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Brazil's Santa Terezinha de Goias Lures Thousands Seeking Emeralds

November 20, 1988|MIRIAM JORDAN | Reuters

SANTA TEREZINHA DE GOIAS, Brazil — Under the sweltering sun, Ana Rosa da Silva bends her frail body and hammers away at a pile of rock.

Like thousands of other hope-filled prospectors--men, women and children--Da Silva is searching for emeralds.

In the heart of Brazil, Santa Terezinha de Goias is the biggest emerald reserve in the world. Economic hardship drives tens of thousands of people here every year.

Few strike it rich. Most just survive.

"It's all a matter of luck," said the 46-year-old Da Silva, pounding with all her might. "There are days when I find nothing. Then there are days when I make 5,000 cruzados ($15), 10,000 or even 50,000 cruzados. But thank God I manage to feed the four kids."

Since the reserve was discovered in 1981, prospectors--called garimpeiros in Portuguese--have extracted an incalculable amount of emeralds.

Experts say some of Santa Terezinha's stones sell for $100,000 in the United States, West Germany and Japan.

Brazil is the world's leading producer of colored precious and semiprecious stones. Experts estimate it has 60% of the Earth's reserves.

Trade in Brazilian aquamarines, amethyst, topazes, tourmalines, alexandrites and emeralds tops $3 billion a year, say industry experts. Emeralds alone probably account for one-third of this total.

Not that one would guess, looking at the town, that it produced considerable riches. Just like Brazil's gold mining communities, Santa Terezinha is squalid.

Pigs and chickens cross the dirt paths lined with mud slums. There is no wealth to be seen except for a new Fiat or Ford parked outside a couple of shacks.

The 10,000 prospectors dream of finding the emerald that Elizabeth Taylor or an Oriental princess will wear.

The ideal emerald should weigh three carats, be a deep romantic green and transparent enough to capture the rays of the sun.

But even if a prospector is lucky enough to find a valuable stone, he may underestimate its true value or sell it for a fraction of its worth to liquidate a debt or get cash fast.

"I sold a beauty for 100,000 cruzados ($330) to a guy and before my very eyes he turned around and sold it to someone else for 500,000 ($1,650)," said Ismael Dourado, 55, a newcomer to Santa Terezinha.

All along the dusty corridors of this self-contained world emeralds are inspected, bought and sold.

Everyone, from the small dealer who resells in Brazil's cities to the big exporter, bargains with prospectors for gems.

David Ming, a buyer from Taiwan, said he would sell the emeralds he had bought in Santa Terezinha for 10 times the price in the Far East.

"There is a complete hierarchy operating in the system," said Nelson Guzzo, president of the state company Metal Goias, which buys gems in Santa Terezinha.

"The man doing the dirty work doesn't get rich. It is an illusion to think the prospector is making a fortune."

At the top of the hierarchy are the businessman who have the capital needed to open a shaft 950 feet deep. Dynamite and special tools are used to break open the schist rock where the emeralds are found.

These investors pay men $11 a week to prepare, explode and collect the rock inside the shaft. Most also get a free pile of rock to try their luck at.

The miners often steal or make special arrangements with the shaft guard to feed their family.

"To survive you have to be smart. I made a deal with the shaft guard. If I spotted a good stone we'd split the profit," said Hildon Maia, 22, who worked in one shaft for two years.

Tales abound of miners who swallow emeralds or stick them in their underwear to escape with a small fortune.

"Some people disappear and you figure they found an extra valuable stone and scrammed. But you've got to be careful because if the boss finds out or sees you parading a brand-new car, that's it," Maia said.

There is no control of the emerald production in Santa Terezinha.

"The government doesn't know what the gem production is nor how much the state loses each year, but it's in the billions (of cruzados)," said official Ivan Coimbra.

Coimbra, of the Banco do Brasil's foreign trade department, Cacex, said it is virtually impossible to control the stone traffic from thousands of sites in the country.

Out of the estimated $3-billion trade, only $100 million was registered with Cacex in 1987.

Ivan Endeffry, president of the Brazilian Institute of Gems and Precious Metals, estimated that 90% of Brazil's gems are smuggled out of the country without appearing on official records.

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