How illegal miners are invading Brazil’s indigenous territories

·5-min read

A group of indigenous leaders in Brazil are raising the alarm about the widespread illegal mining taking place in the country’s indigenous territory, as documented in aerial photos showing vast mining camps on their land. Though Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is attempting to open up indigenous lands to mining, the communities and their leaders are fighting against this invasion and destruction.

The indigenous territory of Raposa Serra do Sol stretches over 1.7 million hectares of the Roraima state in northern Brazil, which borders Venezuela and Guyana. Raposa Serra do Sol, which was established in 2005, is home to a community of nearly 20,000 indigenous people. It is also home to large deposits of gold, diamonds, uranium and other minerals.

Historically, Brazilian law has banned any mining in indigenous territories. But when President Jair Bolsonaro took office in early 2019, things changed: his administration is keen to exploit the resources in these territories. In February 2020, the president introduced a draft bill to Congress that would allow mining and other commercial activities in indigenous territories, promising that indigenous people would benefit from this economic activity.

Though the bill is still pending, activists say that the promise of impending legalisation has intensified the scramble for gold and increased illegal entry into protected territories. On March 3, the Roraima Indigenous Council (CIR) took to social media to denounce this ongoing invasion, with photos as proof.

These photos show huts covered with blue tarp near Raposa II, located in the Normandia municipality. According to the CIR, who brought this issue to the attention of the United Nations, the zone has been turned into a favela where nearly a thousand miners live in desperate conditions.

This video, which the CIR sent to our team, shows the large camp where miners are living near Raposa II in the Raposa Serra do Sol territory. The photo was taken in February 2021. Credit: CIR.

Edinho Batista de Souza is the coordinator of CIR. He says that the number of illegal miners in Raposa Serra do Sol has been increasing over the past three years:

These "garimpeiros" [Editor’s note: "wildcat" or illegal miners] come from all over – from Roraima, from other states and even from other countries as we are a border region.

When the number of illegal miners swelled to 2,000, two police operations were organised in March 2020. But these actions didn’t prevent new entries. Edinho Batista de Souza says the state government has made things worse :

In February, our own local government adopted a law that would expand mining and allow the use of mercury to process the gold. They did this because of the promises made to miners by the Brazilian government.

The law is strategic because it doesn’t actually mention the indigenous areas, only the areas that belong to the state. But, in reality, the "garimpeiros" carry out all of their illegal activities in the indigenous territories. After the law was passed, the wave of illegal miners increased – it was as if they believed that it had legalised these activities. We complained about the law to the United Nations and the Supreme Federal Tribunal and got it suspended.

'Sanitation barriers' set up to prevent entry during the pandemic

One of the CIR’s concerns is that local lakes and rivers will be contaminated with toxic products, like the mercury widely used to process gold. They say more than 30 machines used to crush rocks to extract ore were counted in just one river in the area. During this process, leftover pieces of rock and mercury end up in the water.

Some of these miners have shared images of their activities on social media, making no effort to hide their destructive nature. In early April, a video showing garimpeiros digging up a river bed in indigenous territory belonging to the Yanomami people in Roraima circulated in Brazilian media.

This illegal entry into indigenous territory also increases the risk of spreading Covid-19. In February 2021, four "sanitation barriers" were set up around Raposa Serra do Sol.

Barriers like this were set up in several territories in the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 to prevent non-authorised people from entering, like the garimpeiros, as well as to prevent the entry of mining equipment and alcohol.

'Some families have been so influenced by garimpo propaganda that they see it as their only option'

The CIR coordinator is also worried by another impact of this trend:

Some indigenous farmers are influenced by mining propaganda and start to see it as the only option. These people defend the mining, defend the invasion and destroy their own home.

This changes the system of collective organisation in communities and creates a dependency on the people who finance mining exploration. These people are in town – they are the politicians, the businessmen, the vendors. Not to mention what happens in mining sites – like drugs, alcohol and prostitution.

The areas where the mining takes place are hard to access and not at all controlled. Anyone who speaks out about what is happening there is threatened, sometimes with death. That’s why when we document these sites, we take photos from a distance.

Faced with this upheaval, we have also been turning to social media to share information to show that mining is not the only way to make a living, that there are other activities that allow you to maintain your dignity and liberty.

CIR shared this post about seed donations in Yanomami indigenous communities "with the aim of sharing and promoting traditional seeds in the communities and reinforcing family agriculture".

According to the BBC, gold was the second largest export from Roraima state in 2019… even though there are no legally operating mines.

Illegal mining has gotten especially out of control in land belonging to the Yanomami people. In June 2020, the Yanomami launched a vast campaign in both Brazil and abroad to ask for help and support removing the nearly 20,000 illegal miners in their territory.

The Brazilian justice system does seem to be listening. A judge ruled on March 16 that all miners should be expelled from Yanomami territories. In the ruling, he said this activity could cause genocide. It’s an encouraging victory for Edinho Batista de Souza, who hopes that operations to fight illegal mining will be carried out in Raposa Serra do Sol, too.