Driving out illegal mining in Brazil

On Monday, the Brazilian environmental protection agency Ibama launched an operation.

Driving out illegal mining in Brazil
The special forces crackdown on illegal mining in Yanomami territory. Source: Ibama/Brazilian government

The backstory: During Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency in Brazil, his administration earned a reputation for neglecting the country’s native peoples and authorizing destruction in the Amazon rainforest for wildcat mineral mining. The largest Indigenous reservation in Brazil belongs to the Yanomami people, which is also part of the Amazon. Yanomami leaders have said the expansion of illegal mining there has caused widespread environmental decline, plus more threats – violence, exploitation and disease. In 2022, more than 20,000 miners were believed to have been using the reservation. Illegal mining has been a thing in the area since the 70s and 80s but has been less of an issue in recent decades. That is until Bolsonaro’s administration gave miners virtually free reign over the area in 2018.

More recently: When Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva ran for president of Brazil, his campaign swore to protect the Amazon and to work with Indigenous peoples to keep their lands intact. In fact, he promised to kick illegal gold miners out of Indigenous territories while former President Bolsonaro had tried to legalize the mining. Now, Lula is president, and we’ve been waiting to see if he’ll be able to fulfill these promises. So far, his administration has created the first ministry for Indigenous peoples in Brazil, and Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara was appointed as its minister.

The development: On Monday, the Brazilian environmental protection agency Ibama launched an operation to force out the illegal miners, with support from the Indigenous agency Funai and the ministry for Indigenous peoples. Brazilian troops set up on the Uraricoera river, which is used by miners, along with several nearby airstrips. By Wednesday, Lula announced that forces had destroyed a helicopter, an airplane and a bulldozer used by miners. Weapons and boats were also seized. On top of that, a checkpoint was built next to a Yanomami village to interfere with the miners’ supply chain. And there’s now a public health emergency for the Yanomami people, who are suffering from malnutrition and diseases like malaria as a consequence of the illegal mining operations.

Key comments:

“The Yanomami want peace – that is all they want,” Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara told GloboNews. “And this is what we are going to give them.”

“More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw … was a genocide. A premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government impervious to the suffering of the Brazilian people,” said Brazil’s President Lula after visiting the reservation last month.

“This operation hasn’t come a moment too soon,” Sarah Shenker, the head of the non-profit Survival International in Brazil, said in a statement. “It’s absolutely vital that the authorities get the miners out, and keep them out. They’ve blighted the Yanomami’s lives for far too long, and have caused untold misery and destruction. Even if all of them are removed, and they can be kept out, it will take years for the Yanomami and their rainforest to recover.”