Journalism from the center of the world

Destruction in progress: Brazil’s environmental authority IBAMA locates highly mechanized illegal mines inside Yanomami Indigenous Territory in 2023. Photo: Alan Chaves/AFP

Gold mining is nothing new to Brazil. The first document registering gold extraction here dates to 1681. As with other forms of exploitation of so-called natural resources, the history of gold mining coincides with the history of the colonization of Brazil and particularly of the Amazon. This point is worth underscoring: the centuries pass but the notion still holds that nature is here for us to take advantage of, extracting from forests, rivers, the soil, and subsoil everything that can be transformed into material wealth, until the point of exhaustion.

It is all about predatory extractivism. Given the characteristics of mining operations today, especially in the Amazon, this destructive aspect is even more evident. The close of the 20th century brought a shift toward mechanized mining in the region, a trend that intensified in the 2000s, when backhoes, crawler dozers, and payloaders became standard equipment. These technological transformations have boosted productivity and consequently contributed to an alarming surge in mining-related deforestation, as witnessed in Brazil since 2015.

Little attention has been paid to one facet of these technological transformations, despite their pivotal role in the advance of mining: the profile of their financers. Mining operations today are sponsored by criminal organizations so heavily capitalized that they can, for example, in just a matter of weeks replace payloaders destroyed in operations by Brazil’s environmental authority Ibama. And we’re talking about pieces of machinery that can cost as much as $200,000 each.

It is no wonder news stories about the economic and political actors behind illegal mining always cite exorbitant amounts of money. In February 2023, for example, in an attempt to close in on the funders of illicit mining operations in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, the Federal Police followed the trail to a criminal organization that moved roughly USD 86 million over five years.

A key figure behind this organization, which operates in the states of Roraima, São Paulo, and Goiás, is the businessman Bruno Cezar Cecchini, who according to Agência Pública is the owner of an aircraft where the equivalent of USD 3.7 million in gold bars was found in 2019. Cecchini also operates in Pará. Together with retired São Paulo Military Police colonel Homero de Giorge Cerqueira, who headed the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation under former president Jair Bolsonaro, Cecchini has lobbied to open the Tapajós Environmental Protection Area to mining.

This decentralization of the main names behind illegal mining is a feature of contemporary operations. The people who actually promote mining today—and profit most from it—are spread across a number of states, far from muddy mining camps and their malaria transmitting mosquitoes.

There are political aspects to the sociological transformations that accompanied these technological changes. The case of Valdinei de Souza, known as “Miner Nei,” illustrates this well. Nei, who has been investigated for purchasing smuggled mercury, is estimated to be worth more than USD 200,000,000 and owns mining sector companies in both Mato Grosso and Pará. According to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, he has amassed millions of dollars in profits from illicit mining activities—which in turn generate millions of dollars in socioenvironmental losses. At least USD 20,000 of his fortune went to Jair Bolsonaro‘s re-election campaign and, in 2020, he funded more than 60% of Valmir Climaco’s mayoral campaign in Itaituba, Pará, the Brazilian capital of illegal gold.

It should come as no surprise that under the Bolsonaro administration the mining sector enjoyed a level of political backing unprecedented since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985. Right from the outset of Bolsonaro’s term of office, in 2019, the government’s top echelon made it clear that its departments and agencies would be receptive to the miners and lobbyists who were pressing to open protected areas to mining. Throughout the four years of this administration, myriad administrative measures, legislative proposals, and political speeches and decisions were designed to favor this activity—although it is banned in Indigenous territories and conservation units. A direct effect of this political support was a wave of candidates with ties to mining during the 2022 elections and the subsequent formation of the “mining caucus.”

In addition to these technological, sociological, and political considerations, a total lack of control over the gold chain has inarguably helped exacerbate the problem. Starting in mid-2013 a legal provision exempted gold buyers—who, also by law, must be financial institutions—from any responsibility when purchasing ore. Under this principle of “presumed good faith,” the financial institutions that are legally authorized to purchase gold in Brazil (Distribuidoras de Títulos e Valores Mobiliários) had no obligation to verify whether the product in question had been sourced legally. In April 2021, Brazil’s Supreme Court suspended the good faith clause and, four months later, in August, the Central Bank incorporated this decision into its rules.

Even so, the gold trade is extremely prone to fraud. It is remarkably easy to launder the metal; at the point of purchase, for example, the seller can mask the illegal origin of the gold simply by declaring it was extracted from an area with a small-scale mining permit. No questions asked. Part of the solution to this problem is infra-legal, administrative. And part of it involves Bill 3025/23, sent to Congress in June of this year, which redefines the rules for trading and transporting gold and includes a requirement that product origin be proven.

There are also economic aspects to the advance of gold mining in Brazil. One is the volatility of the price of gold, which tends to skyrocket in times of crisis. A clear example of this occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic when gold hit record highs on the international market, contributing to what researchers and journalists called a new gold rush in the Amazon. Another aspect that deserves attention is how rising inflation and the job shortage has impacted the lower-income population. In contexts like this, mining can be seen as a viable way to generate income, even though the activity is destructive and illegal in protected areas.

Instant messaging and social media groups are rife with veritable classified ads announcing men looking for work as machinery operators, women offering to work in mining camp kitchens, and so on. The ads are interspersed with commentaries extolling the courage of miners, who face the forest, isolation, and malaria for months on end. Conversely, it is not unusual to see posts by people trying to track down family members who never returned from the mines.

Those at the bottom of the mining pyramid—the ones who really get dirty in the muck and spend months in the forest—run a gamut of risks, ranging from accident to illness. Additionally, these people often work under degrading conditions, many times analogous to slavery. Of course this doesn’t diminish the fact that they are committing crimes—as we saw in Yanomami Indigenous Territory, where miners not only extracted gold illegally; they also committed crimes against local communities, including crimes against Indigenous women and girls.

What must be stressed is that, while the public retains an image of gold mining as a low-impact, artisanal occupation that concerns no one but miners, the reality in Brazil has been starkly different for more than a decade. And although the argument is still heard that certain municipalities in the Amazon are economically dependent on mining, it has been proven that the activity promotes not progress but destruction. In Jacareacanga, for example, while small-scale mining is legal in some areas, blatant destruction has been wrought in Indigenous territories and conservation units by unauthorized mining conducted outside the bounds of the law.

*Luísa Molina is an anthropologist. In recent years, her research has focused on the advance of predatory mining in Indigenous lands, as part of the effort to help combat it. She is the editor of two books on the topic: O Cerco do Ouro: Garimpo Ilegal, Destruição e Luta em Terras Munduruku (2021) and Terra Rasgada: Como Avança o Garimpo na Amazônia Brasileira (2023). She is currently working with the Socioenvironmental Institute to protect Indigenous lands and conservation units in the Xingu Basin.

This article was originally published as part of a packet presented in May 2023 to participants at the first gathering of the Micélio Forest-Journalist Co-Training Program, held at the Xingu River Extractive Reserve in the state of Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon. Mycelium is an initiative of SUMAÚMA – Journalism from the Center of the World, with the support of the Moore Foundation and Google News Initiative. SUMAÚMA extends its thanks to the community that has welcomed it.

Text:  Luísa Molina
Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Julieta Sueldo Boedo
English translation: Diane Whitty
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Editorial workflow and copy editing: Viviane Zandonadi
Director: Eliane Brum

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