"Guarico" is lounging in a hammock near gigantic Amazonian gold deposits where he has spent 11 years searching for his jackpot.

But far from counting his riches, he's ticking off the days before he quits this one-time boom town that's going bust."I'm not doing anything. I've been defeated," says the 25-year-old gold hunter.

The Amazon rain forests of eastern Venezuela used to be a place where a poor man with a pick and shovel could strike it rich - or at least dream of it.

But now the government is chasing illegal miners off some of the best land to make way for international companies that have concessions to mine for gold.

That has environmentalists worried that miners are moving to untapped lands where they will leave more paths of destruction.

The miners "may cause even worse damage if they aren't located in areas where they can be controlled," said Jorge Padron, head of the National Ecological and Social Union.

Thousands of miners flooded into the Imataca rain forest in the 1980s. They searched for gold that over the centuries has attracted explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh, who sought the legendary golden city of "El Dorado."

In Imataca they built a frontier town called Las Claritas on top of what is believed to be the richest gold deposit in Latin America. The town grew to 10,000 people, including entire families. They came from as far as Colombia, Brazil and the Dominican Republic and built houses out of plastic sheets and wooden poles.

Each day they dug out rocks, put them into sacks and trudged to a mill where gold was separated from dirt. Everyone had good days and bad. Yet during the boom, miners earned as much as $5,000 a month at a time when the average worker in Venezuela made about $200.

But ecologists said the miners destroyed the environment with mercury and high-pressure water hoses used to uproot trees. Government officials complained it was impossible to collect taxes or control the miners, whose village was rife with drugs, violence and prostitution.

Several years ago, authorities forced Las Claritas' residents to relocate a few miles away. The new town - Las Nuevas Claritas - prospered at first. But then the government sold rights to the prized mining site to Canada's Placer Dome and other mining companies.

Today, Las Nuevas Claritas is fading. It used to boast a couple dozen ore mills. Now there are two.

One of them, where Guarico works, used to operate 24 hours a day. Now it cranks up no more than six hours. The amount of gold sacks processed is down from 600 a day to 50. The town's population has dwindled to 3,000.

"Before it was a situation of bonanza. There was lots of gold and it was easy," said miner Juan Tremeria. "Now we have a situation where people are going hungry."

Few miners have fortunes stashed away from gold's heyday.

Most blew their money on alcohol, prostitutes and wild parties in the remote jungle village, where goods were expensive. The gold diggers, like the rest of Venezuela that was experiencing an oil boom, neglected to save for a rainy day.

Nowadays, a miner is lucky if he makes $400-$500 a month.