Brazil’s Federal Police detected no new illegal mines on Yanomami territory for the first time since monitoring began almost three years ago. But there remain many barriers to ending illegal mining in the area.
Operation Liberation (Operação Libertação), a satellite system used by the police to monitor Brazil’s Amazon, has detected no new mines in over a month, the longest absence since it started operating in August 2020. This follows a steady decline in new mining. In April and May 2023, the system detected 33 new mines, down from 538 during the same period in 2022.
Illegal mining in Brazil’s northern states, such as Roraima, has had severe consequences for both the people living in the affected areas and the environment. Support from local politicians led to increases in illicit mining in recent years, while the 2018 arrival to the region of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) resulted in an increased flow of arms to the miners. These were turned against Yanomami communities.
The drop off in illegal mining sites has come after Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, instituted multiple reforms to curtail illicit mining, including sending additional security forces to affected areas and tightening regulations on the gold trade.
"It's fair to say that there's much less mining now because a lot of the miners the government has removed," Fiona Watson, Research Director at Survival International, an organization that campaigns for the rights of Indigenous peoples, told InSight Crime.
During his election campaign, Lula vowed to halt the environmental damage caused by illegal mining, which increased under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. The former president rolled back environmental protections and encouraged the exploitation of the Amazon, leading to skyrocketing deforestation.
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The lack of new mines is another indicator that Brazil’s new policies are effectively combating the illicit gold industry, but for progress to continue, wildcat miners will need alternative economic opportunities.
Illegal mining on Yanomami lands is logistically difficult. Moving in and out of the territory usually calls for a plane or helicopter, and the heavy machinery required for mining, including backhoes, is expensive and hard to transport. Because of these difficulties, military operations restricting movement throughout the region are immediately effective, Brazil-based journalist, Sam Cowie, told InSight Crime.
“If you do have constant operations, as there have been this year, you will see results,” said Cowie.
However, the government’s current successes may be harder to sustain in the long run. Large-scale, multi-agency deployments are costly and require political will. Even if these deployments do continue, the response fails to address the systemic and economic conditions that have allowed illegal mining to flourish, Cowie said
According to recent estimates, 46% of people in Roraima lived below the poverty line in 2022. Few economic alternatives are available, and no feasible plan for development has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, criminal groups like the PCC wait in the wings.
Illegal miners have recently opened new mining sites in the state of Amazonas outside of Yanomami territories, showing that away from government efforts, illegal mining appears unaffected.
As soon as anti-mining operations end, new mining sites are likely to open, Cowie said.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. “Nobody does.”