- Illegal mining inside Indigenous territories and conservation units in Brazil increased in area by 495% and 301% respectively between 2010 and 2020, a new report shows.
- The worst-affected Indigenous territories were the Kayapó, Munduruku and Yanomami reserves, with a combined area of nearly 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) occupied by illegal miners.
- The trend is driven by the increase in international prices of gold, tin and manganese — the metals typically mined inside the reserves — as well as lax enforcement and lack of economic alternatives.
- While mining inside Indigenous territories and conservation units is banned under Brazil’s Constitution, the current government is pushing for legislation that would allow it.
Illegal miners expanded their footprint in Indigenous territories in Brazil by nearly 500% between 2010 and 2020, according to a recent report from the research collective MapBiomas. It also shows that illegal miners boosted their presence in conservation units by 301% during the same period.
“These are outrageous statistics,” said geologist Cesar Diniz, technical coordinator of mining mapping for MapBiomas. “Although prospecting in Indigenous territories is nothing new, we’re seeing it expand by leaps and bounds ever since 2017.”
The report identifies the Kayapó Indigenous Territory, in Pará state, as the worst affected, with 7,602 hectares (18,785 acres) taken over by illegal miners. Next is the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve, also in Pará, where illegal miners occupy 1,592 hectares (3,934 acres), followed by the Yanomami Indigenous Territory that straddles Amazonas and Roraima states (414 hectares, or 1,023 acres).
Pará is also the state with the most illegal mining, in terms of area, taking place inside conservation units. According to the report, the three most-affected units are the Tapajós Environmental Protection Area (34,740 hectares, or 85,844 acres), Amaná National Forest (4,150 hectares, or 10,255 acres) and Rio Novo National Park (1,752 hectares, or 4,329 acres).
“Indigenous territories and conservation units have untouched forests and soil,” Diniz said. “The more virgin the soil, the greater the probability of finding gold. That’s why prospectors look for regions that are protected and intact.”
Another report published in April, by the Indigenous Hutukara Yanomami Association, showed that illegal mining in the Yanomami reserve has nearly tripled in the past three years and that 56% of the 27,000 Indigenous inhabitants of the reserve, the largest in Brazil, are directly affected by the activity.
A similar report from 2021 by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples, estimated that illegal mining in the Munduruku reserve grew by 363% in the space of just two years.
Strong gold price, weak law enforcement
There are three economic factors that help explain the explosion of illegal mining in the Amazon in recent years, according to Luiz Jardim Wanderley, a professor of geography at Fluminense Federal University (UFF).
“Starting in 2017, there was a price increase in the international market for the commodities that are being extracted in Indigenous territories, which a gold, tin and manganese,” he said.
The second factor is that illegal mining creates jobs: despite being increasingly mechanized with excavators and other industrial machinery, it still requires a lot of manpower.
“With poverty worsening in Brazil, rising unemployment and the economic crisis in recent years, the informal, precarious work in the mines, which is even sometimes analogous to slavery, is expanding, attracting more of the workforce,” Wanderley said.
The third factor is the lack of strong legal deterrents for those involved in illegal mining, which makes the rewards worth the risks.
“These lands have long been known to have problems with prospecting activities, but before, you would see one or two mines in or near these territories,” Diniz said. “With the weakening of government oversight and the inability to punish illegal mining, it has become increasingly advantageous to venture into the Indigenous territories and conservation units where the existence of gold was already known.”
Junior Hekurari Yanomami, head of the Yanomami and Ye’kuana Indigenous District Health Council (Condisi-YY), said he has been reporting invasions and conflicts between miners and Indigenous people in the Yanomami reserve since 2018, but that none of the reports have resulted in effective actions from federal authorities including Funai, the agency for Indigenous affairs.
“The federal government does not care about our safety,” Junior Hekurari said. “We file complaints all the time. The government knows what’s going on. President [Jair] Bolsonaro encourages the invasion of prospectors on our lands. And Funai, it’s dead. We Indigenous people don’t know why Funai still exists.”
In a statement, Funai said it has acted effectively with practical measures to support Indigenous populations and that inspections in Indigenous territories throughout Brazil are among the agency’s operational priorities.
Expansion of the mining frontier
The increase in illegal mining by 495% in Indigenous territories and 301% in conservation units represents a major expansion of former mining frontiers in the Amazon.
“The mines we see today are more or less the same ones from the 1950s,” Diniz said. “They are often reused and expanded at their perimeter. We almost never see prospecting starting up in areas that have never been mined before. It’s almost always an expansion of the prospecting frontier that has been known for decades.”
He described the main characteristics of illegal mining as a trail of destruction left on the riverbed, and the ability of the perpetrators to quickly change locations to avoid inspectors.
“But the holes opened up in the riverbed don’t get filled. The water there is still and contaminated. When the prospectors return to the region, they make these holes even bigger, increasing deforestation and soil fragility,” Diniz said.
Even if these mining areas were to be abandoned and spared from further human interference, it would take these sites at least 20 years to recover naturally, Diniz said. “And not with the same [quality of] soil or with the same biodiversity,” he added.
Brazil’s 1988 Constitution prohibits mining in Indigenous territories and conservation units. But the activity of prospecting itself isn’t illegal. Under the Prospecting Statute of 2008 (Law No. 11,685), prospecting can take place with government permission if it has a low environmental impact and is done across a small area (less than 50 hectares, or 124 acres).
In February 2020, the Bolsonaro administration submitted a bill to Congress, PL 191, that, if passed, would allowing mining for gold and several other minerals inside Indigenous territories.
“The problem is not the activity of prospecting, since prospecting is provided for by law in Brazil,” Diniz said. “The problem is that the prospecting that takes place in the Amazon is almost always done without a license, with mercury, within Indigenous territories and conservation units, and without any repair done for the environmental damage caused.”
The MapBiomas report also shows that, over the past 30 years, Brazil lost a total of 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of native vegetation. Private properties accounted for 68.4% of this total loss, with only 1.6% occurring in Indigenous territories, highlighting their importance as a bulwark against deforestation.
Yet despite the fact that Indigenous reserves are the best-preserved areas and responsible for keeping what remains of the Brazilian Amazon intact, the report warns that deforestation in Indigenous territories is accelerating. Figures from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), analyzed by MapBiomas, show that, from 2019 to 2021, deforestation inside the reserves was 1.7 times higher than during the 2016-2018 period.
Banner image of illegal gold mining in the Kayapó Indigenous Territory in Pará state, Brazil. Image by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.