Ubuntu | Thoughts | Brazil's illegal mining stance in the Amazon gives hope for the future of Indigenous rights

Brazil’s illegal mining stance in the Amazon gives hope for the future of Indigenous rights

Brazil’s illegal mining stance in the Amazon gives hope for the future of Indigenous rights

Ubuntu Thoughts  /  Article  /  3 min read
April 17, 2023
Ubuntu | Thoughts | Brazil's illegal mining stance in the Amazon gives hope for the future of Indigenous rights
Ubuntu | Simon Lodge, Founder & Chief of Sustainability
Simon Lodge
Founder & Strategic Creative Director
In a decisive move to protect Brazil's largest Indigenous reserve and its inhabitants, the Brazilian government has launched a campaign to oust tens of thousands of illegal miners operating in the Yanomami territory, deep in the Amazon.
Special-forces environmental operatives are destroying aircraft, seizing weapons, and capturing boats to curb illegal mining activities.

The long-awaited operation began on Monday, with Brazil's environmental protection agency, Ibama, leading the charge, supported by the Indigenous agency Funai and the newly created Ministry for Indigenous Peoples. Troops have established a base along the Uraricoera River, a crucial waterway used by illegal tin ore and gold miners to reach and supply their illicit outposts in Yanomami lands.

In an official statement released on Wednesday, the Brazilian government announced that the environmental squad had destroyed a helicopter, an airplane, and a bulldozer used by mining mafias to carve clandestine roads through the region's jungles. Footage from the raid showed the remains of a helicopter smoldering near a patch of rainforest after Ibama agents torched it to prevent its future use.

In December, various media outlets reported on an illegal 75-mile "road to chaos" through Yanomami lands during a flyover with Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara. Guajajara was later appointed Brazil's first-ever minister for Indigenous peoples. On Tuesday evening, she declared that the new government under leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is committed to protecting the nearly 30,000 Yanomami people living in Brazil from what authorities have labeled a "genocide."

Illegal gold miners, or garimpeiros, began invading Yanomami lands in the 1970s and 80s following encouragement from Brazil's military dictatorship to populate the region. A global outcry eventually led to government action in the early 1990s, with tens of thousands of miners expelled from Yanomami lands during a security operation called Selva Livre (Jungle Liberation). Brazil's then-president, Fernando Collor de Mello, established a 9.6-million-hectare territory as a protected area for the Yanomami, which still exists today.

However, the situation deteriorated after the 2018 election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who publicly criticized the allocation of such a vast, mineral-rich land to the Indigenous group. During Bolsonaro's four-year term, Amazon deforestation surged, and environmental and Indigenous agencies were weakened, leading to an estimated 25,000 miners flocking to the Yanomami territory near the border with Venezuela. This influx brought violence and disease to the region.

President Lula's new government, which took office on January 1, has pledged to reverse the Bolsonaro-era policies that wreaked havoc on Brazil's environment and Indigenous communities. Lula vowed to put an end to illegal mining, stating that it must be "almost a profession of faith."

Several high-ranking ministers, including defense chief José Múcio, arrived in Boa Vista, the Amazon city closest to the Yanomami territory, on Wednesday afternoon to oversee the start of the crackdown. This week's operation comes in response to the humanitarian disaster that has plagued the Yanomami territory in recent years due to the massive influx of miners and government inaction.

Dozens of Yanomami children have been airlifted to hospitals in Boa Vista, suffering from malnutrition and malaria. Heartbreaking photos of emaciated children and adults have sparked outrage in Brazil and internationally. At least 570 Yanomami children reportedly died from curable diseases during Bolsonaro's administration.

Following a visit to the region last month, Lula remarked, "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."

The crisis was brought to the forefront by British journalist Dom Phillips, whose murder in the Amazon last June drew international attention to the environmental degradation and crime that plagued the region during Brazil's previous government. One environmental expert described the situation to Phillips as "a bomb going off," emphasizing the severity of the damage after viewing images of a mine in the Yanomami territory in late 2019.

As the new Brazilian government moves forward with its crackdown on illegal mining, it faces the challenge of not only removing the miners but also addressing the long-term impact on the environment and the Yanomami people. The operation's success hinges on the government's commitment to preserving the Amazon rainforest, protecting Indigenous rights, and addressing the complex socio-economic factors that drive illegal mining.

The current operation serves as a crucial turning point for Brazil's Indigenous communities and the environment. It signals a shift in the government's approach towards sustainable development and recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples. However, the road to recovery will be long and fraught with challenges. The Brazilian government must remain steadfast in its efforts to eradicate illegal mining and ensure the safety and well-being of the Yanomami people and other Indigenous communities.

As the international community watches closely, Brazil's government has the opportunity to set a powerful example for the protection of Indigenous rights and environmental conservation. It is a chance to prove that the nation can prioritize the well-being of its people and the environment over short-term economic gains. In doing so, Brazil may serve as a beacon of hope for Indigenous communities and environmental activists worldwide.

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