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How Local Political Support Gives Illegal Miners Carte Blanche in Brazil's Amazon

BRAZIL / 4 MAR 2022 BY CHRIS DALBY AND JUAN DIEGO CÁRDENAS EN

An alleged deal between government officials and illegal miners in Brazil’s Amazon led to the latter being provided with weapons in order to better secure their illicit earnings and fend off any challenges from local Indigenous communities.

According to a recent investigation by InfoAmazonia, the legislative assembly of Brazil’s northern state of Roraima, under the guidance of deputy Jalser Renier, sent a number of firearms to illegal gold miners along the Uraricoera River.

Furthermore, the investigators gained access to police documents that allegedly showed that Renier, along with a number of military officers, formed a “militia” between 2015 and 2020 which sold weapons to miners, kidnapped and tortured a journalist and embezzled public funds. Renier was first arrested in October 2021 for the suspected kidnapping of journalist Romano dos Anjos and was stripped of his status as state lawmaker on February 28. The current governor of Roraima, Antonio Denarium, even spoke with prosecutors to state that Renier had threatened to kill him if he did not squash the investigation.

SEE ALSO: Small Aircraft Feed Illegal Mining Operations in Brazil's Amazon

The group maintained close relationships with the illegal mining community in Roraima, blamed of widespread environmental damage, deforestation of the Amazon and of deadly clashes with local Indigenous communities. In 2019, one army sergeant associated to the “militia” was arrested for carrying an illegal firearm and gold of unknown origin along a highway in Roraima.  

Renier had a track record of defending illegal miners, at the same time as these were involved in repeated clashes with authorities in recent years. In 2019, Renier promised to “solve” the illegal mining question in the state while also petitioning Brazil’s human rights commission to free arrested miners. In January 2021, Roraima’s legislative assembly, of which Renier was president at the time, passed a new law, liberalizing the mining sector in the state, including the use of mercury. After the vote, Renier said it was in “recognition of the work miners do for Roraima.”

The law sparked outrage among Indigenous communities and was struck down by Brazil’s Supreme Court in September 2021.

Throughout 2021, attacks by miners on Indigenous communities in Roraima, especially the Yanomami, grew increasingly brazen, opening fire on them and burning their homes. Several Indigenous residents, including children, were reportedly killed in these fights.

InSight Crime Analysis

At a time when the sophistication and organization of illegal mining networks in Brazil’s Amazon is becoming ever clearer, it comes as no surprise that one of the most powerful politicians in northern Brazil had their back.

Renier, as head of the Roraima state assembly, was in an ideal position to collude with miners and derail any investigations into their activities.

Local political alliances have underpinned miners’ successes in the past. In December 2021, after Brazilian authorities destroyed and cleared hundreds of mining dredges from the Madeira River in the Amazon, officials from four Amazonian municipalities visited Brasilia to discuss how to best legalize and regulate gold mining in their communities. One senator for the state of Amazonas described miners as “good people forced to carry out an illegal practice, because they don’t have the support of the nation.”

In July 2021, a separate investigation by Repórter Brasil further explored how miners and their business and political associates essentially had an open door to access ministers within the Bolsonaro government.

SEE ALSO: Impunity Driving Uptick in Violence Against Yanomami in Brazil

A BBC investigation in January 2022 revealed the extent to which illegal miners in Yanomami territory had developed a highly complex logistical supply chain, giving them access to airplanes and stolen jet fuel to move their gold out of the region, weapons to fight with as well as radio equipment and satellite Internet connections to alert each other to any threats.

Arriving into Yanomami lands by plane onto clandestine runways, by large boats along major waterways or on smaller vessels along tributaries, illegal miners have besieged Indigenous communities.

The numbers speak for themselves. From 2019 to 2020, deforestation on Yanomami land increased by 516 percent over 2017 to 2018, with 39,100 square kilometers of tree cover being felled, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais – INPE). Much of this deforestation was linked to the expansion of illegal mining.

Just recently, on February 7, Indigenous representatives revealed that illegal miners had entered a new part of Yanomami land near the remote community of Herebe, along the Uraricoera River.

“This is definitely the worst it’s been for Indigenous peoples since the constitution was signed in 1988,” Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist with the Emílio Goeldi Museum in Belém, told Nature Magazine.

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