Crime & Justice

Itaituba: Brazilian Amazon’s leading illegal gold mining hub

By Carlos Meneses

Itaituba, Brazil, Feb 16 (EFE).- Everything revolves around the gold business. Excavator sales are booming. And miners are treated like royalty.

Welcome to Itaituba, nicknamed “cidade pepita” (gold nugget city) and the main illegal gold mining hub in the Brazilian Amazon.

Artisanal mining is the economic engine of this sleepy urban center in the northern state of Para that is bathed by the waters of the Tapajos River and surrounded by natural parks overseen by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the Environment Ministry’s administrative arm.

The history of gold mining in Itaituba dates back to the colonial era, but the real boom period started in the 1970s and 1980s when annual production soared to between 15-30 tons, according to the mayor’s office.

Many of the conservation units (UCs) that now surround the city and protect some 10 million hectares (38,600 square miles) of native vegetation were created years later.

But they have not stopped fortune hunters from digging mine pits in Amazon forests and poisoning them with mercury, which is used by small-scale and illegal gold mining operations as an inexpensive way to separate small amounts of that precious metal from other material.

The use of heavy machinery capable of moving large swaths of land in just a few days and the active encouragement of this small-scale mining in the Amazon by rightist former President Jair Bolsonaro has plunged this region of the northern Brazilian Amazon into a cycle of alarming destruction.

According to official figures, around 70 percent of the deforestation reported at the 334 ICMBio-administered UCs throughout Brazil currently occurs at a dozen units in Para’s western region, where Itaituba is located.

“Generally speaking, most of the mining occurring here is being carried out illegally,” Carla Michelle Lessa, an environmental analyst and ICMBio’s staff director, told Efe.

All of Itaituba revolves around mining, with many more excavator dealers than would be expected in a city of 100,000 inhabitants and numerous establishments that buy gold and precious metals.

Roadside signs unabashedly offer “Internet service for ‘garimpo'” (illegal, small-scale gold mining) that is “fast, stable and secure.”

And a statue of a gold miner with his pan welcomes tourists on a riverside walk.

“You’re planning on tearing it down, eh?” one local resident asked derisively while a team of Efe reporters, accompanied by ICMBio members, observed the monument.

Environmental inspectors are generally unwelcome in Itaituba and are even referred to as “demons” by some local residents, who can be seen using their cellphones to record them as they pass through the city in official vehicles.

Those images later end up in WhatsApp groups used by miners and serve to warn them of potential operations.

And the local population is now particularly wary since recently inaugurated center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration launched two large-scale operations against illegal mining, one in the Yanomami indigenous reservation and another in the vicinity of Itaituba.

On Wednesday, the city was the target of a new Federal Police operation to dismantle a “large gold-smuggling crime gang.”

Among the companies being investigated is one based in the United States that allegedly illegally exported gold to Italy, Switzerland, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates.

“Companies low down on the totem pole received the illegal gold, the illegal invoices, and issued new invoices to provide a veneer of legality to the gold, which would then pass to large companies at the apex of the (scheme’s) triangle,” said Vinicius Serpa, the lead police investigator in the case.

Related Articles

Back to top button