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Goldminers overrun Amazon indigenous lands as COVID-19 surges

  • Reports filed by NGOs including the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) and Greenpeace Brazil say that a major invasion of indigenous reserves and conservation units is underway, prompted by miners well backed with expensive equipment supplied by wealthy elites.
  • Miners are emboldened, say the NGOs, by the inflammatory anti-indigenous and anti-environmental rhetoric of the Jair Bolsonaro administration which has sent a clear signal so far, that it has no major plans of stopping the invasions or penalizing the perpetrators.
  • Through June of this year, deforestation by mining within conserved areas represented 67.9% of total tree loss in Legal Amazonia. From January to June, illegal mining destroyed 2,230 hectares (5,510 acres) of forest inside conservation units (UCs) and 1,016 hectares (2,510 acres) inside indigenous territories (TIs).
  • The miners’ onslaught also poses a serious COVID-19 threat. The virus has so far infected at least 14,647 indigenous people and caused 269 deaths on indigenous lands. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is pressing for passage of legislation authorizing mining on indigenous lands; presently the bill is stalled in the house of deputies.
Illegal mining within the Munduruku Indigenous Territory, 12 May, 2020.. The earth along this Amazon stream is torn up by heavy duty earthmoving equipment, expensive machinery clearly not acquired by the miners, but likely supplied by wealthy elite land grabbers. Image © Marcos Amend/Greenpeace.

Thousands of miners in search of gold within Brazil’s Amazon Indigenous Territories (TIs) and Conservation Units (UCs), are illegally clearing forests and polluting rivers at an alarming rate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — more than 88,000 Brazilians are dead of the pandemic, with more than 430,000 cases reported in the Amazon as of 28 July.

As the miners wreak havoc on the environment and terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, they also act as potential vectors for the coronavirus, which has already infected at least 14,647 indigenous people and caused 269 deaths on indigenous lands, according to a report by the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian NGO. Some indigenous people have even been pressured, or coerced via death threats, to provide labor to carry out this illegal activity, ISA says.

Earlier this month, Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão stated that indigenous people should be “more integrated” into society — an assimilation agenda often voiced by President Jair Bolsonaro. The Vice President claimed, without offering evidence, that thousands of indigenous people contracted the coronavirus when they traveled to cities to collect assistance benefits or to shop, and not due to the illegal invasion of miners.

The Amazon gold rush has been exacerbated by the country’s greatly weakened environmental protections — ordered by Bolsonaro and executed by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles — which has triggered a marked increase in deforestation due to illegal mining in protected areas. In the first six months of this year, according to alerts from the National Space Research Institute, INPE’s Deter satellite monitoring system, deforestation by mining within conserved areas represented 67.9% of total tree loss in Legal Amazonia, a socio-geographic designation including all or parts of nine states in the Brazilian Amazon.

Illegal mining within an indigenous reserve detected in a Greenpeace Brazil flyover. Image © Chico Batata/Greenpeace.

During a monitoring flight in May,  the NGO Greenpeace spotted extensive destruction caused by mining within four protected areas in Pará state: those conserved areas included the Munduruku TI, Sai Cinza TI, Altamira National Forest and Jamanxin National Park (a fully protected unit in which all mineral exploration is prohibited).

According to Article 231 of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, mining within indigenous lands is illegal. In conservation units, it can be practiced only in some categories of sustainable use, with the proper authorizations, according to law 9.985/2000. Bolsonaro has heavily pressured Congress to overthrow these restrictions, which it can legally do, but the legislature has so far resisted his aggressive entreaties.

But that hasn’t stopped the rising wave of rampant lawlessness: Greenpeace recently registered images of newly devastated areas, including recently built roads opened into both the Munduruku and Apiaká territories.

From the air, the NGO’s investigators spotted tractors and backhoes ripping down trees and removing large amounts of soil; the use of such heavy equipment is a strong indicator that the miners are not acting along, but being paid for hire by ruralista elite land grabbers who have significant money to pump into the illegal endeavors.

Land speculators have become utterly emboldened as Bolsonaro has hamstrung IBAMA, the nation’s environmental agency, preventing it from investigating widespread Amazon deforestation on protected lands.

From January to June of this year, illegal mining destroyed 2,230 hectares (5,510 acres) of forest inside conservation units (UCs) according to INPE.

Deforestation reached 1,016 hectares (2,510 acres) within indigenous lands over that same period, with tree loss on Munduruku and Sai Cinza TIs representing 56% of the total. In June of this year alone, 406 hectares (1,003 acres) were deforested inside indigenous territories, with 151 hectares (373 acres) of forest lost in the Munduruku TI and 60 hectares (148 acres) in the Sai Cinza TI.

Illegal mining inside the Munduruku Indigenous Land in Pará state, Brazil, May 12, 2020. © Chico Batata/Greenpeace.

“Deforestation by illegal mining in the Amazon is smaller [in area] compared to deforestation by clear cutting [usually done to clear property for illegal sale as cattle pasture or croplands], but that does not mean that the environmental impacts are insignificant. Ore prospecting, especially for gold, negatively affects the food chain, indigenous peoples’ lives and rivers’ health, polluting them with mercury and other highly toxic substances,” Carol Marçal, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil, told Mongabay.

“Illegal miners cut trees to access forest areas and [then] install heavy machinery, while dredges [floating barges that suck up sand, silt and gold] go up the river,” Marçal added.

In May, Greenpeace filed a public civil action with the Federal Public Ministry of Pará (MPF-PA) asking the Federal Union, IBAMA, ICMBio (the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, the nation’s national park agency), and FUNAI (Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency) to fight against illegal mining in protected areas.

MPF-PA issued a lawsuit demanding that “the bodies in charge be obliged to again combat illegal mining.” The new suit noted that as the result of an earlier, 2018 lawsuit filed by the MPF in Federal Court, “there was [already] an agreement [in place] to carry out inspections, but the agencies limited themselves to carry out [only] a single operation, and since then the situation has only worsened… [Now] mining is advancing towards areas closer to [indigenous] villages.”

But the lawsuits have had little effect, say analysts, because illegal mining is not only tolerated by government agencies, but is also condoned, and even encouraged, by officials in commanding positions. According to the MPF-PA, last May, José Arthur Macedo Leal, FUNAI’s regional coordinator in the municipality of Itaituba — who should be impartial — reportedly encouraged indigenous people to favor mining legalization on their lands.

In an audio recording leaked by an unnamed source and distributed via social networks and included with the Public Ministry’s lawsuit, FUNAI’s Leal is heard to say that this is “the right time for indigenous people to discuss a policy aimed at legalizing gold mining in the Munduruku TI.” His comments are similar to those made by Environmental Minister Salles in April, when he suggested that the government should take advantage of the pandemic to “pass reforms of [environmental] deregulation [and] simplification.”

The government strategy has indeed attracted some indigenous people to participate in illegal mining. “The intrusion of white miners into the interior of indigenous territories often has the support of indigenous criminals who receive commissions or directly carry out the activity and… go so far as to threaten relatives by sharing photos on social networks bearing firearms,” says the MPF-PA document. “The use of serious threats against [indigenous] peers of their own ethnicity has been commonplace, in order to keep them silent and not to inform the press and authorities about the situation of extreme violence and existential risk to which they have been subjected.”

Contacted by Mongabay, the MPF press office was not available to give a position on the progress of the lawsuit.

Greenpeace’s Marçal says that mining has been causing indelible damage in the Amazon. She recalls that a 2018 technical report by the Federal Police attested to the fact that the Tapajós River — which passes through several TIs, including those of the Munduruku and Sai Cinza peoples, along with several conservation units — was at the time receiving dumped mining waste totaling at least seven million tons per year.

That is “equivalent to saying that every 11 years, mining activity dumps in the Tapajós River the same amount, in mass, of sediments that Samarco [the mining company] illegally released into the Doce River, when its [iron mining] tailings dam broke [in November 2015],” according to the Federal Police report. The Samarco spill is considered Brazil’s greatest environmental disaster ever.

Last February, Bolsonaro pushed forward legislation authorizing mining on indigenous lands. The 191/2020 bill awaits analysis via the creation of a special commission within the House of Deputies. However, the head of the lower house has so far blocked the bill.

Banner image: A stretch of river wrecked by gold mining inside the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve, 12 May, 2020. In addition to deforestation, the stream is polluted with toxic mercury used to process gold which can contaminate fish and poison local indigenous and traditional people who eat the fish. Image © Marcos Amend/Greenpeace.

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