Only two weeks have passed since Brazil pledged to adopt measures to protect the environment during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26). The scenario seen in the country, however, is very different from the image of concern for the environment that the federal government tried to sell to the great powers. On Thursday, images of hundreds of rafts unhindered undermining the bed of one of the most important rivers in the Amazon took over social networks. “It is a crime that occurs in broad daylight, openly,” says Danicley Aguiar, spokesman for Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign, which flew over the region to investigate the environmental crime complaint.
The images taken by the NGO show several rows of dredgers and push tugs, teams that excavate the river bed in search of mineral, placed in the Madeira River, near the community of Rosarinho, in the city of Autazes in the State of Amazonas , 110 kilometers from the capital Manaus.
They would have arrived a couple of weeks ago lured by rumors of a gold discovery in the area. The location is quite strategic, since the distance from the capital makes inspection difficult. “Madeira is the most biodiverse river in the world. It houses at least 1,000 species of fish that have already been identified. This is a giant dying with [presas] hydroelectric plants and a mining epidemic that has never been contained ”, affirmed Aguiar.
The activist attributes the audacity of the garimpeiros, who exploit the river in broad daylight, to the “political and moral” license given by Bolsonaro. In late October, the president visited an illegal mining operation, or mine in Portuguese, in the indigenous territory of Raposa Serra do Sol, in Roraima, and defended a bill that regulates the exploitation of mineral, water and organic resources in indigenous reserves. “This project is not taxable. If you want to plant, you can plant. If they are going to garimpar [buscar oro y piedras preciosas], they will be able to do it. If they want to build reservoirs in the Cotingo river valley, they will be able to do it, ‘”said the president on that occasion.
On Thursday, asked about the situation, the vice president, Hamilton Mourão, said that the actions of the miners they can have the support of drug trafficking. “We have received several reports that the drug traffickers, their gangs, with the order to protect their routes, have settled there. One of the ways to stay is by supporting actions of this kind ”, he assured. Rumors of a gold discovery in the Autazes municipality, in the State of Amazonas, have caused dozens of rafts of miners have been sailing on the Madeira River in the last two weeks.
According to a study published by MapBiomas, between 1985 and 2020 the area exploited in Brazil grew six times – from 31,000 to 206,000 hectares – and illegal mining already occupies an area greater than that of industrial mining. Last year, three out of every four hectares exploited in the country were in the Amazon, with special pressure on indigenous territories.
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In 10 years, the area occupied by the mine within indigenous lands it grew by 495%; in the conservation units, the growth was 301%. Today, the biome concentrates 72.5% of all mining carried out in the country: 149,393 hectares, of which 101,100 (67.6%) are illegal mines.
Greenpeace explains that mining in the Amazon consists of extracting minerals from the bottom of rivers, filtering them and returning the remains, with chemical products, to the waters. “In addition to being illegal, the work carried out contaminates and directly impacts the environment and the riverine and indigenous communities,” the organization reported.
On Twitter, the former Minister of the Environment, Carlos Minc, described the actions of the garimpeiros as those of “a militia with a political and financial structure behind it, which involves politicians and policemen.” The messages exchanged by one of the groups of diamond seekers on the Madeira River, to which the newspaper State of São Paulo had access, show that they are concerned about the legalization of their situation. “If there is no representative before the Government who fights for the garimpeiros, there is no doubt that every year this impudence will be seen,” said an unidentified man in the messages published by the newspaper, in relation to the operations against environmental crimes.
The miners are confident after achieving a victory in January 2021, when Rondonia authorized the practice of mining in its territory and revoked a decree that prohibited the extraction of mineral in the Madeira River, on the stretch of the border with the state of Amazonas, where the practice remains illegal.
The activity has been promoted by the Brazilian Government for the last two years and has already left its mark. A report by EL PAÍS revealed that illegal gold mining in the Amazon has dumped about 100 tons of mercury into the region’s rivers. Exposure to the neurotoxic metal can cause serious and permanent damage, such as cognitive and motor problems, loss of sight, as well as implications for the kidneys, heart, and reproductive system. This gold was exported by Brazil to countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, ironically, nations that also try to sell the image of being committed to the environmental cause.
On the slow radar of the authorities
Following the complaint, the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) issued a “recommendation requesting the urgent adoption of coordinated actions to suppress and dismantle illegal gold mining” in the Madeira River, within 30 days. The MPF points out that “gold mining in the region is not supported by an environmental license issued by the competent environmental authority (…), which makes this activity illegal.” In an event in Brasilia, the Minister of Justice, Anderson Torres, said that an operation is being prepared with the presence, even, of the National Force, joint cooperation of the various security forces of Brazil.
Ibama responded, through its communication department, that measures will be taken, but that the coordination of the action is being carried out by the Federal Police and the Ministry of Justice. Other organizations that were also required are the Military Command of Amazonas (CMA); the Superintendency of the Federal Police of Amazonas and the Institute of Environmental Protection of Amazonas (Ipaam), linked to the Government of this State.
“The agencies must, each one in their sphere of competence, carry out the identification and administrative imputation of all irregular companies in operation or with indications of operation in the recent past in the Madeira river channel or in its tributaries, in addition to adopt measures for the immediate interruption of illegal activities, including by destroying the instruments of crime, if necessary, ”said the MPF.
However, Juliano Valente, director and president of Ipaam, clarified in a note that the rafts are anchored in the Madeira River, an area of federal jurisdiction. According to the agency, the regulation of mining exploration in the area is the responsibility of the National Mining Agency (ANM in its Portuguese acronym); while Ibama is responsible for the granting of environmental licenses. Regarding the action, in the case of illegal mining exploitation crimes, it is the competence of the Federal Police. And issues like water pollution are the responsibility of the Navy.
The MPF recalls that, in August of this year, the Federal Court ordered the Ipaam to annul the licenses irregularly granted for gold mining activities in the Madeira riverbed, in an area of more than 37,000 hectares, in another region of the south of the state of Amazonas. The case is now on appeal. The ANM said it had not yet officially received the document from the MPF. “As soon as we have the document and together with the other organizations that are probably mentioned in it, we will take the appropriate measures,” he said.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.