HomeNewsAnalysisHow Illegal Diamond Mining Threatens Brazil's Indigenous Communities

How Illegal Diamond Mining Threatens Brazil's Indigenous Communities


The Cinta-Larga indigenous group in Brazil is on the brink of collapse as they struggle to confront illegal mining in one of the world's largest diamond deposits.

"Our land is our spirit. An indigenous person without his land is an indigenous person without a soul." This is how one of the leaders of the Cinta-Larga tribe ends his speech at a meeting held in May to discuss new indigenous policies. Believed by the indigenous to be inseparable, the land and the soul of the Cinta-Larga suffer together: the cultural genocide and the violence against their members is the result of violations that occurred on the grounds that they consider sacred.

This article was originally published by Folha and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See the Portuguese original here

Beneath the indigenous reserves Roosevelt, Serra Morena, Aripuanã and Aripuanã Park, between the states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso where the Cinta-Larga live, hides what may be the world's largest diamond deposit. The glistening of the stones began to attract illegal miners to the Lajes creek region between 1999 and 2000. The demarcated indigenous territory (which in theory can not be used for mining activity, except for informal mining conducted by the indigenous themselves) is a clearing approximately 10 kilometers wide and 2 kilometers long, in addition to an appendix called the Grota do Sossego, which also spans 2 kilometers.

However, miners and indigenous estimate the area to be larger: they say more than 1,000 hectares are used for exploratory mining.

The peak of the diamond rush in Roosevelt occurred in 2004, when there were more than 5,000 miners in the region. It was interrupted after a series of mutual threats by miners and indigenous resulted in the deaths of 29 miners. Since then, mining operations in the area have been closed and reopened several times.

"The current situation is more serious than it was in April 2004," says Reginaldo Trindade, the state prosecutor in charge of defending the Cinta-Larga. "In March of this year, there were no less than 500 armed miners who told the Cinta-Larga that they would not leave the indigenous land."

This was no isolated incident. Mining activities were completely suspended in May on orders from the indigenous community. In July, the area was retaken by armed miners, who returned to extracting diamonds.

World's Largest Diamond Deposit?

Due to its status as indigenous territory, the Roosevelt reserve cannot be studied or exploited until a law that sets out specific regulations is passed. As a result, knowledge about the land today is based off estimates, all of which are below the territory's actual potential for diamond extraction, according to experts and mining companies.

Even conservative estimates for the region are superlative. The Research and Mineral Resources Company (CPRM by its Portuguese initials), linked to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, calculates that just in the Lajes mine, it would be possible to extract 1 million karats of diamonds per year, valued at over $200 million (close to 800 million reals).

What's more, varieties of the rare kimberlite (a type of volcanic rock in which diamonds are formed) exist in Lajes and at least 14 additional areas, according to one mining company. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is an annual value of $3 billion lying below the earth.

{module Brazil Indigenous Mining}

Photos of Roosevelt Reserve, courtesy of the authors


If these numbers are confirmed, Roosevelt would be the world's largest diamond deposit, almost 50 percent bigger than the Jubilee mine in Russia, which produces 10.4 million karats per year. In 2012, Russia announced that the Popigai Astrobleme deposit, which is a crater almost 100 kilometers in length created by the impact of an asteroid, would produce enough diamonds to supply the global market for 3,000 years. However, there is still no evidence the deposit has this type of capacity.

Currently, Brazil is a lightweight in the international diamond industry: in 2013, the country produced approximately 49,200 karats, which corresponds to just 0.04 percent of the 130.5 million karats produced globally. It is not a coincidence that the Brazilian states with the largest production, Mato Grosso (88 percent of the national total) and Minas Gerais (11 percent), are also principal areas for illegal diamonds to be laundered.

SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles

The diamonds from Roosevelt are highly valued for their shape, size, purity and color. "They can be mainly used for high-value jewelry, they are different and easy to identify," says Francisco Valdir da Silveira, chief of the mineral resources department at CPRM.

To achieve a production capacity proportional to Roosevelt's potential, it would require advanced industrial mining technology with modern machines and additional manual labor. That is to say, a significant difference from the semi-formal mining that is currently carried out, in which up to 40 percent of the diamonds are lost in the process. Improvised mining equipment is used without supervision and has low production capacity.

The backhoes used in Roosevelt open cracks of up to 20 meters, while excavations in large mines reach 600 meters. Nonetheless, it is estimated that annual sales of diamonds extracted from the indigenous territory exceed $25 million.

Mining on Indigenous Territory

From above, a large clearing in the Amazon rainforest can be seen, with the red earth contrasting the lush green. On the ground, the entrance to the mine appears as an island in a dry and lifeless ecosystem, bordered by a river on one side and a marsh on the other. It's important to watch your step -- the cracked earth can hide quicksand pits.

A few kilometers ahead is the heart of the mining: enormous craters lined up, interspersed with mountains of dirt. Near the holes, precarious wooden shacks covered with tarpaulin have been built. This is where the miners eat their meals, prepared by their wives or by the cooks.

"[The miners] have a lot of drugs and prostitutes, of course, but a lot of families go to the mining areas," says one miner who did not want to be identified. "The whole family, wife and children included, spend months there, and everyone is respected." Life as a miner is very difficult, he adds.

Just getting to the mine is very difficult. Roosevelt, the largest of all the reserves, is located atop a 35 kilometer road that is only passable on tractors, powerful vehicles or motorcycles. By motorcycle, the trip includes passing wetlands, and the bike must be picked up and carried at some points. The wear on the brakes is such that they often give out before finishing the trek, which takes approximately four hours to complete.

In the mines, the work is difficult, and the benefits are uncertain. "We found a large, beautiful rock, more than 11 karats," says one miner. "We gave it to the diamond dealer to sell, but we never saw any money from it. They said he sold if for 180,000 reals ($46,000)," says the miner, who quit his job after that episode.

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The operating system of the mine is a complex mechanism that generates a "Cold War" mentality between the miners, indigenous, and intermediaries: everyone tries to outmaneuver the others.

The process starts with an investor who is willing to buy equipment, make contacts with foreign buyers, and bribe the state surveillance apparatus. The investor uses a local intermediary to negotiate each step of this process. The intermediary, of course, receives a commission for their work.

The intermediary contacts one of the two principal Cinta-Larga leaders (each one can "operate" a stretch of mining) and offers the machines in exchange for a percent of the sale of the diamonds, ranging from 20 to 30 percent. The miners are considered laborers, and have no fixed income. They are "hired" by the indigenous leader and must report to the leader if they find diamonds. The miners receive 7 percent of the total value of the diamond, which is generally shared among them equally.

The intermediary frequently values the diamond 30 or 40 percent below its real worth, say indigenous leaders and buyers. Many times, the indigenous receive their share but do not pass on the profits to the miners, who in turn attempt to sell diamonds directly to the buyer, cutting out the indigenous and the middlemen. Small stones can easily fit in bags or can even be swallowed. The problem, however, is that a miner found selling directly to buyers runs the risk of paying for it with his life.

Cinta-Larga: 'On the Brink of Genocide'

The first contact between the Cinta-Larga and white men was tragic: they suffered a monstrous genocide, known as the Massacre of Paralelo Onze, in 1963, that killed some 3,500 indigenous. The massacre precipitated the extinction of the Service for the Protection of the Indigenous (SPI) agency, which was succeeded by the National Foundation of the Indigenous (Funai). An indigenous group that once counted close to 5,000 individuals today has a population of just 1,758, according to census statistics.

The relationship between the indigenous and the whites then remained stable until mining operations began. Thereafter began a systematic process of acculturation. At first grudgingly, the indigenous permitted the mines with conditions, but the large sums of money and their growing consumer habits led to corruption and generated insurmountable debts for the indigenous communities.

A survey conducted by the indigenous activist Maria Ines Hargreaves indicates that, on average, for every Cinta-Larga, there are between three and four court cases, the majority of which are related to unsettled debts. Independent from the financial mess, part of the debt is due to fraud: swindlers take advantage of the indigenous by having them sign blank documents, accept unfair interest rates or approve credit cards with no details on the terms of payment.

To pay off debts, which are oftenclaimed by lenders at gunpoint, the indigenous ally themselves with the miners and permit them on their land.

"They know that the criminal situation in which they find themselves will drive (is already driving, in fact) the entire community into extinction," says prosecutor Reginaldo Trindade. "The Cinta-Larga people are on the brink of genocide, if not physicallyl, than at least ethnically and culturally."

The Funai's regional coordinator in the municipality of Cacoal, Bruno Lima e Silva, echoes Trinidade's comments. "The community, in general, is against the mining, it is only a few leaders that generate profits from it, which creates political divisions among the group," he says.

Flood of Diamonds

There are Federal Police bases on all the official indigenous reserves, but nonetheless it is impossible to control the flood of people and equipment associated with the mining. Clandestine roads are opened that snake their way onto the reserve through farms located on the border. There is also an airstrip on the reserve, and several small airports on farms.

The diamonds extracted from Roosevelt principally leave the reserve by one of three ways. One of these is aerial transport.

Once taken out of the earth, the stones are photographed and the photos are sent over the internet to intermediaries, generally Europeans and North Americans. The negotiations over the price, as well as date and point of delivery, are made remotely.

The buyer arrives to South America via Ecuador, Peru, Colombia or Bolivia. Once the arrive, they rent a single-engine plane and cross into Brazil, before landing on a clandestine air strip in order to hand over the money in exchange for the diamonds without ever having officially set foot in Brazilian soil.

Another way to remove the diamonds is by sending them to Venezuela or Guyana by land. Until April of this year, when it signed the international agreement, Venezuela was one of the few diamond-producing countries that did not issue a Kimberley certificate -- the international accreditation that, in theory, proves the legal origin of diamonds. Previously, Venezuela's entire diamond market was illegal, and the smuggled Brazilian stones were incorporated into the local industry.

The flow of contraband into Guyana is weaker. The advantage in Guyana is that one can get the Kimberley seal -- stones that enter a certified legal zone are registered as if they were extracted from there.

The third method for laundering the diamonds is internal. The operation is similar to that which takes place in Guyana, with the stones registered as made in other states, such as Mato Grosso, Minas Gerais and Goias. Diamonds are smuggled to formal mines and, once there, become "formalized." With the Kimberley seal, the diamonds can be exported directly or are sent to the city of Juina, where they are sold in a legalized "diamond stock exchange" in the main square.

All of this would be difficult without the protection provided by powerful interests. "We have always believed powerful people are involved in the mining," says Reginaldo. "There are many reports about the involvement of officials from different agencies, politicians, businessmen, and even multinationals in [diamond] exploration; this is the only justification for how such a serious situation has been treated in such an amateur way," he concludes.

Of course, the money that enters the accounts of indigenous leaders is not legal either. It is generally used to improve the community, with some privileges afforded for the leaders: for example, they buy trucks that are used by everyone for transportation, but the priority goes to the chief. Likewise, they have installed a satellite dish and Wi-Fi, but in the chief's house. Still, if a leader does not attend to the minimum expectations of the other village members, their leadership will be contested internally.

Today, the most influential leaders are those with the greatest popular backing, such as Marcelo Cinta-Larga, the chief of the Roosevelt village, and the aging João Bravo, chief of the Tenente Marques village, where few speak Portuguese.

João Bravo is a historic leader of the Cinta-Larga and has lifelong mayoral status, bankrolled by mining funds. He has become rich, but has also improved the community: he had roads built and lights installed, provided medicines and remedies for the village, bought cars and even erected a small hydroelectric plant on the indigenous land.

But his son, Raimundinho Cinta-Larga, does not have the same prestige. A report by Rondônia's Public Ministry states that in 2005 he was the owner of a house valued at 400,000 reals ($103,000) in Cacoal. In 2014, he was cited in Brazil's massive "Car Wash" investigation as the recipient of eight remittances for a total of 21,450 reals ($5,500) that came from the money changer Carlos Habib Chater, who is suspected of participating in the extraction and sale of diamonds abroad.

Raimundinho's defense lawyer says that he and the cooperative that he runs, Coopecilar, never extracted diamonds from indigenous lands.

Is Legalization the Solution?

Paragraph three of article 231 of the Federal Constitution states that "the use of hydraulic resources, including potential energy resources, prospecting and mining of minerals on indigenous lands can only be done with authorization from the National Congress, after listening to the affected communities and assuring their participation in the results of the mining, according to the law."

In other words, it is necessary that Congress creates and approves a law that permits and regulates the extraction of natural resources on indigenous lands. Since this law does not currently exist, any mining done in Roosevelt is illegal.

"We want mining to be legalized," Marcelo Cinta-Larga vehemently states. Nine out of ten sources consulted for this report said regulation is the solution to the mining problem, including officials from the Public Ministry, Federal Police, indigenous, indigenous activists and even miners, who say they prefer to work legally.

Three legislative proposals have previously tried to regulate the activity, the most prominent of which was proposed by Senator Romero Juca almost 20 years ago. Juca's proposal was seen as unacceptable by defenders of indigenous rights, mostly because it reduced the importance of consulting local communities and stipulated that only 2 percent of gross revenues from the natural resources, belonged to the indigenous union. The project would have applied for all types of mining, including that of diamonds or any other precious stone.

In 2010, Representative Eduardo Valente presented a substitute text to Juca's proposal that incorporated 40 amendments, but rejected another 62, in addition to considering four to be unconstitutional. The text, which slightly raises royalties to 3 percent of gross revenue, also faces resistance.

Another proposal is before Congress that transfers from the union to Congress the right to demarcate indigenous lands and permits the revision of previously demarcated lands, based on the new criteria. These measures go against Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, which Brazil signed in 2003, which incorporates indigenous and tribal peoples within domestic law protection mechanisms.

"The law has not yet come," states Fernando Scaff, a lawyer and professor of financial law at the University of São Paulo. "The mining model depends on the approved text, whether it be by bidding, by direct negotiations with the indigenous, or by a different model," he states.

Scaff explains that, generally, the first to discover the wealth has the right to exploit it, but on indigenous lands the process will depend on the law. Consultation of indigenous peoples should occur during each mining operation, not in the process to approve the proposal.

This means that, in order to operate on demarcated lands, it would be necessary to come to terms with the indigenous communities. Some are already doing this.

Among the Cinta-Larga, two cooperatives exist that are dedicated to mineral exploration. One is the aforementioned Coopecilar, which for years has been led by João Bravo and Raimundinho. The other is COESCI (Cooperative of Sustainable Extraction for the Cinta-Larga), which is run by Marcelo and Oita Mina Cinta-Larga, but supported by almost all of the indigenous leaders. These are the two entryways for anyone interested in running a legal mining operation. Both of these cooperatives already have their legal representatives.

The lawyer Raul Canal -- whose office is located in Brasilia -- has represented Coopecilar for years. For COESCI, Luis Felipe Belmonte, a lawyer who is also based in Brasilia, and the businessman Samir Santos Entorno presented a regulatory mining proposal in March of this year.

In both cases, their arguments are similar: they do legal consulting work in Brasilia in order to protect indigenous rights and provide them with representation in court cases that favor mining legalization.

There are promises too. The indigenous believe that, after legalization, the Cinta-Larga will be one of the richest ethnic groups in the world -- a report found Samir Entorno showing the indigenous photos of his work with millionaire communities in New Mexico.

Their actions, however, suggest otherwise. Canal says that he is working to get a legal case approved this year that would remove the requirement for the Cinta-Larga to obtain Congressional approval for "the exclusive exploration by the [indigenous] of all the subterranean resources and sources of energy."

"We do not support any legislative initiative, since none of the proposals before Congress address the interests of the indigenous," Canal says. "They all favor the interests of large mining companies."

Belmonte is already working to get the Cinta-Larga permission to legalize exploratory mining procedures that are conducted on the surface. "The proposal is to give them legal means to work," he explains. "The money would all go to the community through legal means: they do the mining, the diamond trade, and manage the cooperative."

"The indigenous statute already allows this," Belmonte adds. "The problem is that it is open to miners entering and exploring illegal activities."

The two lawyers state that they do not maintain a relationship with illegal mining or miners.

A federal government source says that the legalization of mining in Roosevelt is part of an international lobby in Antwerp, Belgium (the country involved in 80 percent of the world's trade of rough diamonds and 50 percent of polished diamonds), whose investors want to direct their money towards countries with democracy and stable economies.

In conflict with the state, without money and with a culture in decline, the Cinta-Larga will continue to be dependent on mining, regardless of whether it continues to be clandestine as it is today, or if it becomes legalized by men wearing suits in Brasilia. 

*This article was originally published by Folha and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See the Portuguese original here

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