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Fighting illegal mining in Yanomami territory

Brazil's IBAMA environmental inspectors on the front line

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  • In the Brazilian Amazon, Yanomami Indigenous people have been suffering a health crisis aggravated over recent years by the dismantling of Indigenous health care support services and the illegal mining invasion.
  • Since the start of operations against miners in February, Brazil’s environmental inspectors have been setting fire to gear used to support illegal mining activities, both inside and outside the Indigenous territory.
  • “The Yanomami land is one of the most difficult areas in the country in which to conduct our operations,” said one inspector who spoke to Agência Pública.
  • This article was first published here in Portuguese by LAB Partner Agência Pública, São Paulo. It was translated into English for Mongabay and LAB by Matty Rose.

YANOMAMI INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, Brazil – Four officers from IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, throw themselves from a helicopter into the murky waters of the Uraricoera River below and swim toward an illegal mining raft anchored to the left side of the riverbank. This small yet efficient monster of destruction, operated by up to eight people, uses a suction hose to rip the sediment from the riverbed before dumping it onto a conveyor belt with running water inside the raft.

The gold, which is heavier than the sediment it is hidden within, is left on a carpeted mat at the bottom of the conveyor belt. It is then subjected to a burning process using mercury that, as it vaporizes, causes irreversible damage to the surrounding flora, fauna and, ultimately, human beings.

It is not just the land of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in northern Brazil, that is being destroyed, assailed as it is by the diggers and excavators that carve vast craters into the ground. Dozens of these rafts, which can cost as much as 2 million reais ($395,000) to build, are operating illegally on the banks of rivers like the Uraricoera and the Mucajaí, in the Amazon state of Roraima.

Weapons in hand, IBAMA’s environmental inspectors raid the raft in search of the illegal miners operating it, but to no avail: The raft is empty. Its operators probably fled as soon as they heard the whirr of the helicopters overhead. In the silence of the rainforest, the helicopters, known as burus by the miners, are heard from far away.

After a few short minutes — the operation must be executed rapidly in order to save the helicopter’s fuel reserves, as well as avoid an armed response from the miners — the IBAMA officers set fire to the raft using the miners’ own supply of diesel. This brings an end to a type of boat known as an escariante, one of the most damaging used by illegal miners for its ability to break up rocks on the riverbed as well as tear away the sediment. A thick column of black smoke rises between the trees, scaring off the nearby birds. “One more down,” one of the IBAMA inspectors says into his radio.

Excavators, suction pumps, hoses and stationary motors are used in illegal mining practices. Image by Rubens Valente/Agência Pública.

For six hours on a Saturday in February, Agência Pública followed the daily activities of IBAMA’s inspectors who are on the frontline in the fight against illegal mining, known in Brazil as garimpo, on the land of the Yanomami Indigenous people, who have been suffering from a health crisis that has been aggravated over recent years by the dismantling of Indigenous health care support services and the illegal mining invasion.

IBAMA has been using its own resources to conduct these initial operations on Yanomami land. Its eight B4 and Esquilo helicopters are essential in its efforts to reverse the incursion of illegal miners into the territory. Journeys that would otherwise take four to five days by boat are made in 20-30 minutes by helicopter. Moving through the region by boat is also dangerous, as it increases the chance of meetings with groups of armed miners.

If the Brazilian armed forces, which have much more money and personnel at their disposal, were to aid IBAMA in its efforts with its Black Hawk helicopters, the fight against illegal mining could be made easier. The military has said it is focused on providing humanitarian assistance to the Yanomami and on offering aerial support, with its helicopters, to the Federal Police’s initial incursions into the territory.

It was IBAMA, however, that “led the way” in the field operations by Brazilian government agencies on Feb. 6 in what promises to be a long and grueling fight, lasting many months.

“We find the Yanomami land one of the most difficult areas in the country in which to conduct our operations, rivaled perhaps only by the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory [where journalist Dom Phillips and anthropologist Bruno Pereira were killed last year]. The distances are vast, the logistics are complex. But that’s the thing: If it’s complicated for us, then it is also complicated for the illegal miners,” said one of the IBAMA inspectors, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation.

The operation to expel illegal miners from Yanomami land is dependent on retaking, opening and maintaining various support bases within the territory. Basic infrastructure will then be installed in these bases for refueling the helicopters.

“Once we are able to set up these bases, we will be able to get to the deepest reaches of the territory, which is where most of the illegal mining takes place and where most of the Indigenous communities in voluntary isolation live, who are the ones most affected by hunger and illness,” said one IBAMA official who spoke to Agência Pública.

On Feb. 7, IBAMA retook control of its first inspection base on the Uraricoera River, a point that is considered to be of strategic importance in attempts to block the flow of fuel and food purchased by illegal miners in urban centers like Roraima’s capital, Boa Vista. IBAMA’s inspectors have said that gaining a stranglehold on the supply of such products, together with the installation of a no-fly zone of the area by the Brazilian Air Force, is essential in order to bring an end to illegal mining activities in the region.

On the Saturday on which we joined IBAMA’s operation, IBAMA mobilized two of its helicopters and eight of its most experienced field inspectors. Over the years, they have come across all kinds of dangers during their operations combating environmental crimes in different parts of the country. Many of them were severely persecuted during the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro.

On the day of our visit, after they had destroyed the escariante raft, the IBAMA officials boarded and destroyed a second raft possibly used by illegal miners with diving equipment. Shortly after, the IBAMA inspectors who had jumped into the river were rescued by the Esquilo helicopter overhead in a dangerous maneuver less than a meter (3 feet) above the waters of the Uraricoera River.

Excavators, suction pumps, hoses and stationary motors are used in illegal mining practices. Image by Rubens Valente/Agência Pública.

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From there, a nearly 25-minute flight took the two teams of officials to an open-pit mine in the middle of the rainforest. Excavators, suction pumps, hoses and stationary motors had been used by the miners to open up immense craters, transforming the rainforest into one huge muddy swamp. Markings on the ground could be seen, indicating recent activity from a backhoe excavator, known as “PCs” by the miners. This type of machinery has accelerated the destruction of the rainforest across the Amazon region over the last 15 years.

The inspectors searched for the digger, which had probably been hidden in the rainforest, but did not find it. While there, they took the opportunity to set alight two encampments and a stationary motor used to power the excavators.

Since the start of operations, on Feb. 6, IBAMA officials have been setting fire to gear used to support illegal mining activities, both inside and outside the Indigenous territory, such as a helicopter and an airplane, which were set alight on an airstrip near the city of Boa Vista.

An airplane destroyed by IBAMA inspectors during an operation. Image by Rubens Valente/Agência Pública.

IBAMA’s action in the field has been characterized by its complex logistics, which are necessary for the fight against illegal mining to be successful. The helicopters tend to take off froBoa Vista, where they are refueled and serviced daily. From there, they have to make a pitstop in the small village of Serra do Tepequém before continuing onward on their missions. Located in the municipality of Amajari, outside the Indigenous territory, this peaceful village is home to about 500 people and is a tourist hotspot, attracting travelers in search of waterfalls and hiking trails.

On the small landing strip in Tepequém, the helicopters are watched over by the local Military Police and the members of the National Public Security Force while they are refueled by fuel trucks that arrive from Boa Vista on an almost daily basis. It is a both constant and costly back and forth that enables the continued flow of the inspection and surveillance trips. From Tepequém, the teams set off on their missions inside the Indigenous territory.

The teams of IBAMA inspectors need to act as quickly as possible, while always keeping an eye on the fuel levels of their helicopters. If they fly for long periods, there is the risk of “running dry,” when the aircraft runs out of fuel, which would require a forced landing. This is why IBAMA is setting up refueling stations inside the Indigenous territory itself.

IBAMA faces logistical problems and refueling issues that make its work harder. Image by Rubens Valente/Agência Pública.

Although they recognize the extent of the logistical difficulties involved, the IBAMA agents also say they are very hopeful about decisively stamping out illegal mining activities on Yanomami land.

“It really is possible to put an end to illegal mining. There’s no secret to it. It’s not a complex operation. If there are great distances for us, then there are also great distances for the miners. That’s why we have to suffocate their supply chains,” said one IBAMA official. “The difference now, in relation to during the Bolsonaro government, is that we are seeing action being taken on an institutional level. In order to effectively conduct operations on Yanomami land, we need institutional support.”

Over a four-year period, representatives from the Bolsonaro government claimed that it was “complicated” to drive the illegal miners out when they were asked about the growing invasion and destruction of Indigenous lands.

Brazil’s Environment Minister Marina Silva told Agência Pública in a message that the government is “resuming policies on two fronts: planned emergency actions and permanent structure-building actions.” In the case of the emergency actions, this will start with “the installation of control bases for the retaking of the Yanomami territory,” which will be “a coordinated effort involving different branches of government, such as the Federal Police, Funai [Brazil’s Indigenous agency], and others.”

“In the last government [Bolsonaro’s], there was a complete hollowing-out of Ibama, one of Brazil’s most important institutions for environmental governance. We’re faced with the challenge [of having to hold] new recruitment drives, but we’re going to work with maximum efficiency, and we are already showing that Ibama is back on the right track. The process of demilitarizing the federal government’s environmental actions and returning them to their core functions is well underway. We are going to stop illegal mining, the destruction of our rainforests and the neglect of the lives of our Indigenous peoples. President [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] is determined on this issue,” the minister wrote.

Audio messages that have been circulating in group chats of illegal miners in Roraima in recent weeks suggest the invaders are being told by their own spokespeople and political contacts to leave the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. They want the support of the government of Roraima to mount an “operation” to remove the illegal miners from the area. Agência Pública spoke to one of these political contacts, Jailson Reis de Mesquita, who confirmed the guidance the miners were being given.

“We are calling for all of them to leave [the Indigenous territory]. In order to avoid any type of conflict, or confrontation. Also because the federal government is — to our pleasant surprise —willing to seek dialogue,” he told Agência Pública.

Mesquita is an adviser on the governing board of the Legislative Assembly of Roraima and labels himself as the “political coordinator” of the Garimpo is Legal group, which claims to be hold meeting with representatives of the state and federal government about the effectiveness of the operation to expel illegal miners from Yanomami land that was ordered by decree by President Lula at the end of January.


Banner image by Rubens Valente/Agência Pública.

Agência Pública

Agencia Pubica Blog Latin America Bureau

Founded in 2011 by women journalists, Agência Pública is the first non-profit agency for investigative journalism in Brazil. Their courageous public-interest reports have been republished by over 900 outlets in the past year, under Creative Commons agreements. You can find English translations of our collaborative picks from Agência Pública’s coverage, below.

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