Miners, Indigenous Groups Clash in Brazil’s Amazon

Over gold-flecked earth

The Wajãpi indigenous community live in a remote area in northern Brazil. Photo: AFP

The struggle over gold buried deep beneath Brazil’s Amazon rainforest – much of it on territory set aside as national forest or indigenous land – has escalated under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro and torn at the social fabric of the region’s indigenous groups.

By Monica Raymunt (dpa)

HAVANA TIMES – In the sun-scorched Brazilian city of Itaituba, in a part of the Amazon filled with legal and illegal mines, there are two streets where young men go after weeks away in the gold pits.

Running uphill from the shores of the Tapajos river, Travessa Treze de Maio and Travessa Joao Pessoa are 2.5-kilometre stretches of asphalt caked with red dirt and lined with mechanic workshops, hotels, clothing stores and restaurants.

It’s here that more than a dozen small storefronts with names like Ouro e Joias, Gold Minas and D’Gold advertise the most important service a miner in this part of the world needs: A place to sell his gold.

Man’s lust for gold and other precious minerals buried beneath the rainforest has played a key role in Amazon degradation over the past
30 years.

As international tensions rise over industry’s role in global warming and the inflammatory rhetoric of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a three-way battle has emerged in the depths of the Amazon between wildcat miners, indigenous groups and local authorities.

Brazil is one of the leading mineral producing countries in the world, rich in reserves of iron ore, niobium, manganese, bauxite, tin, copper and gold. Itaituba is located in Brazil’s vast northern state of Para – one of the three most mineral-rich states in the country.

On Travessa Treze de Maio, inside the Ourominas storefront, a large poster on the wall contains a montage of black-and-white photos from the gold mine in Serra Pelada, a Brazilian village in south-eastern Para that was the site of a frenzied gold rush in the early 1980s. In one image, five young men fan thick wads of cash. In another, dozens of mud-covered bodies scramble over the sloped terrain with sacks on their backs.

“Nowadays, working in the gold buying business is really difficult,”
one of the buyers says.

In 2006, the demarcation of national forests and indigenous areas restricted the area approved for mining in the Tapajos region, where miners had already been working for years. According to Leo Rezende, president of the Association of Gold Miners of the Tapajos, miners have since been wrongly criminalized for their work and demand that mining, or garimpo, on protected lands be declared legal.

Legalizing the extraction of mineral resources, he says, would reduce bureaucracy and offer a better life for Amazon residents, many of whom live in poverty.

Work as a miner, though, is hard. A man who spent four months working as a so-called garimpeiro explains how machinery at the bottom of the pit uses water to grind the earth and rocks into a muddy slurry. The mixture is sucked up to the top of the pit, where the gold is filtered out onto silicone mats.

“We wake up at 4 am, at the crack of dawn. You go down into the hole – to the bottom of the pit that I showed you. It’s 4 am. You work. Order the water. The water comes. The order comes for more material. You don’t stop,” he says.

“You don’t get to say to yourself, ‘Ah, now I have an hour to rest.’ That doesn’t happen. You work until until 6 pm. Exit the pit. Take a shower. Eat dinner. Sleep. Repeat.”

The daily descent into the muddy pits for 12-hour days of manual labour is gruelling, but the ex-miner says the chances of a big payoff are worth it. “It comes down to this: It’s the fastest way to make money,” he says.

The untrained men who go to work in the gold pits are overseen by a “Dono” – the head garimpeiro who scouts the land and buys or leases the equipment that is used at the mining site.

“As a Dono, I want to legalize the area I have in order to work properly,” Rezende says. “In the moment that you have the legalization of a mine, the gold can be taxed,” he says.

Rezende’s opinion has been echoed by Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly called for opening up indigenous lands to development. Last week, the president told a group of garimpeiros in blunt terms why there has been so much focus on the Amazon in recent months.

“Interest in the Amazon isn’t in the Indian or in the fucking tree, it’s in the ore,” Bolsonaro said in a speech to miners in front of Planalto Palace in Brasilia. If he had the legal recourse to support the miners in Serra Pelada, he said, “I would put the armed forces there.”

Bolsonaro has drawn criticism for his brazen support for Brazil’s miners, with environmental and indigenous activists saying he is encouraging garimpeiros to mine on protected territory.

Development on indigenous lands is against the constitution, and Brazilian authorities in Para have been trying to take action against the illegal gold trade. Federal Police in Santarem have most recently investigated mining activity in Munduruku indigenous territory.

The Munduruku, whose members live on the banks of the Tapajos river, are among those demanding that the government protect their territory from miners.

According to a senior member of the Federal Police in Santarem, at least 16 big pieces of mining equipment were seen on Munduruku land during a recent flyover. “But I am personally sure there are more than 30,” the source said.

According to Alessandra Korap Munduruku, a leading member of the indigenous group, the long-term presence of the garimpeiro has created a social crisis among indigenous groups, luring young girls into prostitution and creating animosity between those who cooperate with the miners and those who fight to reject the practice.

With his repeated exhortation for the legalization of resource development on indigenous lands, Bolsonaro is driving a wedge between different indigenous groups and pursuing a policy of “divide and conquer,” she says.

“He is not offering a public policy for the Amazon,” the law student says. “Quality education, quality healthcare – he’s not offering this. He always speaks about destroying the indigenous peoples. In what way? Bringing illegal mining onto indigenous lands.”

“I want him to respect the decision of the indigenous people,” she says. “I want him to respect the protocol and practices of each people. This is what I want. Bringing mining into the indigenous lands is bringing death – for us and for our future generations.”

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