Brazil waging fight against illegal mining by land, river and air

By Carlos Meneses

Itaituba, Brazil, Feb 15 (EFE).- A loud shout breaks the silence in Brazil’s Amazon region.

Let out by an environmental monitoring agent, it alerts his fellow team members to the discovery of a large excavator used in recent days to open a 16-hectare (40-acre) illegal mine in an environmentally protected area of the northern state of Para.

It is the first major find of operation “Pariwat,” which the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the Brazilian Environment Ministry’s administrative arm, launched Tuesday to dismantle illegal gold and cassiterite (a tin-oxide mineral used in various industries) mining operations.

Times have changed rapidly in Brazil, where center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has moved in his first six weeks in office to put an end to clandestine mining in the country’s protected areas.

In doing so, he has halted rightist predecessor Jair Bolsonaro’s active encouragement of an activity that is the economic engine of that area of Para, where “garimpeiros” (illegal miners) are revered and ICMBio agents are referred to as “demons.”

Earlier, after a five-hour journey by road and another half-hour raft trip on the Tapajos River, Ronilson Vasconcelos, a federal environmental agent and coordinator of the operation, had addressed his team at a meeting place where two helicopters were to fly them to their “first objective.”

“I wish all the inspectors were armed,” he says.

Their destination was a illegal mine that authorities had been monitoring since August yet had continued to expand over the past few months.

Across the entire Brazilian Amazon, the area used for informal mining operations has roughly doubled over the past decade and covered an area of 179,913 hectares in 2021, according to the most recent data from the Mapbiomas network, a group comprising non-governmental organizations, universities and technology companies that monitors land use.

The view from the air was one of desolation in that section of Para state’s Altamira National Forest, where former mining pits created by “garimpeiros” have turned into ponds containing submerged mercury, a toxic residue from the gold mining process.

The task of recovering that contaminated region is a gargantuan one, since mercury poisoning poses a major threat to rivers, forests and the health of human populations.

Upon arrival at the site, the clandestine miners were nowhere to be found, apparently having fled just ahead of the arrival of Vasconcelos’ team and officers from an elite law enforcement unit, the National Public Security Force.

“Probably when they saw we were coming, they fled into the forest,” Vasconcelos told Efe, noting that the “garimpeiros” had left extracted minerals and their equipment behind.

Despite their rapid escape, they had just enough time to try and hide their Hyundai excavator in a wooded area located a few kilometers from the center of the mine.

They also attempted fruitlessly to trick the federal agents into thinking they had fled via a different route.

In less an hour, the vehicle was discovered.

“They thought they were smart, but we’re more intelligent than they are,” one of the ICMBio agents, who did not reveal his name for security reasons, said proudly.

Inside the excavator, the inspectors found radio equipment that Mauricio Santamaria, ICMBio’s regional coordinator in western Para, said the agents will use for “mapping and surveillance and to understand which channels they’re using.”

The other equipment – the excavator, gasoline barrels, auxiliary motors and the camp itself – were all set on fire and destroyed for reasons of cost and logistics.

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