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Indigenous groups blast Amazon state’s plan to legalize wildcat mining

  • Brazilian legislators in the Amazon state of Roraima have passed a bill legalizing garimpo wildcat mining on state lands without studies. Amendments would also legalize the use of toxic mercury in gold processing, and greatly expand the legal size of mining claims.
  • Indigenous groups say the law was passed without adequate consultation, and will invite gold miner invasions of Indigenous reserves in the state, including that of the Yanomami, the largest reserve in Brazil. Since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro more than 20,000 illegal miners have been reported on Yanomami lands.
  • Wildcat mining is already legal in some Brazilian Amazon states. Based on that experience, experts say that legalization in Roraima will enable fraud, with gold illegally mined in Indigenous reserves “laundered” to become “legal” gold, and illicit “conflict gold” trafficked from neighboring Venezuela laundered in Roraima.
  • The Roraima garimpo mining bill now awaits the state governor’s signature.

Brazil’s most northern state, Roraima, is on the verge of legalizing garimpo wildcat mining, a move backed by local politicians and mining cooperatives as a way to create jobs and revenue in one of Brazil’s least developed states.

Garimpeiros are prospectors who often mine illegally in Indigenous areas and on conserved lands sometimes working for themselves, but sometimes hired in well-equipped, gold mining operations financed by wealthy elites.

An illegal mining camp within Yanomami territory. The new law just passed in Roraima could greatly increase invasions of Indigenous reserves by miners. Image courtesy of ISA.

The new law, just approved by the state’s legislature is awaiting a signature by Roraima state Governor Antonio Denarium, an ally to President Jair Bolsonaro. The law would not permit mining on Indigenous lands or within environmentally protected areas. But it would legalize mining claims on state lands without prior studies, along with the use of toxic mercury in gold processing, and the expansion of the size of mining claims.

Human rights and Indigenous groups in the Amazon state say the measure, if signed into law, will cause irreparable damage to rivers and ecosystems on which local populations depend for food and freshwater, and will likely lead to increased invasions of Indigenous reserves, resulting in an uptick in illegal deforestation and violent conflict.

“Today, we have a serious problem with the impact of illegal mining inside Indigenous lands,” Ivo Aureliano, a lawyer with Roraima’s Indigenous Council (CIR) told Mongabay. “With this law we believe that these impacts, these rights violations, will get worse.”

Thursday morning, representatives of Roraima’s Indigenous Council (CIR) met with state prosecutors and delivered a document pointing out the risks of the new law. They also denounced increasing threats to indigenous leaders in Tabaio, Alto Alegre, a municipality that partially covers the Yanomami reserve.

Roraima’s mineral rich Indigenous lands — the most famous and largest of which is the vast Yanomami Territory — are already reeling from a significant rapid expansion of illegal gold mining, especially since President Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Bolsonaro claims to have once worked as a garimpo and has long argued that their position in society should be legally protected. In February 2019, he also introduced a federal bill, yet to pass, that would allow commercial mining within Indigenous reserves, without requiring consent.

Aureliano said the proposed Roraima legislation, pushed by Bolsonaro backers in the state, would especially endanger Indigenous people during the deadly COVID-19 second wave, now under way, as well as exposing them to coercion and violence.

Last June, the Yanomami Hutukara Association reported that two indigenous youths were shot to death on the reserve by miners who arrived by helicopter. Then, in December, two miners were killed after they reportedly kidnapped two Indigenous teenage girls.

The Yanomami reserve has historically suffered from illicit mining incursions. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of miners invaded and anthropologists say about 14% of Indigenous people in the reserve perished from disease or related violence. In 1992 the reserve was demarcated by the Brazilian government and many miners left. But in 1993, 16 Yanomami were murdered by gold miners in a conflict dubbed the Haximu massacre.

One of the perpetrators, the only living Brazilian to be charged with genocide, was recently rearrested in Roraima’s capital Boa Vista with a large quantity of gold, accused of operating an illegal mining site on the reserve and running an illicit transport and logistics network there.

“Threats to leaders, deaths of indigenous people, coercion of indigenous women, slave labor, coercion with promises to earn money, increase of consumption of alcohol inside Indigenous lands… this is already happening,” Aureliano said. “We could see a genuine genocide of Indigenous people,” with the passage of the new law.

Illegal mining inside the Yanomami Indigenous reserve. Image by Chico Batata/Greenpeace.

Inviting a new gold rush

Critics note that the state already lacks the law enforcement infrastructure or capacity to properly protect Indigenous lands. They add that the new, more permissive law will likely attract an influx of thousands of new prospectors to Roraima — also drawn there by robust gold prices topping $1,870 dollars per ounce on the global market, amid Brazil’s COVID-19 related economic downturn — which would overwhelm already struggling Indigenous and environmental protection bodies, opening conserved lands to invasion. Indigenous reserves cover 46% of Roraima’s territory.

“The illegal mining that is happening on the Yanomami reserve… it is already attracting lots of people to the state… [W]ith this measure, it will create a new gold rush,” explained Fábio Almeida, a Roraima-based historian with a background in environmental management; he recently ran for mayor of the state capital Boa Vista, representing the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL).

Almeida added: “As they say in the garimpo, the gossip of gold is already out there.” With passage of the new law, “What they’re saying is that garimpo has been liberated in Roraima.”

The illegal mining problem is already rife there, with as many as 20,000 illegal garimpos operating within the Yanomami reserve as of 2019. In November of last year, Federal Police in Roraima raided addresses in an operation — one of many similar operations in 2020 — seeking suspects accused of controlling an illegal gold mining racket on Yanomami lands.

Police say the group’s modus operandi included ownership and use of industrial mining machinery and dredging platforms, as well as utilizing recruitment for hiring miners, with sophisticated logistics in place for buying and moving supplies.

Unlike other Amazonian states where illegal mining is also a problem — including neighboring Pará, for example — Roraima doesn’t presently allow any legalized artisanal mining operations.

With garimpo legalization in the state, experts warn that gold illegally mined within Roraima’s Indigenous reserves or trafficked between Brazil and neighboring Venezuela would be much easier to pass off as legal.

Prosecutors and Federal Police sources note that in other Amazonian states, where garimpo wildcat mining is already legal, it’s common for illegal gold to be fraudulently registered as legal by gold buyers who attribute the illegal gold to a site with a legal mining license, a process dubbed as “heating up,” but also known globally as “laundering.”

The Yanomami respond in opposition to Bolsonaro administration indigenous policies. The Indigenous group has come out strongly against the new garimpo law. Image courtesy of ISA.

Opposition to Roraima’s garimpo law

Despite those potential problems, lawmakers in Roraima (some of whom, according to critics, have close connections to suppliers of mining equipment and machinery), voted heavily in favor of the legislation last week, with fifteen state representative for and just two against.

“There wasn’t a broad discussion with society… I regret this… [T]here wasn’t a public hearing with environmental bodies, people that understand the impacts,” stated Evangelista Siqueira, a representative from the Worker’s Party (PT), who voted against.

Siqueira’s criticisms echo those of a broad range of civil society groups who urged in a letter that the legislation be rejected.

“Who are the groups that will be favored with the approval of this law project? What are the interests of the State in approving a Bill of this magnitude so quickly?” the letter read.

The Roraima branch of Brazil’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) has opened a procedure to investigate if the state law is constitutional.

The legislation also included several amendments which received criticism. One permits the use of mercury by miners — the highly toxic substance used in the gold amalgamation process, which is linked to birth defects and other debilitating disease.

Another amendment expanded the proposed size of mining areas from 50 hectares for individuals to 200 hectares for mining cooperatives with more than 2,000 members.

Governor Denarium, who sent the law to the chamber, touted the legislation as beneficial to the economic development of Roraima state. “Today, all the gold produced in the state of Roraima goes underground [into the black market] but with regularized mining, the commercialization of this ore can be done here with the issuance of invoices,” he said.

Mongabay wrote to the governor’s office but received no response by publication.

Indigenous Council lawyer Aureliano concluded, “If mining brought development, Roraima already would be the most developed state in the country.”

Banner image: A Yanomami woman and child. Image by Cmacauley licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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