- Garimpeiros, gold miners, began arriving in large numbers on the Tropas River in the Tapajós basin in the 1980s. Driven out by Munduruku Indians, they returned in 2010, invading land occupied by 21 riverside indigenous communities. Despite protests by the Ipereg Ayu Movement, the Munduruku’s resistance group, the government has largely failed to act.
- Today, the river is polluted as never before, and the indigenous people feel threatened. After repeated complaints by the Ipereg Ayu Movement, the federal authorities made a raid on a few mines in May, destroying some mining equipment. But the Federal Police failed to dislodge any miners currently occupying Munduruku territory.
- The mine owners, in retaliation, took their protest to Brasilia. There, a federal deputy is urging passage of a bill to stop IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, from destroying seized mining equipment onsite, forcing the agency to turn it over to local authorities, many who are sympathetic to miners, and who could return the equipment to the miners.
- Another bill could open all indigenous land in Brazil to large-scale mining. Many Munduruku remain defiant, and have led Tropas River patrols in an attempt to negotiate with mine owners and force them to leave. Analysts fear that, if the miners are not forced off indigenous lands and out of Crepori National Forest, violence could be inevitable.
“The gold mining in our territory is bringing a lot of illness, a lot of malaria. It’s bringing alcohol into our communities. It’s bringing drugs into our territory,” said Maria Leusa, a Munduruku female warrior and a leading member of the Ipereg Ayu Movement (the phrase means “I am strong” in the Munduruku language). “The garimpeiros [gold miners] are worsening the divisions within our community, co-opting some Munduruku leaders and giving them guns. They are bringing in cachaça [cheap rum], seducing our young girls. We are afraid it will all get worse. We must stop it.”
Leusa is outspoken, despite news from an informant revealing that mine owners have offered to pay 100 grams of gold to the person who assassinates her. She talked to Mongabay in the indigenous village of Boca do Rio das Tropas, near where the Tropas River flows into the Tapajós River. Leusa was there taking part in a meeting of Munduruku women expressing anger and indignation at the impact of mining on their communities.
This isn’t small-scale artisanal mining. The Munduruku women say that there are now mines, using heavy, damaging equipment, at the headwaters of the Tropas River — all well supported by an airstrip where supply planes arrive daily. All 21 Munduruku villages, with a combined population of about 500 individuals, have been negatively affected by the stream’s worsening severe pollution and by rising violence.
Unfortunately for the Munduruku, a raid launched against the mines on 5 May by Federal Police, known as Operation Pajé Bravo, while it destroyed some equipment, did little to close the mines on Munduruku land. Instead, death threats against the Indians have multiplied, and the possibility of violence in this remote part of the Amazon is growing.
The river polluted
Aloísio Ikopi, a respected Munduruku chronicler and Boca de Igarapé Preto resident, described the harm done so far. Clearly very angry, he said that the garimpeiros have carelessly and unnecessarily damaged the forest around the mines. They have even pulled out timbó planted by their ancestors.
The timbó is an important ceremonial plant. It possesses a poisonous root, which Amazon indigenous groups use at an annual festival, called a tinguejada. Held in the rainy season, when fish are abundant, the celebration ends in a feast. Poison from the timbó root, rarely used at other times, enables the Indians to gather quantities of stunned fish for the feast.
Ikopi explained that the miners are polluting the river, with catastrophic impact. “The pariwats [whites] have killed the Mother of the Fish. We didn’t see her die, but we knew that she would die, when [the miners] came up our river with their excavators,” he said. “Along with the machines came a lot of pariwats [white people]. I saw so many fish die.”
The Munduruku ancestors are angry, he explained: “They are telling us, we must not accept this kind of destruction. Pariwats don’t depend on the forest; they live on destruction. But we depend on the forest for our survival — on the fish, wild animals, fruit, açaí palm. And we can’t even eat açaí berries [a staple food] any more, as they’ve destroyed the açaí trees in the forest. In the past, our forefathers warned us that if we knocked down as much as one buriti palm, we were all going to suffer. Imagine today!”
Sustainable vs. unsustainable mining
The first pariwat miners arrived in the 1960s but they only came in large numbers in the 1980s after reports that the Tapajós River held one of the world’s richest gold reserves. The Munduruku united at that time in opposition and expelled the miners.
But then some Munduruku individuals began to open small-scale mines. This was because the indigenous people now required a small cash income in order to deal with the pariwats. Like the early miners, the Indian miners used simple equipment, a pump driven by a small engine, which limited harm to the river — however, the mining being done was still illegal.
In responding to that illegal activity, some Munduruku say that the problem is not that gold mining is being done, but how it is being done. The pariwats, they say, are much less careful than the Munduruku. Because all their supplies arrive by air, including food, the mine owners make no effort to restrict harm to the forest’s bounty because they don’t need it for survival.
In 2010, the pariwats came back. This time they arrived in much larger numbers. And they took care to win over some Munduruku with gifts, which others call bribes. By that time, FUNAI was being dismantled and defunded by the government, and the Munduruku received little of the support they were legally entitled to in the area of health, education and transport. This made it easier for the pariwats to gain backing within the communities.
The mine owners laid claim to both banks of the Tropas River. On one shore lies the Munduruku Indigenous Territory, whose communities have completed the long legal process of government recognition for their protected indigenous land. On the other bank is a conservation unit, the National Forest of Crepori. Both these river bank areas are completely off limits to mining.
When the mine owners returned in 2010, they came equipped with much bigger, far more damaging equipment. The Munduruku have complained about the harm being done repeatedly to Brazilian authorities, including IBAMA, the government’s environmental agency; ICMBio, the Chico Mendes Institute of Conservation and Biodiversity; FUNAI, the government’s indigenous agency; and the MPF, the Federal Public Ministry, with its independent litigators.
The federal response has been slow, largely ineffective and even ambivalent. In part, this is because the government itself appears divided. While there are dedicated environmentalists and fervent indigenous supporters among national officials, many federal, state and local politicians and regulators are linked to the mine owners. Indeed, some owners have used the money made in the mines to create a political lobby and get their own deputies elected to congress.
Back in 1983, the military government, notorious for its hostility toward indigenous groups, created the Garimpeiro Reserve of Tapajós, an area of 28.7 square kilometers (11 square miles), where gold mining was to be permitted. When later Crepori National Forest was created, some of it overlapped with the Garimpeira Reserve, so mining was even permitted within the national forest. Officially, a long licensing process has always been required for outsiders wanting to utilize the mining area, but, in practice, that licensing rarely happened.
With almost all the mines in the Garimpeiro Reserve being irregular and unofficial, IBAMA has occasionally carried out operations to deter illegal mining, burning all the equipment it encountered in the area. But as recently as 2013, there were reports of at least 50,000 garimpeiros mining there, though estimates are imprecise as no one knows where the reserve begins and ends on the ground, as it has never been demarcated by the government.
Now, large-scale mining on indigenous land looms. Big mining companies, like Brazil’s Vale, plus several Canadian companies, are very keen to move in. But, before they can, Congress must pass a law determining how such mining would be regulated. Just such a bill, which would permit mining on all indigenous land in Brazil, has been languishing in the legislature for years. But recently pressure has grown for passage.
Enforcement run amok, or not enough
As already noted, the Brazilian authorities have mounted infrequent law enforcement operations to end gold mining in specific areas of the Tapajós basin, but most of these have lasted just a few days, and the mine operators have quickly regrouped afterward and reinstated the mines once the authorities had gone.
One such raid went spectacularly wrong in November 2012, when Federal Police invaded the Munduruku village of Teles Pires to set fire to a gold mining barge. The police failed to prepare the indigenous community properly for the operation, and the abrupt arrival of scores of armed police took villagers by surprise. In the ensuing confusion, one Munduruku man was killed and several more seriously wounded. Since then, the Federal Police have been cautious about mounting operations on indigenous land.
Still, as more and more mines have been opened in Munduruku territory, the Ipereg Ayu Movement has become increasingly exasperated at the government’s lack of law enforcement, and so has increasingly resorted to direct action.
In January 2014, men and women warriors from the Ipereg Ayu Movement travelled along the Tropas River for almost three weeks, closing illegal mines and confiscating equipment. They located 46 heavy excavating machines.
But again, the miners returned. In December 2017, the Federal Public Ministry issued a recommendation urging that IBAMA and ICMBio undertake periodic enforcement operations against illegal mining along the Tropas River. Little happened.
Munduruku on patrol
In January 2018, six motorized canoes, packed with dozens of Munduruku warriors, armed with bows and arrows and shotguns, (accompanied by older Indians and children), set out on another unofficial policing action.
A correspondent, Fabiano Maisonnave from the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, travelled with them. He reported that almost the entire length of the Tropas River, from its headwaters, where most of the mines are located, to where it flows into the Tapajós, had been seriously polluted by the mining. Waters that were once translucent, were now muddy and dirty, he wrote. Arnaldo Kaba, the Munduruku’s chief cacique (leader), told the reporter that he hadn’t seen a single butterfly fly across the polluted water.
After passing a huge Tropas River mine located within Crepori National Forest, the Munduruku reached the village of PV, an abbreviation for Posto de Vigilância, the FUNAI guard post originally set up as a headquarters for preventing illegal mining, a plan never effectively implemented.
Ironically, garimpeiros were everywhere inside the reserve, wrote the journalist. They had built a landing strip in the village of PV, and seven small planes arrived in the afternoon and evening the reporter was there. The planes ferried in large amounts of food, fuel, alcohol and other supplies, demonstrating that the mine owners are not running small-scale artisanal operations, but large, well organized ventures.
Arnaldo Kaba told Mongabay that the local cacique, Osvaldo Waro, and his son, João, had been seduced by the garimpeiros’ offer of money. In meetings held with the garimpeiros, Kaba told the miners firmly that they must leave the land, but Wara was ambivalent, asking the garimpeiros to deliver on past promises, such as building an artesian well for the village.
While Waro was talking, a mine owner stood up and handed him 20 grams of gold, worth about US $500. One of the garimpeiros, known as Barbudo (the bearded one), agreed that it was indeed a large amount, but said that it was meant to compensate for his eating, sleeping and drinking in Waro’s house. “At times, we spend 15, 20 grams of gold on cachaça [cheap rum] and prostitutes in one day,” he said. “We can’t give him less than this.”
Slippery slope to violence
Despite the temptation to accept such payments, most Munduruku are well aware of the environmental harm the mines are doing, and they support the Ipereg Ayu Movement’s attempts to close them down. Since January 2018 the movement has continued with its offensive. In March, its members returned to PV village and found dozens of pariwats at work there, using dozens of heavy machines.
The Ipereg Ayu enforcers were then confronted by drunken Munduruku men, allied with the pariwat and armed with revolvers, who threatened cacique Arnaldo Kaba and two women warriors, Maria Leusa and Ana Poxo.
A garimpeiro revealed that two Munduruku Indians had paid five pariwats 250 grams of gold – about US $6,000 – to kill the Ipereg Ayu Movement leaders. Later, an informant passed on a phone recording, made in a bar in the town of Jacareacanga, during which a garimpeiro called Evandro Alves de Melo said that 100 grams of gold would be paid to the person who murdered Maria Leusa.
Shortly after this, the authorities took action. On 3 May, the Federal Police, accompanied by IBAMA and ICMBio personnel, launched Operation Pajé Bravo against the illegal mines. Using a helicopter and three planes, they destroyed eight excavators and a tractor over a two-day period. On the ground, they issued 33 infraction notices and imposed fines. In a coordinated assault, part of another operation, they raided business offices in the cities of Santarém and Itaituba, seeking to break up the network by which gold, illegally extracted from the hundreds of mines in the region, is sold.
In a statement to Mongabay, Roberto Cabral, IBAMA’s coordinator of monitoring operations, explained why the agency carried out the raids: “The Munduruku Indigenous Territory is the focus of intense pressure from illegal mining. The exploitation of natural resources leads to the silting of rivers and creeks, along with mercury contamination. Communities and animals are affected by the destruction caused by the mines.”
Government action urgently needed
Operation Pajé Bravo seems to have only exacerbated the situation along the Tropas River. The Munduruku opposed to mining remain angry and unsatisfied, noting that the police failed to combat the mining going on inside their territory. They say that there are at least 69 excavators still at work on their land and none of these were destroyed. The Munduruku note that the only time the police actually entered their land was to arrive and leave the region, using the landing strip in PV village.
Some of the biggest mines — that cause great environmental damage — were not disrupted by the raid and are located in Crepori National Forest. The Indians say that the national forest, though created on paper in 2006, has never been properly implemented and patrolled, so the garimpeiros roam there at will.
The 3 May raids also provoked an angry reaction from the garimpeiros. At first, they threatened to blockade the BR-163 highway, a vital artery for agribusiness commodities export, running from Cuiabá, Mato Grosso State, to Santarém, Pará state. Their slogan: “Garimpeiros aren’t bandits.”
But then the mine owners changed strategy, instead sending a delegation to Brasilia where they were confident that their complaint would be well received by the powerful bancada ruralista, the agribusiness and mining lobby, in Congress.
On 5 May, a right-wing federal deputy, Joaquim Passarinho, presented a bill to prevent IBAMA destroying mining equipment onsite that it seizes. Instead, in future it would have to hand the machines over to municipal authorities, a direct concession to the mine owners. In the past, before IBAMA began destroying the equipment, owners had been able to go to court and readily reclaim their machinery, which they could again do under the new rules.
The Munduruku had been hopeful that Operation Pajé Bravo would at last remove the miners from their territory, but they now see little sign of this happening. Mongabay spoke to the women warriors in the village of Boca do Rio das Tropas on 11 May, just a week after the Pajé Bravo raid. As everyone talked, they could see garimpeiros down on the river bringing in new machinery on barges to replace what had been destroyed. =
In fact, the situation seems more volatile than ever. Maria Leusa and other members of the Ipereg Ayu Movement have become more visible, which puts them at high personal risk. In spite of this, Maria Leusa remains defiant: “We are receiving a lot of death threats,” she concedes, “but we can change things. It’s our only chance.”
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