on to the airstrip with a hole the size of an apple in his chest. He was one of an estimated 1,700 people murdered, in a community of 40,000, in just six months.
So here's the story. Two men established a small stake in the mines, in a remote valley some distance from the nearest airstrip. They cut down the trees and began to excavate. They found the digging and hosing and sifting of the gravel exceedingly hard and, though they had discovered very little, they decided to hire two other men to do it for them. They agreed to split any findings equally with the workers.
The two hired men dug for four months without success: with high pressure hoses they scoured great pits into which the trees collapsed; they turned the clear waters of the forest stream they excavated red with clay and tailings; they winnowed the gravel through meshed boxes; they dissolved the residues in mercury and burned it off; but they produced almost nothing. Then they hit one of the richest deposits ever discovered in Roraima: in one day they extracted 4kg.
If you find a lot of gold in the garimpos you keep quiet – very quiet. A single shout of triumph can amount to suicide. You gather it up, hide it in your bag and explain to anyone who asks on your way out that months of work have brought you nothing but disease and misery. But first it must be divided.
The two men who owned the stake began to comprehend, for the first time, the implications of the deal they had done. "We risked our lives to establish this stake. We spent every cent we had – and plenty we didn't – travelling here, buying the equipment and the diesel, hacking out a clearing in the forest, hiring these men. And now we have to split the gold equally with people who are no more than manual labourers, who would normally be paid a few dollars a day." They told the two workers that they wanted a special meal that night, and sent them to the nearest airstrip to buy the ingredients.
As the two workers walked they began to ruminate. "We've nearly killed ourselves in that pit. We've been up before dawn every day and have worked until dusk. We've had malaria, foot rot, screw worm, sunstroke, while those two bastards have done nothing but lie in their hammocks shouting instructions. Now we're expected to give them an equal share of the gold that we and we alone found." When they reached the store, they bought cachaça, rice, beans, a packet of seasoning and a box of rat poison. They mixed the poison into the seasoning and set off back to the camp. Before they reached it, they were ambushed by the two owners and shot. The owners then picked up the bags and went back to the camp to celebrate over the first hot dinner they had had in weeks.
Some time later a party of men moving through the forest to look for new stakes walked into the camp. They found two skeletons over which vines were already beginning to creep. And 4kg of gold.
This article was first published in the Guardian on 23 December 2013.
For more articles by George Monbiot monbiot.com