Brazil temporarily stops illegal miners on Yanomami lands

The Brazilian Federal Police has not detected any new illegal mines in Yanomami territory for the first time since monitoring began nearly three years ago. But many barriers to ending illegal mining in the area remain.

Operation Liberation (Operação Libertação), a satellite system used by police to monitor the Brazilian Amazon, has not detected any new mines in more than a month, the longest absence since it started in August 2020. This follows a steady decline in new mining. In April and May 2023, the system detected 33 new mines, up from 538 in the same period in 2022.

Illegal mining in the northern states of Brazil, such as Roraima, has had serious consequences for both the people living in the affected areas and the environment. Support from local politicians has led to an increase in illegal mining in recent years, while the arrival of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) in the region in 2018 resulted in an increased flow of weapons to the miners. These were against the Yanomami communities.

ALSO SEE: Impunity leads to increase in violence against Yanomami in Brazil

The decline in illegal mining sites comes after Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, introduced multiple reforms to curb illegal mining, including sending additional security forces to affected areas and tightening gold trade rules.

“It’s fair to say there’s a lot less mining now because many of the miners have been removed by the government,” Fiona Watson, director of research at Survival International, an organization that campaigns for indigenous peoples’ rights, told InSight Crime.

During his election campaign, Lula pledged to end the environmental damage caused by illegal mining, which increased under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. The former president rolled back environmental protections and encouraged the exploitation of the Amazon, leading to skyrocketing deforestation.

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The lack of new mines is another indicator that Brazil’s new policies are effectively combating the illegal gold industry, but to make headway, wild miners will need alternative economic opportunities.

Illegal mining on Yanomami lands is logistically difficult. Getting in and out of the area usually requires an airplane or helicopter, and the heavy machinery needed for mining, including excavators, is expensive and difficult to transport. Because of these issues, military operations that restrict freedom of movement across the region are immediately effective, Brazil-based journalist Sam Cowie told InSight Crime.

“If you have surgeries consistently, like this year, you’re going to see results,” Cowie said.

ALSO SEE: Brazil targets illegal gold miners with force and legislation

However, the government’s current successes may prove more difficult to sustain in the long run. Large-scale multi-agency deployment is costly and requires political will. Even as these implementations continue, the response fails to address the systemic and economic conditions that have allowed illegal mining to flourish, Cowie said.

According to recent estimates, 46% of people in Roraima lived below the poverty line in 2022. Few economic alternatives are available and there is no viable development plan. Meanwhile, criminal groups like the PCC wait in the wings.

Illegal miners have recently opened new mining sites in Amazonas state outside the Yanomami areas, showing that illegal mining appears to be unaffected outside government efforts.

Once the anti-mining activities end, new mining sites are likely to open, Cowie said.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. “No one does.”

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