The scale of illegal mining on an Indigenous reserve deep in Brazil’s Amazon has grown so large that fleets of small aircraft are landing on remote airstrips to truck in equipment and haul out illicit gold.
A recent joint campaign by Brazil’s aviation authority (Agencia Nacional de Aviacao Civil - ANAC) and its environmental protection agency (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis - Ibama) led to the seizure of 66 aircraft suspected of being used in illegal mining operations. Authorities also destroyed nearly 60 clandestine landing strips and five helipads in the Uraricoera River region of the Yanomami reservation in northern Brazil, Ibama officials said in September.
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The aircraft provided logistical support to the miners, flying in equipment, fuel and other supplies. Nine aircraft were stripped of seats and retrofitted with metal and plywood structures to facilitate such transport.
“All the aircraft were out of character, with the rear seats removed. Containers of 50 liters would be taken to garimpeiros (illegal miners) in Yanomami territory,” Celso Paiva, of the Federal Police in Roraima, told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.
Nine of the seized helicopters suspected of being used in illegal mining were linked to air transport companies that had received government money for services that included transporting medical teams to the Yanomami, according to documents obtained by Folha de São Paulo.
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Small aircraft have become the favored method for moving supplies into the dense jungle of Brazil’s Yanomami reserve. For aircraft owners willing to take the risk, the profits are substantial.
An investigation by Repórter Brasil cited Federal Police estimates that individual pilots who transport cargo and return with illegally sourced gold can earn as much as $37,000 in a single week.
The investigation named the Barra dos Ventos aerodrome, a small airport outside the state capital Boa Vista, as the primary destination for flights entering and exiting the Yanomami reserve. Meanwhile, clandestine airstrips in the Indigenous reserve are common and easily replaced when destroyed. The Association of Yek'uana people told the news outlet that decommissioned airstrips are replaced within two weeks.
Given the lack of oversight from Brazil’s aviation authorities, aircraft firms involved in supplying illegal mines often operate with impunity and lack of oversight, according to Repórter Brasil. While these practices predate the current government, they have increased significantly during the administration of Jair Bolsonaro.
Moreover, in January 2021, aviation authorities opened the floodgates even wider for these companies by allowing for “aircraft landing and takeoff operations in unregistered locations located in the Legal Amazon.” The area encompasses nine states, and a portion of Maranhão State, in the country’s northwest. This seemingly blank check to operate has further stoked the gold rush in the Amazon, with as many as 20 flights taking place in a week at one mining site.