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Brazil: letting the stampede rip

A bonfire of regulations has let loose the land-grabbers



Perhaps few people realize that recent measures by the Brazilian government and Congress  which threaten the environment and Amazonian populations, especially indigenous peoples, are not isolated acts, but rather part of a well-planned and orchestrated scheme of destruction.

What Environment Minister Ricardo Salles meant by ‘passar a boiada’, a term he used in a recording published on the orders of the Federal Supreme Tribunal (STF). The recording is of Salles speaking in a cabinet meeting on 22 April 2020. The Minister speaks of taking advantage of the pandemic to pass ‘infra-legal’ reforms, and of ‘simplification’ and ‘deregulation’ of environmental protection laws. In this passage he even calls on other ministers to ‘passar a boiada’ (let the herd through), changing all the regulations, taking advantage of the fact that the attention of the press was all focused on the impact of the pandemic on Brazil. Video: Brasil de Fato, 9 June 2020
Barges on the Madeir River near Autazes Photo Silas Laurentino
Barges on the Madeir River near Autazes. These are commonly used by ‘garimpeiros’ – illegal miners. Photo: Silas Laurentino

In the space of a few days hundreds of barges appear out of nowhere , on a stretch of the Madeira River, in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. They are equipped with powerful dredgers that suck the riverbed and destroy the biota, in addition to polluting the water with various residues, including the mercury used to separate the fine gold from the sand. The very presence of these heavy and sophisticated pieces of equipment, and their numbers, give the lie to the myth that this is small-scale artisanal gold extraction, in which prospectors, support their families by extracting a few grams of gold. Large-scale and well planned operations of this kind can only be explained if large amounts of investment capital are deployed, with the approval, or complicity, of the authorities.       

Destruction of 31 barges and 69 dredgers on the Madeira River by agents of the Federal Police, IBAMA, the Air Force and Navy. The aim was to destroy machinery used in illegal mining. These raids are frequently criticized by President Jair Bolsonaro. The garimpeiros (miners) often replace their equipment and return  to the same spots. Video: Estadão, 28 November 2021.


Still on the subject of irregular mining the head of the Institutional Security Office (GSI), Augusto Heleno, a decrepit right-wing retired Army general, indiscriminately authorizes mineral exploration in indigenous areas, activity notorious for its connections with drug trafficking and other illegal pursuits – a fact admitted by the vice-president, Hamilton Mourão.

Map of Brazilian Cabeça de Cachorro region
Map of Brazil’s frontier with Venezuela and Colombia, showing the Cabeça de Cachorro, or ‘Dog’s Head’ area

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Although mining on indigenous lands is not constitutionally legal, this protection is ignored without the slightest feeling of shame or respect  for the 23 indigenous ethnic groups in the region known as Cabeça de Cachorro, near São Gabriel da Cachoeira (AM), in the northernmost region of the Brazilian Amazon. For this purpose, the National Defense Council, which  General Augusto Heleno also chairs, uses the pretext that these areas are located close to the frontier with Venezuela, and that decision-making power on authorizing mineral exploration rests with the aforementioned council. It is widely known that such exploration concessions are in fact used to cover up illegal activities in the Amazon, whether the extraction of minerals or other products.

Mining: no lessons learned

At the same time, a proposal to amend the Brazilian Mining Code is being discussed in the Chamber of Deputies. This was drawn up by a group of deputies most of whom are linked to the mining industry. Without listening to other affected parties and without promoting any dialogue outside the narrow circle of those who stand to profit from the business, they are promoting activities that have high environmental and social impact. The country seems to have learned nothing from the corporate crimes committed in Mariana and Brumadinho, due to the collapse of mining tailing dams which claimed the lives of hundreds of people and caused incalculable environmental damage.

There are other proposals under discussion in the National Congress:– bills (PLs) 2633/2020 and 2159/2021, known as ‘The  Illegal Land Grabbing Law’ and ‘The Cattle Ranchers’ Law’, respectively, which would legalize or encourage activities that are harmful to the environment and populations, especially Amazonian ones. All of these are either proposed by the Executive, or strongly supported by it, always under the banner of ‘favoring economic development’. Not a word on the interests of indigenous peoples, slave-descendent communities (quilombolas), riverside dwellers and all those who are obliged to coexist with or survive  the environmental effects of such activities, which endure for generations and are often irreversible.

Since the order issued by the Executive is to ‘throw open the gates and let the entire herd pass through (passar a boiada)’, we see a disastrous determination to dismantle the deforestation monitoring and inspection system built over decades of serious and dedicated work, throughout the country but with a very clear focus on the Amazon. Abroad, the Brazilian government addresses international forums such as the COP26 Conference in Glasgow, claiming falsely that it is taking all measures to protect the Amazon when, behind the scenes it does exactly the opposite, encouraging deforestation, illegal land grabbing and mining, with the inevitable extermination of indigenous peoples that such activities provoke. The cruel reality is very different: there has been a 22 per cent increase in the rate of deforestation between August 2020 and July 2021, duly registered by monitoring carried out by the Brazilian Space Research Institute (INPE), an agency much disliked by the government!

The world is facing one of the worst health crises even experienced by humanity, caused by a virus that was unknown until recently, but which has been proven to have its origins in the interaction between humans  and wild animals. Scientists are unanimous in affirming that deforestation promotes contact between humans and terrestrial fauna, with potential consequences for the dissemination of new pathogens that can cause new and lethal outbreaks of viral disease.

This is another instance of the Brazilian federal government setting its face against civilization, as they did during the Covid-19 pandemic. President Bolsonaro, with his ministers and allies in the National Congress, are encouraging the extermination of indigenous peoples, deforestation, mining and so many other actions that threaten the environment. By doing so, they are acting against the interests of the country and threatening the future of the Brazilian people.

Main image: Monte Fusco farm, Figueiropolis do Oeste, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Image: Ricardo Funari/Lineair/Greenpeace/BrazilPhotos

This article was originally published in Portuguese by “Jornal da Ciência”, of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC).