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Persistence of slave labor exposes lawlessness of Amazon gold mines

  • A notorious mining family continued to be awarded permits and lay claims to land in the Brazilian Amazon after being busted for enslavement of workers in a 2018 raid.
  • The gold mining operations overseen by Raimunda Oliveira Nunes were raided in 2018 and 2020 by labor inspectors, who rescued 77 workers from slave-labor conditions. Nunes was convicted last year in court but remains free pending an appeal.
  • An investigation by Mongabay shows that, even after the first raid and Nunes’s inclusion on a blacklist of known enslavers, she and her children were still able to apply for and obtain permits from the National Mining Agency (ANM).
  • Mongabay also found that they staked claims to land under the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), which is often exploited by land grabbers trying to legitimize illegal activities such as mining, cattle ranching or farming.

Scattered in the countryside around the municipalities of Itaituba and Jacareacanga in Brazil’s Pará state, gold mining operations run by the family of a notorious convicted enslaver have have subjected dozens of workers to slave-labor conditions for years, a Mongabay investigation has found.

A sweeping raid carried out in August 2018 by the GEFM labor inspection team, now under the Ministry of the Economy, rescued 38 workers at the Coatá mine owned by Raimunda Oliveira Nunes in Jacareacanga. Another operation in October 2020 found 39 people working in similar conditions in mining camps owned by Nunes and her family in the same region. Pará has the most illegal mines of any state in Brazil.

Both operations were among the largest of their type ever carried out in Brazil’s mining regions. The workers were held in degrading work conditions, which included improvised housing with no bathrooms, contaminated drinking water, no protective gear, and arbitrary fees that resulted in debt bondage with no work contracts.

The investigation by Mongabay highlights the persistence of these illegal gold mines, known as garimpos. Even after the 2018 raid, Raimunda Oliveira Nunes and her children, Raifran and Tamis Danielle, continued filing applications for mining permits with the National Mining Agency (ANM), a federal body connected to the Ministry of Mines and Power. The ANM granted the Nunes family approval in four of the applications.

Mining camp workers were kept in degrading work conditions: improvised housing with no bathrooms, contaminated water, a lack of protective gear, and arbitrary fees that resulted in debt bondage with no work contracts. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Ministry of Labor.

In October 2018, only two months after the first GEFM raid, Nunes was granted a gold mining permit in Itaituba, valid through 2023. Another application, filed in 2011 for prospecting, is still under analysis. Raifran Oliveira Nunes, who runs the family’s mining operations, filed eight applications for prospecting and mining with the ANM between 2018 and 2020. Three prospecting permits were granted through 2022.

“The ANM should carry out inspections to monitor these sorts of occurrences and block them,” says Paulo de Tarso Moreira from the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF). “There should be a process to filter out slave labor and single out people who break laws and prospect illegally.” Moreira wrote the indictment leading to Raimunda Nunes’ jailing after the 2018 operation.

On Oct. 20, 2020, just a week before the second bust, Raimunda Oliveira Nunes was sentenced in federal court to five years and three months in prison for having subjected the workers at the Coatá mine to conditions analogous to slavery. She remains free pending an appeal and was not at the mine at the time of the raid.

A lawyer for Raimunda Nunes said she would not make a statement for this article. The ANM press office has not made it clear whether it was aware of the case, which criteria it considered in approving the permit applications, and which measures it may now take in light of the information provided by Mongabay.

“The management at the ANM is influenced by private interests. It is not focused on the good of the general public,” de Tarso says. “The Prosecutor’s Office filed lawsuits in which we requested the ANM not even file certain requests because they are flagrantly illegal and unconstitutional.”

Labor inspectors found 39 workers in slave-labor conditions at mines belonging to Raimunda Nunes and her family in October 2020. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Ministry of Labor.

Masking the crimes

Filing applications with the ANM is one of the ways in which operators like the Nunes family mask their crimes. They also created a sham gold miners’ cooperative in Pará in 2020, with Raimunda as the president and her children as directors. The co-op was meant to disguise the real conditions of the workers and the mining camps themselves and also to make it look like the miners had organized themselves.

Last year’s raid highlighted the serious funding behind the mining operation. The work camps at the Pau Rosa gold mine had four backhoes worth 1 million reais ($177,000) each. These were responsible for extensive environmental damage, including inside the nearby Amana National Forest, one of the best-preserved regions in the Solimões River Basin.

Magno Riga, the labor inspector in charge of the 2020 raid, said the permit applications were a ruse to lend a legal veneer to the mining operation.

“The areas where we found the gold mines had no permission for mining,” he says. “Their argument was that very nearby there had been a recent prospecting permit that hadn’t been approved in the name of Raifran. Therefore there was no authorization for mining rights, yet they [mined] the ore.”

Mongabay’s investigation also found the Nunes family employing a tactic commonly used by land grabbers in the Amazon. In May 2018, they filed 11 claims with the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), a land registration system, in the names of Raimunda, Raifran and Tamis Danielle Nunes. The total area to which they staked a claim through these applications is more than 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) in the municipalities of Itaituba, Jacareacanga and Rurópolis.

The CAR ostensibly indicates land ownership, but is self-declared and not equivalent to legal title to the land. Experts interviewed by Mongabay say it’s used as a step in the process to make it look like an operation — whether mining or farming or ranching — is “getting legalized.” In practice, the CAR has been used as a tool for land grabbers, including those engaged in illegal gold mining. The CAR entries, nearly all the ANM applications, and the sham cooperative were all created beginning in 2018, when the first raid happened. This, according to sources interviewed by Mongabay, shows a coordinated effort to conceal the illegal practices.

“This is notorious,” says de Tarso, the prosecurot. “The applications to the ANM and CAR registration operate on the same logic. The person submits the requests and then feels they have the right to exploit the area.”

SEMAS, the Pará state environmental department, says it is “moving forward in the analysis and validation of the CAR, with 3,750 analyses per month” to weed out registration claims that overlap with preserved areas or already-owned land. It says it’s “important to note that SEMAS has no power of law enforcement and does not act within the sphere of labor law. According to legislation, a CAR registry may only be canceled if there is conflicting data, overlapping land or by a judicial order.”

The regions surrounding the municipalities of Itaituba and Jacareacanga in the state of Pará have Brazil’s largest concentration of illegal mining operations. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Ministry of Labor.

Economic crisis makes workers more vulnerable

Raimunda Nunes was placed on the Brazilian government’s Slave Labor Black List in April 2020 as a direct result of the 2018 raid. That didn’t stop her from committing the same crime again. Federal prosecutors and labor authorities obtained a court order to freeze assets and property belonging to her, her children and their representatives, in order to pay wages and damages.

Sources interviewed for this article agree that a confluence of global and local factors — the current economic crisis, the weakened Brazilian currency, and the high price of gold, together with low living standards and lack of education — have forced thousands of workers into illegal gold mining. Often the workers don’t even see their situation as precarious because they have no other references and see the abuses as normal.

“Many gold miners don’t feel they have lost their dignity, only a few who can tell they are being exploited,” says Leonardo Juzinskas, a lawyer with the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office who participated in the 2020 raid. “Being subjected to degrading conditions is normal for them.”

Juzinskas says many Brazilians take part in illegal mining because they consider the payoff to be worth the risks. “It is lucrative for those not being penalized,” he says. One miner who worked for Nunes, for example, estimated the monthly profit from a single mining outpost was around 2 million reais ($351,000). This makes regions like Itaituba attractive to thousands of workers.

De Tarso says working conditions have always been precarious at the gold mines. What has changed over the past decade is the intensive use of heavy machinery. Combine that with the current economic conditions, and it’s clear why the activity has mushroomed.

“What would be considered inadmissible work conditions in other places is not seen as such here,” he says. “For those with no access to information, without even basic documentation and with a low HDI like we have here in the state of Pará, these people end up being subjected to degrading work relationships.”

More than 50,000 people have been rescued from slave-labor conditions by labor authorities in Brazil since 1995. According to estimates from the Australian NGO Walk Free, which created the Global Slavery Index, 370,000 people are still subjected to conditions analogous to slavery in Brazil.

Banner image of a worker rescued by the GEFM labor inspection unit at a gold mining camp owned by the family of Raimunda Oliveira Nunes in the state of Pará. Nunes was placed on the Slave Labor Blacklist in April 2020, yet continued to commit the same crime. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Ministry of Labor.

This article was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Feb. 11, 2021.

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