Social Issues

Exodus of thousands of clandestine miners raises tensions in Brazil’s Amazon

By Carlos Meneses

Santarem, Brazil, Feb 17 (EFE).- The exodus of thousands of expelled wildcat miners from the Yanomami indigenous reservation in northwestern Brazil has put people on alert in other parts of the Amazon region, particularly in areas with vulnerable native populations.

The government’s crackdown on illegal mining, meanwhile, also is raising questions about the socioeconomic impact on communities that are dependent on that clandestine activity.

Miners have left the Yanomami reserve and fled to unknown destinations to escape a mega-operation launched in the northwestern state of Roraima by the Federal Police and armed forces to end a humanitarian crisis affecting that indigenous population.

Center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was inaugurated on Jan. 1, was compelled to take decisive action after images of Yanomami children with severe malnutrition and malaria went global.

Environmental organizations blame the crisis on the illegal activity of nearly 15,000 wildcat miners, who poisoned rivers and fish in Yanomami territory with the mercury and other toxic products they use in the gold-extraction process.

They also say these miners were emboldened by rightist ex-President Jair Bolsonaro, who often complained that too much land in Brazil had been set aside for indigenous peoples.

Bolsonaro, an admirer of the country’s 1964-1985 military regime, chafed in particular at the constitutional prohibition against extractive industry on indigenous land and effectively suspended enforcement of environmental regulations in Amazonia, resulting in a dramatic increase in deforestation.

Lula, a former two-term president who defeated Bolsonaro in the Oct. 30 election, has called his predecessor’s policy toward the Yanomamis “premeditated murder.”

And last month, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered the Attorney General’s Office to open an investigation of the Bolsonaro government with an eye to possible charges of genocide toward that population.

But while Lula’s actions have provided fresh hope to that indigenous community, one big question remains: Where will those thousands of wildcat gold miners go now?

Justice Minister Flavio Dino said Thursday that figures on the number of miners who voluntarily left Yanomami land will not be available until next week.

Rodrigo Agostinho, the president of Ibama, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, said for his part that some of the miners have headed to Venezuela, where around 16,000 of the total Yanomami population of 35,000 live.

Non-governmental organizations also warn of an increase in illegal mining in the vicinity of Pico da Neblina, a mountain located in Amazonas state on the Brazil-Venezuela border whose peak is roughly 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) above sea level.

The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the Brazilan Environment Ministry’s administrative arm, also is looking at the possibility that these expelled miners may relocate to other parts of the Brazilian Amazon that are already under heavy pressure from clandestine mining, Ronilson Vasconcelos, an ICMBio environmental agent, told Efe.

Vasconcelos is coordinating a large-scale operation launched this week to combat illegal mining in the 12 Conservation Units (UCs) that ICMBio monitors in the Itaituba region, a municipality in the western part of the northern state of Para that is the Brazilian Amazon’s leading illegal gold mining hub.

“We’re prepared to mitigate any type of transition. If they come here and intend to continue the illegal activity they were carrying out in Yanomami indigenous land, we won’t let them,” he said.

The Itaituba region suffers from very high rates of deforestation, most of it linked to mining.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 10, satellites registered 830 deforestation alerts in a 200-kilometer (120-mile) radius surrounding Itaituba city, 674 of which were associated with “garimpo,” as illegal mining is known in Brazil, according to official data to which Efe obtained access.

The extraction of gold and cassiterite (a tin-oxide mineral used in various industries) is promoted by local authorities. Itaituba, for example, has expedited in recent days the awarding of environmental licenses for mining activities.

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