- Switzerland imported 24.5 tonnes of gold in 2021, at least a fifth of which came from Brazilian Amazon states. Evidence indicates most of it is mined illegally on Indigenous lands. Illicit mining operations have resulted in major Amazon deforestation, widespread mercury poisoning and soaring violence.
- With the Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro unresponsive to the escalating crisis, an independent delegation of Indigenous people along with others travelled to Switzerland in May to plead with major gold refiners to end the importation of illicit Brazilian gold.
- This week, the refiners published a statement pledging to remove illegal gold mined within Brazilian Indigenous reserves from their supply chains. If the initiative is fully followed, experts say it could be a game changer that could undermine the, until now, lucrative illegal gold trade.
- Canada, the world’s biggest importer of gold from the Brazilian Amazon, has made no such agreement.
Switzerland is the world’s second largest buyer of Brazilian gold (behind Canada), importing 24.5 tonnes of the precious metal in 2021. It is also home to some of the world’s leading gold refineries — Metalor, PX Précinox, Argor Heraeus, MKS Pamp, and Valcambi.
In a potentially landmark move, those refineries have just signed and made public a position statement condemning illegal gold mining and pledging “to trace and identify” the metal’s movements from its sources, potentially staunching the import of gold illegally taken from Indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon.
Also party to the statement was the Swiss Association of Manufacturers and Traders of Precious Metals (ASFCMP), which accounts for 95% of the precious metals melted and refined in Switzerland — 90% of which is gold.
According to the Swiss Federal Council, the country’s highest executive body, more than two-thirds of gold traded worldwide passes through the European nation. If the Swiss refiners fully implement their new pledge, it could be an important step towards reducing illegally extracted gold imports to Switzerland.
Role of independent Amazon delegation
The non-binding document was drafted in association with an Amazon delegation — independent of the Brazilian government — that met with top Swiss gold refiners in Bern in May. That delegation of Indigenous and traditional leaders, lawyers and researchers emphasized how the refiners play a crucial role in an illicit gold supply chain that damages the rainforest and devastates the people who live there.
“The gold arrives here [in Switzerland] full of blood. Along with the Brazilian State, you who buy the gold are responsible for deaths in our territories,” declared Maria Leusa Munduruku, president of the Munduruku Wakoborũn Women’s Association, speaking at the May meeting which Mongabay attended.
Indigenous activist Maria Leusa has suffered reprisals for her fight against illegal mining, with her house and parts of her village burned in 2021 by wildcat miners, known as garimpeiros. “They set our houses alight and threatened us with firearms, even shooting my children in the feet,” she told the gold importing refiners.
Maria Leusa travelled five days from her home village in the upper reaches of the remote Tapajós River Basin in Brazil’s Pará state to talk to the refiners about the impact of their imports.
The Munduruku Indigenous Territory, where Maria Leusa, lives is among the most affected by illegal gold extraction. Forest destruction there, much of it due to illegal mining, tripled between 2018 and 2020, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a Brazilian government research body,
Munduruku health has also been severely impacted as a result of mercury pollution in local rivers — a by-product of garimpeiros gold extraction and ore processing. The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a scientific institution, recently identified a higher level of mercury contamination than that considered safe by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 60% of the population in the three worst affected Munduruku communities. Mercury contamination causes neurological disorders, heart disease and cancer; it can also cross the placenta barrier and reach the brain of a foetus, causing irreversible damage.
“It is no longer possible to kill our children and our women and to ignore the cries of distress that nature is emitting, by saying that it is being done in the name of development,” said Luiz Eloy Terena, legal coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) who attended the meeting.
Illegal gold mining is also seriously harming forests, rivers and human health in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, Brazil’s largest Indigenous reserve, located mostly within Roraima state. Since 2019, this ancestral home to nearly 27,000 Indigenous people, has been systematically invaded by more than 20,000 garimpeiros who illegally occupy it, while Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro government has failed to expel them.
The Yanomami way of life is being brutally disrespected, said the Indigenous lawyer at the Swiss meeting, who recounted the case of a 12-year-old Yanomami teen who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by miners.
Initially, the representatives of the Swiss refineries listened intently to Maria Leusa and Luiz Eloy but claimed not to buy gold from the Amazon. Official data on Brazilian exports, however, contradicted their assertion, showing that at least a fifth of gold exported to Switzerland in 2021 came from Amazonian states.
“We have discovered that, over the last two years, about five tonnes of the gold exported from Itaituba [in Pará state] and from Pedra Branca do Amapari [in Amapá state] went directly to Switzerland,” said Christoph Wiedmer, co-director of the Society for Threatened Peoples, the Swiss NGO that organized the meeting between refinery businessmen and the Amazonian delegation.
Almost all of these gold exports will have been mined illegally, but lack of transparency still surrounds the sector, both in Switzerland and in Brazil.
“The Swiss refiners have always said they don’t import dirty gold,” Wiedmar explained. “But now we have the proof that the gold left [for Switzerland], although we don’t know exactly where it went,” upon arriving there.
In Brazil, the laundering of illegally mined gold is relatively simple, giving the trade a veneer of respectability. A study entitled “Legality of gold production in Brazil“, carried out by the Federal University of Minas Gerais in partnership with Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry (MPF) — a group of independent government litigators — concluded that, of the 30.4 tonnes of gold produced in Pará state from 2019 to 2020, at least 17.7 tonnes (58.4%) were extracted with a false indication of origin.
That study utilized public data on Brazilian mineral production, (including a tax called the Financial Contribution for Mineral Exploration (CFEM) paid by extraction companies), and records of National Mining Agency mining permits (PLGs), along with images of Amazon deforestation provided by INPE.
The detailed study is now enabling the MPF to prosecute the gold purchasers, FD’Gold, Carol and OM, for trading in illegally extracted gold. The dealers, which have their head office in São Paulo and branches in the Amazon, told the government they bought gold from areas where extraction is allowed, but satellite images revealed that none of the locations they cited show any sign of exploitation. If convicted, the three companies could pay a total of R$10.6 billion (US$2.0 billion) for socio-environmental damage.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s mining bill
Another point widely discussed at the Bern meeting was a Brazilian mining bill, (PL 191/2020). The legislation, pushed hard in the Congress by President Jair Bolsonaro, would legalize mining and the use of water resources to produce electricity on Indigenous lands.
“These activities, within our territories, constitute a flagrant violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples, given that Brazilian legislation [safeguarded by the nation’s 1988 Constitution] grants Indigenous peoples the exclusive use of their territories.” said Luiz Eloy. “We also know that these large enterprises bring other types of violations to our peoples.”
Brian Garvey, a member of the delegation and a lecturer at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, said that the refiners, if they really want to end the murders of Indigenous people and to prevent them losing traditional livelihoods due to mining on their lands, should take a stand against the bill rather than see it as a business opportunity.
The refiners, although they didn’t condemn the bill in their statement, expressed “fundamental concern about the negative effects of PL 191/2020,” and pledged to “reject any mining activity linked to Amazon protected areas, without the free, prior, informed consent of the impacted communities.”
The delegates see the just released gold refiners’ pledge as a victory for the Amazon forest and its peoples. Acting independently of the Bolsonaro government, leaders of Indigenous and traditional communities negotiated directly with the largest gold refiners and have now received foreign support for their struggle against illegal mining and rapidly multiplying human rights violations.
Bruno Pereira combatted illegal gold mining
The impact of the murders on 5 June of Bruno Pereira, the Indigenous activist, together with that of British journalist, Dom Phillips, is still reverberating worldwide.
Pereira was deeply involved in the struggle to end illegal gold mining. Early in the Bolsonaro administration, Pereira headed the government department in charge of isolated and recently contacted Indigenous peoples at FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous agency. He led an operation into the Javari River Valley to destroy 60 mining barges and dredges operating adjacent to territory occupied by isolated Indigenous groups.
But a month after the operation, Pereria was demoted within FUNAI. He chose instead to leave the agency and began working with UNIVAJA (the Union of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Peoples) to monitor and denounce crimes committed inside the territory. He was worried then about the uncontrolled expansion of illegal mining in the region, as well as being concerned with the invasion of commercial fishing boats plundering tons of fish from the Indigenous reserve.
Just weeks before his death, Pereria mapped 11 points in the Javari River Valley where garimpeiros had invaded. He sent this information to the Federal Police and to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF).
While low level criminals have been arrested, and fishermen have confessed to the killings, much remains to be uncovered regarding the assassinations of Pereira and Phillips. The murder investigation continues amid an escalation of violence, not just in the Javari River Valley, but across the Brazilian Amazon. With the Bolsonaro government largely unresponsive to assaults on Indigenous people, independent initiatives like the one to Switzerland form part of a modest but potentially significant effort to bring the illegal international gold trade to a decisive end.
Banner image: Illegal gold mining inside the Munduruku and Sai Cinza Indigenous Lands, Pará state, Brazil. If mining is allowed to continue at current rates, or if increased with passage of bill PL 191/2020, Amazon Indigenous communities and culture could be destroyed. Image by Chico Batata / Greenpeace (Oct, 2021).
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