Advocates and local residents say that the recent uptick in illegal mining and deforestation along Rio Branco and Rio Fresco have spurred fresh concerns about the future of the rivers in this region. A key worry is that the pollution is beginning to seep into Rio Xingu, deepening the damage.

“That’s our big worry here,” Rêgo da Silva said. “We could have a very considerable disequilibrium because Rio Xingu is one of the main rivers here in our region.”

Emboldened force

Many point to the rhetoric of Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro as a key factor that has emboldened illegal miners. The controversial far-right leader – who has his own past as a garimpeiro – has repeatedly railed against land protections as an “obstacle” to mining and development.

Bolsonaro’s government is now pushing forward a controversial bill that would permit mining in indigenous territories and the president has also said he supports opening up the 4.6-million hectare Renca reserve to miners. His predecessor Michel Temer tried to scrap protections on the massive region, which lies across the states of Pará and Amapá, but the move was blocked by a federal judge amid an international outcry.

Environmental enforcement has also been weakened under Bolsonaro’s watch. Earlier this year, he stripped Ibama, Brazil’s environmental agency, of some of its powers and handed over final say on sanctions to a newly established court. Fines for environmental crimes have plummeted since the president assumed office in January to their lowest in a decade.

All of this has resonated with clandestine miners, many of whom are poor and with little education. Local advocates say the president’s words and actions have emboldened many to venture into the Amazon without fear of repercussions.

“This discourse that Amazonia is a place with unlimited natural resources to explore – this discourse is really strong here,” said Bento da Silva. “And so people come to explore the resources of the region without taking any responsibility.”

Government agencies, including Ibama, have carried out operations in the area, aimed at halting this illegal mining. But, with dwindling resources and a vast area to monitor, it has proven difficult to contain the illicit activity.

Ibama has attempted to curtail mining activity in the Karapó indigenous territory. Image by Ibama via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Cuts to funding at Funai and Ibama have led to the closure of permanent posts in more remote parts of Brazil in recent years, leaving miners free to encroach on indigenous territories and protected areas.

In late October, illegal miners blocked four highways in Pará in protest over enforcement agents damaging mining equipment in the region. One of the blockades, on a key road linking Ourilandia do Norte to São Félix do Xingu, lasted for days.

“They want the government to stop us from being able to destroy equipment – because that’s what really hurts the garimpeiro,” said one source at a government enforcement agency, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

Earlier this year, Bolsonaro sent miners and loggers an encouraging signal when he personally intervened to stop agents from Ibama from destroying equipment confiscated during a raid on a protected area in the state of Rondônia. “It is not the orientation of this government to burn machinery,” he said in a social media video.

The enforcement agency source noted that it has become increasingly difficult to crack down on illegal mining activity in the region as garimpeiros have become bolder. “They have started feeling more powerful. They are hoping both that the government won’t punish them and that their activity will be legalized.”

For de Assunção, meanwhile, it is still unclear how his community will cope with the impact of illegal mining along rivers, especially as garimpeiros show no sign of stepping back from the region. “My livelihood is fish, my food is fish,” he said. “For those of us who live from fish, it’s a big loss.”

 

Banner image by Ibama via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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