Resource wars: Brazilian gold miners go up against indigenous people

Tensions are simmering in the Tapajós Basin, as indigenous land claims conflict with those of small-scale gold miners. Government inaction and poor law enforcement are heating up the crisis.

  • Violence in the Brazilian Amazon is on the increase. Last year, Brazil ranked as the most dangerous nation for environmentalists worldwide. Indigenous people are especially at risk, with 137 killings in Brazil reported in 2015.
  • One cause of this violence arises from the conflict between indigenous people and small-scale mineral prospectors, especially gold miners, who lay claim to the same lands.
  • Lack of government action to demarcate indigenous lands, along with an inadequate federal law enforcement presence in the Amazon, have exacerbated the problem.
  • Many worry that violence will escalate if the federal government doesn’t step in to help mediate the claims made by indigenous groups and prospectors. However, some indigenous people see the small-scale prospectors as potential allies in the face of large-scale mining operations moving into the region and as the Tapajós Basin is progressively industrialized.
A small-scale gold mining operation. Miners in the Tapajós Basin have entered increasingly into conflicts with indigenous groups due to overlapping land claims. The Indians maintain that they have been on the land for centuries, while the miners claim the land is empty when they stake claim to it. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

In the popular imagination, the Amazon is often seen as a wild, mostly unpopulated place. But, it’s not jaguars and piranhas that stand as the chief dangers here; it’s the lawlessness and human conflict that have given the region a reputation for brutal violence ­— often the result of aggressive resource extraction on lands long claimed by indigenous people.

Last year Brazil ranked first as the most dangerous nation for environmentalists in the world with 50 activists murdered, according to Global Witness. But it’s not just activists being hit; governmental officials have also been targeted. In October, the city of Altamira´s Secretary of the Environment, Luis Alberto Araújo, was assassinated with nine shots to the head and chest; a killing that took place in front of his family.

For indigenous people, the dangers are even greater, with the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) reporting 137 killings in 2015. In the area around Itaituba — an Amazonian city on the Tapajós River that exists in large part to support the gold mining industry — these tensions show up regularly in the relationships between indigenous people and local gold prospectors.

A gold miners´ cooperative in Itaituba, one of many businesses and organizations in the city dedicated to gold mining. The coop´s sign reads: “for the benefit of prospectors.” The region’s businesses often don’t want to give receipts to miners who use gold to purchase goods. As a result, no tax is paid on the sale, the miner doesn’t establish a work history with the federal government, and can’t receive social security benefits in later years. As a result, older miners who should be retired are competing with younger miners, which increases small-scale mining pressure on indigenous lands. Photo by Zoe Sullivan for Mongabay

Indigenous land claims vs. gold stakes

Leo Rezende is an airplane pilot who has worked with Itaituba-area prospectors for more than two decades. He’s also President of the Tapajós Gold Mining Association (AMOT). Sitting in his air-conditioned office, he explains why AMOT is contesting the government boundary demarcation process for a nearby indigenous reserve:

“AMOT opposes the creation of new reservations, including the one that’s being created in the Jamanxin area [a tributary of the Tapajós] because it’s going to affect many prospecting locations,” he says. “Creating this new reservation will cover about 180,000 square kilometers [nearly 69,500 square miles]. And, from our perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense because this is an area where there were no Indians.”

Rezende and other prospectors argue that international NGOs — including Greenpeace, which has an active presence in the Tapajós Basin — have “planted” indigenous people in the Amazon’s “empty forests” in order to justify the demarcation of indigenous lands.

Juarez Saw, a local indigenous cacique or chief, emphatically denies such accusations, noting that “We have been using the Tapajós for thousands of years. These people say this because they´re against the demarcation.”

Greenpeace echoed this view in a statement: “Talking about ‘planting Indians’ is absurd and mendacious given that the middle Tapajós has historically been occupied by the Munduruku people, and that the Indigenous Land Sawré Muybu officially requested recognition from FUNAI (Brazil´s federal indigenous affairs agency) at least 15 years ago.” The statement also pointed to a recent report from FUNAI defining the Sawré Muybu area as traditional Munduruku land.

Small-scale gold mining in the Amazon. In addition to the land conflicts that exist between miners and indigenous groups, small-scale miners use mercury to process gold ore. As a result, Indians who eat mercury-contaminated fish can be sickened. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Indigenous groups note that while they have worked patiently with the Brazilian government for years to get it to officially identify and recognize boundaries for their traditional land claims, political and economic interests have long blocked the way. The reason for the protracted delay in the case of the Sawré Muybu lands, for example, was “the priority the government gave to the [São Luíz de Tapajós dam],” according to Maria Augusta Assirati, the former interim head of FUNAI, an assertion published in 2015 by Agência Pública, a Brazilian investigative news service,

Agência Pública reported that demarcation of the Sawré Muybu land wasn´t confirmed and published as required because the dam’s reservoir would have flooded a portion of the Munduruku territory, something illegal under Brazilian law. Ongoing government delays led to the Munduruku organizing their own demarcation process for the Sawré Muybu community. The territory received federal approval on April 19, 2016, Brazil’s Indigenous Day. AMOT filed an administrative complaint with FUNAI in October to contest the demarcation.

Increasing tensions, lack of law enforcement

While prospectors rage against the government’s demarcation process, indigenous people fear growing violence. The Munduruku cacique, or chief, Juarez Saw of Sawré Muybu confirmed to Mongabay that his community of 127 feels seriously threatened.

He has gone so far as to ask that Brazil’s Federal Police provide protection for his community from outsider threats and violence. Those requests have come to nothing, Saw says, with the police responding that they can not ensure the safety of their own agents in the region. The Federal Police did not respond to Mongabay’s request to verify this assertion.

“When we started putting up our traditional [demarcation] signs, [the prospectors] shot the signs, and bent our signs. They used… heavy weapons,” says Chief Juarez. He explained that he also fears for his personal safety. “I worried because the person who is at the forefront of all this is me. It’s my name that’s out there. So these people target me. As a result, I don’t want to file reports with the Public Ministry any more. Illegal loggers targeted me. The loggers started threatening me. Now I’m starting to see these prospectors. I don’t want to be involved with this any more because of this.”

Homes in the indigenous Praia do Indio (Indian´s Beach) community on the edge of Itaituba. Indigenous people feel increasing pressure from small-scale miners, large scale mining companies, and the industrialization of the Tapajós Basin. Photo by Zoe Sullivan for Mongabay

An October article in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper attributed the rising conflict over the demarcation process to budget cuts that have shrunk the staffs of government agencies such as FUNAI and IBAMA, the country´s environmental protection agency. The state of Pará covers 20.7 million hectares (79,923 square miles). It is also home to 60 indigenous areas registered with FUNAI. With fewer officials to do monitoring and enforcement work, illegal activities are harder to stop. “This is the world of the illicit,” a Franciscan nun told Folha, describing the lawlessness descending on the Amazon.

In some cases, however, enforcement activities have been perceived as heavy handed and added to tensions. The President of the Movement in Defense of Regional Prospecting in Western Pará, Luís Rodrigues da Silva told Mongabay how IBAMA agents recently burned a truck belonging to illegal loggers creating tremendous animosity.

IBAMA responded to Mongabay’s inquiry regarding the truck burning, affirming that all of its methods are legal. An email from the agency said: “The destruction of equipment and machines is necessary because, in general, areas of illegal mining and logging on indigenous lands are in hard-to-reach locations without the logistics to remove [the equipment].”

Luís Rodrigues da Silva, President of the Movement in Defense of Regional Prospecting in Western Pará, sits in his office in Itaituba. Photo by Zoe Sullivan for Mongabay

Predicting civil war

Luís Rodrigues da Silva is known as “Luís Barbudo” because of his thick beard, and he looks the part of a rugged Amazon gold miner. An ornate gold cross on a heavy woven gold chain hangs from his neck, and rests atop a carpet of salt and pepper hair on his barrel-shaped chest.

“There is going to be a civil war here in Western Pará,” Rodrigues da Silva warned while speaking to Mongabay in his garage/office in Itaituba.

Rodrigues da Silva is passionate and adamant about protecting the rights of small-scale, artisanal gold miners who he says are being crushed by larger interests. These interests, he says, include the government and large-scale mining companies. “We here can’t do anything because out there, there are really powerful people to massacre us. But what we can do, what we think are our rights, we can try [to defend].”

Rodrigues da Silva referred to the recent truck burning as an example of the kinds of injustices his constituents face. He also denounced the federal demarcation of the Sawré Muybu indigenous area as a measure that encroaches on mining territory.

Many small-scale miners say that their prospecting options are being squeezed from two differing directions — they are being limited by government conservation measures and also by large-scale mining companies as they enter the region. Meanwhile, the lack of an effective federal law enforcement presence has helped create a fertile ground out of which violence erupts.

A large-scale gold mining operation in the Amazon. Indigenous groups and small-scale miners who have long been at odds with each other, could end up uniting against large-scale mining projects. Rhett A. Butler

Rezende is more measured than his colleague Barbudo, but he agrees that the government needs to enforce its laws even as he decries some of its methods, such as burning machinery. The two mining leaders both argue vehemently that federally protected areas have been overlaid atop lands that prospectors traditionally were allowed to explore and exploit.

Miner vs. miner vs. government

Rezende notes still another source of escalating conflict, admitting that prospectors have become more numerous in the Amazon, and are now encroaching on each other´s territory, something he calls a “serious problem.”

“This is new here in the Tapajós,” explains Rezende. “A few years ago, there was a kind of code among prospectors so that we respected each other’s [territories]. In the 2000s, some [new] loggers started arriving in the region. And even if we defend that this is something important for the regional and national economy, some [of those loggers] had unhealthy practices and started entering [gold mining] areas, and this created a [new] kind of culture.”

Where previously a code of honor ensured that prospectors respected each other’s claims, such consideration is no longer standard practice. And that generates tensions in the mining community.

One person who has experienced the impact of this “change in culture” is Luís Silva de Sousa, also known as “Luis Preto.” Silva de Sousa has been prospecting around Itaituba since 1974. Sitting in the shade of an enormous tree in front of his 3-story home, his lean, wiry frame gives him an air of being much younger than his 72 years.

Luís Silva de Sousa, known as “Luís Preto”, sits beneath a shade tree in his front yard. He has been mining for gold in the area around Itaituba, Pará since 1974. Photo by Zoe Sullivan for Mongabay

While Silva de Sousa has faced challenges from incursions by other miners into his territory, he notes that an avoidance of federal regulations and taxes permeates the local amazon economy, with unfortunate results for miners, and incidentally for indigenous land claims.

“[T]here’s little government oversight in our region,” Silva de Sousa told Mongabay. “The majority of us in the [small-scale] prospecting [business] are suffering from the ‘note,’ that is the ‘fiscal note,’ the [receipts] for buying gold and merchandise.” When goods are purchased in Brazil, businesses are required to issue a receipt, known as a “fiscal note.” The receipt becomes an official part of the business’s accounts, and identifies the taxes due. But for prospectors, a major problem arises because businesses don’t want to issue such a receipt for the raw gold the miners sell, often in exchange for goods.

According to Silva de Sousa, much commercial activity related to gold remains off the books, compromising a prospector’s ability to prove his work history to the government, preventing the miner from tapping into the federal social security system later in life. This, in turn, pushes aging prospectors to continue mining, further increasing pressure on the region’s resources, and also on indigenous lands. It also keeps funds from entering the public coffers that could pay for policing and other oversight.

According to Silva de Sousa, he has no social security benefits to rely on now, and is one of many older prospectors facing this challenge: “I’m still working. I haven’t been able to get any resources or a retirement.”

Despite the tensions between indigenous people and small-scale miners, Munduruku Chief Juarez still sees prospectors like Silva de Sousa not as enemies but as potential allies in a larger fight. Although miners have threatened Chief Juarez, men like Silva de Sousa offer indigenous people hope in the battle against big mining firms and the escalating industrialization of the Tapajós Basin.

“To my thinking, this is not the time for war,” Silva de Sousa told Mongabay. “It’s time to sit down the political leaders, administrative leaders, fiscal councils, the parties, businesses, unions, communities and form a committee to go to Brasília” and seek a peaceful resolution to the inflammatory land conflicts in the Amazon.

An early morning view of the grain silos on the eastern bank of the Tapajós River, directly across from the city of Itaituba. These silos at a newly built river port are an indicator of the rapid industrialization of the region, as road, rail and waterway infrastructure is built to support the export of soy and other commodities from Mato Grosso state. Small-scale gold miners and indigenous people are worried about this large-scale infrastructure development, and could end up becoming uneasy allies because of it. Photo by Zoe Sullivan for Mongabay.


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