Stone Lottery

Human Gopher Holes
Human-sized gopher holes

Everyone here plays the lottery. Of course there’s the national lottery, a megalotto-type, draw a bunch of numbers and win. Everyone in Brazil plays that. But here in Minas Gerais, almost every family also plays a second lottery. You drive down the highway and little human-size gopher holes decorate the mountain walls. Everyone’s digging in their back yard for a precious stone.  

This isn’t just a pipe dream. It really happens. My father-in-law purchased the farm and the valley we live in with the proceeds of a rock. And their current house in-town. And his (now) aging little VW. An entire family pulled out of poverty and into the middle class by just one rock.

At the NYC Metropolitan Museum of Natural History — at least 70% of these precious stones are from Minas Gerais!

Our little town has only existed (formally) for about fifty years. I can’t imagine, but the photos are there to testify.  Before that our town was a rough and tumbling mining outpost, something right out of the Wild West. Where prospectors rolled into town with their latest find, and you had to be careful lest someone decide to take it from you. The stones found here are now in world-famous collections.  Those stones in the museums are attributed to a nearby town—Teófilo Otoni—but lots of people say that they were dug before our town was established, and many of them came from our own back yards.

Mining is in all the town names around here: Diamantina (Diamond). Pedra Azul (Blue Stone). Ouro Preto (Black Gold). Ouro Branco (White Gold). Malacacheta (Mica). Lagoa de Prata (Silver Lake).Turmalina (Tourmaline). Esmeraldas (Emeralds). It’s in the name of the state: Minas Gerais (General Mines).

My mom’s husband is a geologist, so while he was visiting we asked a cousin to show us a few mines. Amazing conversations were had with my husband and I acting as ad-hoc interpreters, as career miners compared notes with this university scientist on why certain rocks formed next to other ones and how they knew where to dig. We also learned that it’s amazingly tough work. You dig by hand with a pickax and shovel, sometimes breaking large rocks with dynamite. A pipe brings in your air and electricity.  Whatever debris you create you haul out by wheelbarrow. Non-stop. For years. You get free meals and lodging but don’t get paid until you find something. Mine financiers will pledge to feed a crew of workers in trade for a cut of whatever they find. Usually something like 50-70% goes to the mine owner and his backers. The rest gets split among the work crew.

IMG_0941So ask yourself: Could you live at the bottom of a tunnel, digging 50 hours per day, emerging only to eat and sleep? Could you sleep on a cot woven from bamboo, keeping one eye open for claim-jumpers? Could you do this for decades with no pay except a percentage of whatever you find? Sounds unfair, but to a poor person with little education and hopes of advancement, years of hard work in trade for the hope of a comfortable chunk of money and a nice retirement sounds like a pretty good deal. Better than what they had before. Could you do it? I’m not sure I could.IMG_0929


There is talk of passing labor laws (or enforcing the existing ones) to better the working conditions of the mine crews. Mining is dangerous work and cave-ins do happen.  Better safety and guarantees that workers don’t destroy their health are probably merited.  The sad flip-side is that tougher labor laws will also move the ability to finance a mine out of the reach of the small, local owner and place it exclusively in the hands of large corporations. It’s already amazing what the stones sell for locally, considering what the re-sellers will get on the global market. A lot of Brazil’s wealth historically has come and continues to come from Minas Gerais, even though it continues to have some of the poorest regions in the country. If they’re not careful about the design of those labor laws, the gigantic sucking sound of money draining from this state will only get louder. Also, with everyone digging in their back yard, how do you enforce any laws you pass? Like many things in Brazil, there isn’t an easy answer.

My father-in-law back in the day and a HUGE aquamarine. This isn’t the stone that pulled the family out of poverty; that stone was a topaz. Photo originally appeared in Geo June 2001.

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