In some ways, Brazil’s new president has faced worse. In 2002, the year before he entered office, Amazon deforestation stood at 25,500 square kilometers. Within five years, he had brought this down by 60%.
From August 2021 to July 2022, deforestation stood at 11,568 square kilometers, although this was still the worst rate in a decade.
The permissiveness surrounding environmental crimes soared under Bolsonaro with government agencies openly colluding with timber companies to deforest the Amazon and with a gutting of protection mechanisms.
But despite this high-level involvement, wildcat miners and illegal loggers have become the face of organized crime in the Amazon. Far more is understood about the clashes these miners have had with Indigenous communities than about the backers who finance them. This is despite a staggering 54% of Brazil’s gold production in 2021, or an estimated 47.9 tons, being illegally sourced, according to one survey.
The policies put in place by the new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, must contend with both ends of this criminal spectrum: The frontline troops who dig out the gold or chop down the trees, usually because of a lack of other options, and the complex, transnational networks who back them.
It’s a thankless task. Following four years of permissiveness under Bolsonaro, illegal mining and logging have become entrenched. Congressional allies of the extractive lobbies have faced little opposition. Therefore, the new president must remove those committing these atrocities, focus on bringing down their financiers and backers, and create sustainable pathways to profit for the legal sectors.
“To make a lasting impact on environmental crime, the Lula government will need to adopt an integrated approach backed by sustained political support and financial resources,” said Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank devoted to development, security and climate issues.
This will be difficult, given that right-wing parties did well in the 2022 elections, despite Bolsonaro’s defeat.
While Lula had an admirable track record on the environment in his first term, replicating it is far from guaranteed. Right-wing parties did well in the election, despite Bolsonaro’s defeat.
A Miner Problem
Brazil’s northernmost state of Roraima, especially land belonging to the Yanomami, hosts about 20,000 wildcat miners spread across a wide area, according to an estimate from the Instituto Escolhas, a Brazilian thinktank studying sustainable development.
The number of loggers is harder to ascertain. But despite an 11% drop, illegal deforestation claimed 11,568 square kilometers from August 2021 to July 2022, an area the size of Qatar. It is safe to assume thousands of people, if not tens of thousands, are providing the labor for this clearing of the rainforest.
Their number expanded rapidly as environmental crimes increased under Bolsonaro. Given his support, a minority of these groups, especially miners, clashed with Indigenous populations and police, with hundreds killed as a result. Outbreaks of disease and malnutrition among residents of the Amazon basin have also been blamed on the increase in mining. Mercury used in gold mining has killed fish populations and polluted water that the Yanomami depend on.
The question now is what to do with these thousands of people.
Lula’s Defense Minister, José Mucio, announced on January 31 that a military task force is being prepared to forcefully remove the miners from isolated parts of Amazon, including the all-important Yanomami reservation. “We will soon confront them. We need to root out this evil,” he said in an interview with the Brazilian television station.
But there is a numbers question at play here. Given the scope of the harm caused by wildcat miners in recent years, it has been easy for the government to tarnish them all with the same brush.
“We are in a new era,” Joenia Wapichana, the incoming head of Brazil’s environmental regulator, Funai, recently told the press.
She added that those responsible for the humanitarian crisis among the Yanomani would be punished for negligence and perhaps for committing genocide.
Similar operations were already launched in mid-January in the states of Roraima, Acre, and Pará. Their stated goal is to stop the opening of new areas of illegal logging and the levying of fines for anyone found with illicit timber.
Nevertheless, their crimes vary. All may have contributed to environmental degradation, but not all violently attacked Indigenous communities.
For Daniel Nepstad, president and executive director at the non-profit Earth Innovation Institute, economic solutions must accompany criminal prosecution. In particular, illegal miners and loggers could be reconverted into workers for legal industries.
“It is extremely important not just to shut down a damaging activity like wildcat gold mining or illegal logging, but to provide strong economic opportunities as alternatives to that activity,” he told InSight Crime, pointing to existing examples of sustainable mining within the Amazon.
So far, Lula has not provided many details about how such sustainable activities might be developed. However, his focus on a stronger social security net may prove equally helpful. On January 1, he made permanent a 50% increase, first passed under Bolsonaro, to his landmark Bolsa Familia welfare program, which grants 600 reais ($118) a month to Brazil’s poorest families.
“The vast majority of those involved [in illegal mining and logging] are informal migrant workers, many living in destitute conditions,” explained Muggah.
“This group requires ‘off-ramps’ including in the form of social assistance like Bolsa Familia and skills development,” he added.
Lula’s political allies are keenly aware of this fact. Balancing environmental priorities while creating jobs for people is “the greatest challenge in our history,” said Zé Ricardo, a federal deputy for the state of Amazonas from Lula’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) and a member of the president’s regional development team, during an interview with Brazilian think tank ICL.
Handling Industry Lobbies
Besides ordering the deployment of armed forces to stop illegal mining and logging, Lula has made other moves to contain the legal spread of mining. On January 31, he signed a decree banning any mining development on Indigenous lands.
“I have ordered the mining regulator…that not even the slightest activity is allowed on indigenous lands. Not even one single exploration is authorized,” said Lula.
Such restrictions, along with plans for increased taxes on the mining industry, have worsened the concerns of the pro-mining lobby.
It is unclear, however, whether the president will court support from the mining industry for plans to retrain and legalize the work of illegal miners in the Amazon. Lula’s overarching plan for his new administration, dubbed Tomorrow’s Brazil (Brasil do Amanhã) provides few details.
It makes two relevant references, vowing to both “end illegal mining on Indigenous lands” and create “many quality jobs through green investments.”
“Approaches to arrest environmental crime must consist of both sticks and carrots,” Muggah told InSight Crime.
While supporting security operations to clear out offenders from Yanomami lands, Muggah recommended that such interventions must include “a host of remedial measures…to ensure deforestation and associated environmental crimes are not resumed.”
The president has a history of dialogue with the mining and timber lobbies. In his first term in office, Lula passed a new mining regulatory framework to regulate the industry.
“With strong governance…gold mining could become well-organized, minimizing its significant social and environmental damages, and generating tax revenues for Brazil,” said Nepstad. “Logging could expand through well-planned and managed forest management.”
If Lula does want to help retrain small-scale miners for work in large-scale projects, he has a few viable options. The best-established is the Carajas iron ore mine, the largest in the world and owned by Brazilian giant Vale. Located in the northern state of Pará and currently expanding, it could certainly provide an option for many miners. Another is the upcoming Tocantinzinho gold mining project, also in Pará, which should begin producing gold in 2024. But a major hurdle is how the mining sector will react to Lula’s planned mining royalties.
Banning all small-scale mining while aggravating the giants might leave him with few allies willing to play ball.
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