Digging into Brazil's strategy to combat illegal mining

Bnamericas Published: Wednesday, February 01, 2023
Digging into Brazil's strategy to combat illegal mining

Brazil's new government, under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has chosen to confront the illegal mining industry as one of the first policy priorities.

Illicit mining operations have flourished in recent years, especially in remote northern parts of the country and on indigenous lands. This has gone hand-in-hand with a rapid increase in deforestation, as loggers and ranchers have illegally cleared the forest in the wake of former president Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to legalize mining on indigenous reservations, including in the jungle. 

Shortly after Lula's election in October, he promised to combat illegal mining and protect indigenous peoples. He recently visited Roraima state after local media reported on the high levels of malnutrition and disease in the area, both of which are blamed on illegal mining activities of organized criminal groups and the associated environmental destruction and exploitation of communities.

Most illicit mining in Brazil is associated with gold production, and sustainability NGO Instituto Escolhas has been closely involved in documenting these activities, collecting and reporting associated data to demonstrate the scale of the problem.

BNamericas talks with Sergio Leitão, the founder and executive director of Instituto Escolhas, as well as a past director of Greenpeace in Brazil, about the current situation and what he expects to change in terms of legislation to combat illegal mining.

BNamericas: In your view, has the issue of combating illegal mining definitively entered the list of priorities of the Brazilian federal government or is it more discourse than practice?

Leitão: The topic has definitively entered the list of priorities of the federal government and especially of President Lula.

In Lula's speech the day he won [the October election], he said that he would combat illegal mining and then, in the inauguration speech [January 1], he also mentioned this and more recently he went to Roraima state after the shocking news of what was happening in Yanomami territory and he is now taking all the necessary measures.

BNamericas: What practical measures have been taken by the government so far?

Leitão: The government has already requested that the air force establish an air blockade over Yanomami indigenous land since all supplies for that illegal activity there are delivered via planes.

The minister of justice has also requested a study to revoke all existing laws that promote mining in the Amazon region and it is planning in particular to revoke an existing absurd detail of Brazilian legislation, which authorizes all operations for the purchase and sale of gold, considering them to be in good faith, which protects any person who falsely declares that he produced gold from a legal area, even when the gold was actually produced on indigenous lands.

So far, the signs are that this is a government priority, but we need all of this engagement to be transformed into legal measures.

BNamericas: In addition to the measures that you mention, what else can be done to curb illegal mining?

Leitão: It's also necessary for the tax authority to require electronic invoices for gold operations, as that will allow gold purchases and sales to be controlled. This procedure is currently done on paper, which enables all sorts of fraud.

BNamericas: The German government recently announced that it will resume paying money into the Amazon Fund to protect the rainforest. What is your opinion of that and can the Amazon Fund help the federal government to step up the fight against illegal mining?

Leitão: Yes, the resumption of money being paid into the Amazon Fund and new donations are essential for the federal government to have the necessary resources to remove illegal miners and adopt additional protection measures in the region.

But more than that, it will also be important to adopt measures to contain other existing invasions of indigenous lands in the region, such as in Pará state, not just in Yanomami territory.

BNamericas: How important are the efforts of state governments to combat illegal mining?

Leitão: It's important that the state governments also do their part, not only helping the federal government through the use of state police forces, but also in the case of Pará state, withdrawing a strange permission that exists today in that state, where municipalities have the power to grant environmental permits to activities.

This [environmental licensing] is not a power that municipalities should have because they don't have enough technicians and expertise for these tasks. It's essential not only for the federal government to act, but for the state governments, particularly in Pará, to do their part too.

In the case of Roraima state, it's essential to investigate the conduct of the state governor, who is not only a confessed promoter of garimpo [artesanal and often illegal mining] activities, but has also created state laws prohibiting the seizure of equipment used for illegal mining.

BNamericas: The country's supreme court decided to request an investigation into the Bolsonaro government's alleged crimes of genocide against indigenous communities. Could this become one of the biggest legal headaches for the former president?

Leitão: This could turn into his biggest legal headache, because the crime of genocide carries very heavy penalties. These are enforced by the International Criminal Court and also by judicial authorities in Brazil.

The penalties not only include the deprivation of liberty, but also international condemnation, since genocide is also characterized by measures and omissions that result in the extermination of a people and it is therefore a matter of the greatest gravity.

This all has to be investigated by the judicial authorities, but I would say that this could be much more than a headache – it could be a serious migraine.

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