History of the settlement of Chapada Diamantina BA

The Chapada Diamantina is located in the centre of the state of Bahia and covers an area of 50,610 km2, stretching north-south in a “Y” shape.

The climate is conditioned by the relief and differs greatly from that of its surroundings, which are typically arid. It is tropical semi-humid, with an annual average of between 20°C and 24°C.

The Chapada’s mountains form a natural barrier to the clouds that come from the sea towards the hinterland and precipitate there, with an annual average of over 1000 mm. In Lençóis, the annual average reaches 1400 mm.

Chapada Diamantina
Chapada Diamantina

The rainiest months are from November to March and the driest from July to October. However, there are sometimes extensive veranicos in the middle of the rainy season and continuous rain in the colder months.

In the midst of the depressions and plains of the Bahian hinterland, the mountains, plateaus and plateaus of the Serra do Espinhaço, which extends discontinuously southwards into Minas Gerais, are a veritable oasis.

In this central stretch of the state of Bahia, there are two parallel mountain ranges running roughly north-south: the Western Edge and Eastern Edge ranges.

Relvo da Bahia com serras
Relvo da Bahia com serras

The mountains of the Western Edge are home to Bahia’s highest points, such as the peaks of Barbado (2,030 metres), Itobira (1,970 metres) and das Almas (1,850 metres), as well as towns that were the site of gold mining in the 18th century, such as Rio de Contas, Livramento de Nossa Senhora, Piatã, Ibitiara and others.

It’s no coincidence that this area is called the “Gold Circuit” for tourism purposes, and there is also the Serra do Barbado State APA, created in 1993, with an area of 63,652 ha.

The Serra do Sincorá is a mountain range on the eastern edge, about 100 kilometres long and with altitudes ranging from just over 1,600 metres (to the west) to just under 400 metres (to the east, in the Marimbus area). It is home to the Chapada Diamantina National Park, as well as the towns of Lençóis, Andaraí and Mucugê.

Halfway between Andaraí and Mucugê are the ruins of Xique-Xique de Andaraí, now Igatu, a former gold diggers’ village.

In the mid-19th century, this entire area was the site of significant diamond mining and is now known as the “Diamond Circuit”.

In these two mountain systems, the geological structure has led to steep elevations, such as the hills of Camelo, Pai Inácio and Morrão, which make up the best-known landscape of the Chapada Diamantina in its far north, the first two outside and the last within its boundaries.

Deep canyons have also formed, from which dozens of waterfalls fall, up to 340 metres high, such as the equally famous Cachoeira da Fumaça, located near the village of Caeté-Açu (or “Capão”), in the municipality of Palmeiras.

Skirting the Serra do Sincorá, there are more flattened areas with lower altitudes, as a result of the long and continuous fluvial erosion of the less steep slopes.

Tourist map of Chapada Diamantina
Tourist map of Chapada Diamantina

There are dozens of caves and caverns in this area, such as Lapa Doce, Torrinha, Pratinha (to the north-west, inside the Marimbus-Iraquara Environmental Protection Area), Poço Encantado, Poço Azul, Lapa do Bode (to the east, near the road from Andaraí to Itaité) etc.

History of the settlement of Chapada Diamantina BA
History of the settlement of Chapada Diamantina BA

The settlement of Chapada Diamantina had 3 historical periods:

  1. Auriferous Plateau
  2. Diamond Plateau
  3. Tourist Plateau

1. Auriferous Plateau

The recommendation of King João III to Tomé de Sousa, the first governor general of Brazil, was to penetrate the backlands of Bahia.

The regiment, which came into force in 1549, contained, among other determinations, categorical orders for Tomé de Sousa to uncover, dominate and populate the interior territories, which had been left to the wild gentiles. So Bahia declared war on its Indians and set out to conquer the hinterland.

The bandeirante epic, inaugurated from then on, became the movement that would extend our western borders far beyond what was known.

Navigating the rivers and travelling on foot through the hinterlands furthest from the sea coast, countless adventurers set out into the unknown in search of land and riches, whether in the form of human merchandise – indigenous people to enslave – or in the form of metals and precious stones – at the time, gold, silver and the emerald.

Those who sought to reach the geographical heart of the Captaincy of Bahia were faced with an astonishing landscape, dominated by rugged mountains, deep gorges, swollen rivers and large plateaus.

Map of Brazil 1707 - Brasiliaanze Scheepvaard, door Johan Lerius Gedaan uit Vrankryk, in't Iaar 1556, Aa, Pieter van der
Map of Brazil 1707 – Brasiliaanze Scheepvaard, door Johan Lerius Gedaan uit Vrankryk, in’t Iaar 1556, Aa, Pieter van der

It was the Serra do Espinhaço, penetrating the central portion of Bahia and projecting its mountain ranges to peaks of around 2000 metres.

The whole area would later be called Chapada Diamantina.

Although the bandeiras of Gabriel Soares de Sousa and Belchior Dias Moreira are considered to have pioneered the opening of roads for the settlement of the interior of Bahia at the end of the 16th century, the Chapada Diamantina remained uninhabited until the middle of the 17th century, despite being surrounded by population centres linked to livestock farming.

The decisive factor in the occupation of its northern and north-eastern edges was the struggle to expel the Dutch, fought in the backlands of Bahia in the form of guerrilla warfare.

After the Maracá Indians were defeated, and with the distribution of sesmarias, the surroundings of the Chapada were occupied by cattle ranching, with the Morgado, Guedes, Brito and Casa da Ponte cattle ranches standing out.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that the process of human settlement in the Chapada gained momentum, with the discovery of gold, which had been sought after since Tomé de Sousa’s regiment. From being a gigantic stone obstacle to be circumvented, the Chapada became an important centre of convergence for the migratory movements of the time.

The first discoveries were in the north of the Chapada Diamantina, in the region of what is now the city of Jacobina, but the Portuguese Crown preferred to ban mining work so as not to empty the Minas Gerais mines.

However, with clandestine mining, the Crown ended up backtracking on its earlier decision and, in 1720, decreed the free exploitation of gold, but began to demand payment of the quinto.

Almost simultaneously, gold was discovered in the south of the Chapada Diamantina, in the alluvial fans of the Contas Pequeno river (now the Brumado river).

The first settlement was thus established on the site of the present-day town of Rio de Contas.

The two exploration fronts – Jacobina and Rio de Contas – made it possible to advance in the conquest of the hinterland in search of gold, with the consequent establishment of settlement embryos and overland communication routes across much of the Chapada’s western edge.

Gold mining in the region was so vigorous that, in 1726, the Overseas Council ordered the construction of a Casa de Fundição in each of the two towns.

In 1747 and 1748, despite rampant smuggling, record production was recorded, much of which was used sparingly to decorate the countless churches built in Salvador during the 18th century.

Jacobina and Rio de Contas, in their heyday, came to rival the cities of the sugarcane recôncavo in pomp and refinement.

Rio de Contas today has more than 300 buildings listed by the National Historic Heritage.

However, before a century of effervescence had passed, the gold region of the Chapada Diamantina went into decline.

Alluvial gold became scarce, as did the collection of the fifth; a crisis ensued and, in the early years of the 19th century, the activity was already practised by only a few prospectors.

The region then began to lose its population and Rio de Contas was only able to cope with the new reality thanks to the recognised skill of its metal artisans.

In 1818, Spix and Martius travelled through the south of the Chapada Diamantina and found that the region was inhabited by only a few farmers, cattle breeders and hunters.

According to the vicar of the local diocese, which stretched from Rio de Contas to Jacobina, thus covering the entire eastern part of the Chapada Diamantina, the region then had only 9,000 inhabitants.

In the first half of the 19th century, however, the Chapada Diamantina rose from the ashes.

The discovery of large diamond deposits in the bed of the Mucugê River sparked a new rush to the region, now on its eastern edge, where the Chapada Diamantina National Park is located today, ushering in the most prosperous and luxurious phase of its history, the reason for its current name.

2. Diamond Plateau

The rush for diamonds only took place in the mid-19th century, although there is evidence that mines had already been discovered as early as the second quarter of the 18th century, in the vicinity of Jacobina, located in a region bordering the Chapada Diamantina.

It’s possible that the existence of diamonds in the headwaters of the Contas River, where gold was mined, was known as early as the 18th century, but the first discovery of diamonds in the Chapada Diamantina took place in 1817 and 1818, in the Serra do Gagau, situated parallel to the Serra do Sincorá.

Only with the end of the Portuguese Crown monopoly on diamond mining in 1832 did diamond mining begin in Bahia.

Between 1838 and 1842, several discoveries were made in the municipality of Gentio do Ouro, Santo Inácio, Morro do Chapéu and Chapada Velha (now the municipality of Brotas de Macaúbas).

The Serra do Sincorá deposits were found in 1844 in the Mucugê region by José Pereira do Prado, a muleteer from the town of Piatã.

This discovery and others that followed brought large contingents of people from the north and south of the Chapada, from Recôncavo Baiano and Minas Gerais to the region.

A few months after the discovery of the deposits, the local population had already reached 25,000.

Between 1844 and 1848, the region welcomed around 5,500 people.

In 1845, the São José and Lençóis river deposits were discovered and the town of the same name was founded on the banks of the latter.

Given the wealth of these mines, Lençóis rose from being a district of the municipality of Santa Izabel do Paraguaçu (now Mucugê) in 1852 to becoming a town in 1864. It became the headquarters of the Repartição dos Terrenos Diamantinos (which looked after tax interests) in 1857, and the commercial centre of the region then called Lavras Diamantinas.

Crop products from the São Francisco, Contas and Utinga rivers, as well as from the towns of Campestre (now Seabra) and Palmeiras, converged on the region, especially Lençóis, where there were several concentrations of garimpos, such as Marco, Capivaras, Bicas, Rabudo, Roncador, Barro Branco and many others.

Referring to the importance of the Lavras Diamantinas in the context of Bahia, in 1857, the then President of the Province, Cansansão do Sinimbu, stated that the discovery of the deposits in the Serra do Sincorá “changed the condition of a large part of the population of the interior”.

Because mineral extraction was a simple job that didn’t require technical qualifications, it guaranteed “employment and profitable occupation” for many people.

Local society was made up of merchants and big diamond dealers, land and garimpeiro owners, small traders and diamond buyers, artisans and employees and the great mass of the garimpeiro population.

The garimpeiro population was made up mainly of unskilled and marginalised labour. In general, people were driven to dig for diamonds because of the promise of quick riches and social advancement.

The very origin of the garimpeiro in Brazil attests to this fact.

The first garimpeiro populations emerged in the middle of the 18th century, after the discovery of diamond deposits in Arraial do Tijuco (now Diamantina), in Minas Gerais, in 1729, and were made up of mestizos, freed blacks, individuals with no economic resources and no slaves, who were not absorbed by the small local labour market.

They exploited diamonds clandestinely, as the Portuguese Crown, as early as 1731, ordered the eviction of all miners from the diamond mines, in order to demarcate them and redistribute the mine plots to wealthy individuals.

Later, in 1771, diamond mining was completely banned and became a monopoly of the Crown.

The history of the mining population in the Serra do Sincorá is no exception to this rule.

The prospectors lived in conditions of extreme poverty in their region of origin: without land, without financial resources, excluded from the labour market.

Even in Serra do Sincorá, the garimpeiros did not go beyond poverty and social marginalisation.

The few who made it didn’t know how to preserve the wealth they had obtained.

The first phase of prosperity lasted only 25 years.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the exploitation of South African mines caused the price of diamonds to fall, which led to a decline in local trade. In those years, the Lençóis garimpos were practically abandoned.

Analysing the role of the region in a broader context, it can be seen that diamonds played a significant role in the provincial economy in the 1850s.

Between 1850 and 1878, diamonds were one of Bahia’s five main export products in practically every year.

In 1855 and 1856, it even contributed 15.2 per cent of provincial exports. Even so, diamonds did not shift the axis of economic hegemony from the Recôncavo Baiano to the interior.

Sugar was the province’s main product, although its production was in full decline.

In the national context, diamond mining in Bahia did not repeat the mining cycle in Minas Gerais.

In the 18th century, diamonds and gold were the main export products of colonial Brazil, but in the 19th century, coffee took on this role, accounting for approximately 50 per cent of the value of exports between 1850 and 1886.

In the same period, diamonds accounted for less than 4% of national exports in practically every year.

A new diamond cycle began in 1883, when carbonado, a black diamond used in rock drilling, which at the time was an exclusive product of the region, became valuable.

Production began to decline in 1900, but low production and high demand guaranteed rising prices until the First World War. From then on, new industrial products replaced carbonate, and mining fell again in the region.

By 1917, its inhabitants were already in exodus to “the backlands, to the state of São Paulo, to the dam works on the Paraguaçu river and to the state of Paraná, where diamond mines were discovered on the Tibagi river”.

Even so, diamonds remained the region’s main product until the first decades of the 20th century.

In 1920, there were 1,651 garimpeiros in Lençóis, corresponding to 21% of the town’s population (7,789 inhabitants) and 45.5% of its labour force

Herberto Sales, in his novels Cascalho and Além dos Marimbus, offers a socio-economic and landscape portrait of the Andaraí region around the 1930s.

The land, divided into large estates, was being cleared for pasture. But the diamond trade was still the mainstay of the regional economy and mining continued to attract a large part of the labour force.

In Lençóis in the Chapada Diamantina, there was a large concentration of garimpeiros in the Bororó and Pulgas garimpos, for example, between 1935 and 1938, whose production attracted a large number of young people.

Of the 3,747 garimpeiros registered there in those years, around 67 per cent were aged between 15 and 29.

Over the years, manual mining collapsed.

Decline was inevitable, given the lack of alternative economic activities, and families began to emigrate.

Of the 22230 inhabitants in the municipality of Lençóis in 1900, there were 5,640 left in 1980.

In the 1980s, when the Chapada Diamantina National Park was created, manual mining was practically extinct.

In the municipality of Lençóis, for example, there were no more than 50 men working, all over the age of 40.

These garimpeiros were then mere “sparklers” moving from one area to another, revolving old garimpos near the town and along the right bank of the São José river.

There were no longer any garimpeiros working in the more inland mountains, which were difficult to mine.

The extremely low production totally discouraged the interest of the more affluent and young people no longer saw mining as a way of life.

Farming, fishing, hunting and animal husbandry were then the activities that sustained the garimpeiros, much more than mining itself.

Mechanised diamond mining was never successful in the region.

In 1926, the Companhia Brasileira de Exploração Diamantina was created to exploit the Paraguaçu alluvial deposits in Andaraí, but the company did not prosper due to the low production of the deposits.

In the 1980s, the most favourable area for diamond exploration was the São José and Santo Antônio rivers.

In the 1970s, PARADISA (Diamantes Paraguaçu SA) was created to exploit the diamond alluvial deposits of the Santo Antônio and Paraguaçu rivers.

The deposits located there were only accessible through mechanised mining, which caused great damage to local ecosystems through deforestation, soil destruction and silting up of the rivers.

In 1986, Bahia’s Department of Mines and Energy recorded production of 1,800 carats from both manual mining and some mechanised mining operations that had been set up in the region in a completely irregular manner.

However, mechanised mining was definitively banned ten years later, in 1996, by the federal and state governments, due to the environmental impacts it generated.

Before that, however, there were many conflicts between dredge owners on the one hand and, on the other, government agencies and a section of the local community who saw nature conservation and tourism as the best way to boost the region’s economy.

Nor did agriculture become a strong economic activity in the region.

Coffee was introduced in 1870 and its production was intensified in 1970, mainly on the Rio Bonito Plateau in Afranio Peixoto, outside the national park area, with the Brazilian Coffee Institute’s policy of increasing its production in the Chapada Diamantina.

The low fertility of the soil made agricultural development in the Serra do Sincorá difficult.

Even so, when the Chapada Diamantina National Park was created, farming was the main economic activity in the region, with coffee, manioc and cattle being the main products.

The expansion of cattle ranching intensified the deforestation of the forested areas to the east of the park.

Plant extraction, based above all on the collection of Syngonanthus mucugensis, a 50 cm tall evergreen endemic to the Mucugê region, was the main economic activity in this municipality for 30 years after the decline of diamond mining.

Intensive harvesting has put the species at risk of extinction and is banned by IBAMA.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, trade in the town of Lençóis, once the regional economic centre, was reduced to small stores selling a variety of goods, bars, bakeries and pharmacies, and food supplies depended on the weekly market.

Tourism was still in its infancy.

In 1980, 47 per cent of families living in Lençóis had an income of less than or equal to one minimum wage or had no income at all.

3. Tourist Chapada

Tourism became an emerging activity in the region from the 1980s onwards. The first step, however, took place in 1973, when the town of Lençóis was listed as a National Historic Monument by IPHAN (National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute).

Tourist map of the Chapada Diamantina
Tourist map of the Chapada Diamantina

In 1980, Mucugê and Rio de Contas were also listed.

Later, the creation of the Chapada Diamantina National Park gave new impetus to publicising the region’s beauty.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the region still lacked the infrastructure to accommodate an intense and constant flow of visitors.

There was also no greater publicity for its architectural and landscape beauties and its historical importance at a national level, and the structuring of tourist activity was slow.

But its transformative effects were already noticeable in the construction of new houses and hotels in the city.

In the 1990s, Lençóis Airport was built, with the capacity to land and take off large commercial jets. Today, the city has regular flights to Salvador.

Good hotels and several new inns and restaurants were also built, especially in the town of Lençóis, which is considered the main gateway to the Chapada and the Chapada Diamantina National Park.

Also at this time, the region became known nationally and even internationally.

Many tourists from the south-east of Brazil and abroad come to the Chapada Diamantina through packages booked in their places of origin.

As belezas da Chapada Diamantina - Guia de Turismo

Reports on the region in tourism magazines, newspapers and television have become frequent.

The “Guia Quatro Rodas 2006” lists the Chapada Diamantina among its “Brazil Not to Be Missed” itineraries.

There are countless attractions in the region.

See also the Chapada Diamantina Tourist Guide

In addition to the colonial houses of the main towns (Lençóis, Mucugê, Andaraí and Palmeiras), there are many excursions in the interior of the mountains, including waterfalls, natural pools, rocky walls, landscapes, rapids, caves, places of historical interest, etc.

Some visitation points are located inside the Chapada Diamantina National Park and others in its vicinity.

The main support bases for easier access to the attractions located in the northern and southern portions of the park and its surroundings are, respectively, the towns of Lençóis, which has a good and varied hotel and catering infrastructure, and Mucugê, which is smaller in size but still has four good inns and other smaller ones, as well as a few restaurants.

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