Tom Phillips

THOUSANDS OF impoverished Brazilian workers are flocking to a tiny Amazon outpost after rumours of the discovery of a "new Eldorado," sparking a desperate rush for gold and fears for the environment. Reports in local newspapers claim that at least 3,000 Brazilians have arrived in the small town of Apui, in the state of Amazonas, since the New Year, when traces of gold were found on the banks of the Juma river, 50 miles north of the town.

Ivani Valentim da Silva, a local teacher who has visited the illegal gold mine, said: "The excitement [at the mine] is so great they think Saddam Hussein is still alive."

This week, as the influx of miners continued, a government delegation travelled to Apui, which has a population of fewer than 20,000, amid concerns about environmental destruction and outbreaks of malaria.

An editorial in the Diario do Amazonas newspaper warned that "nomadic" mining would leave "a trail of environmental and social" destruction, contaminating rivers with mercury, encouraging deforestation, and bringing the threat of an explosion in drug use and violence to the once sleepy town.

There are also fears that the sudden influx of people could create another Serra Pelada, a vast gold mine in the neighbouring state of Para that once attracted 30,000 workers and became notorious through the photographs of the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado.

Mr. Silva believes that around 300 men are still arriving at the isolated mine each day, despite signs that the gold may already be running out.

During the 1980s, tens of thousands of Brazilians from all over the country made for remote gold mines in the Amazon jungle in search of a quick buck. In wild west-style Amazonian outposts, where gunslinging and child prostitution was rife, the rush created hundreds of instant millionaires with nicknames like Rambo and the White Panther.

Most of these mines have long since been abandoned, leaving virtual ghost towns in the middle of the forest, accessible only by boat or light aircraft.

Antonio Roque Longo, the mayor of Apui, told a newspaper that despite the sudden financial boom, the locals feared the invasion would bring an epidemic of prostitution, violence, and disease. "The hotels are full, which should be good for the municipality, but residents are scared," he said.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006