A shootout on May 10 between Yanomami Indigenous people and heavily armed illegal miners in Roraima state, Brazil, left three miners and two Yanomami children dead. Since then, invaders have returned by boatloads, firing on community members and even Federal Police agents. Emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the Brazilian presidency in 2018, wildcat gold miners have invaded federally protected Indigenous lands with impunity, knowing that the president has their back.
|Illegal mining on Yanomami lands has altered the course of rivers: photo Instituto Socioambiental|
Bolsonaro has always had a soft spot for gold miners. During his presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro bragged about driving around with a kit of sieves in the trunk of his car so he could stop whenever he wanted to pan for gold. “Mining is addictive, it runs in the blood,” he stated, referring to his father, Percy Geraldo Bolsonaro, who joined over 100,000 wildcat miners in the notorious gold rush at Serra Pelada in the Amazonian state of Pará in the 1980s.
|Bolsonaro's father participated in the "Hellish" devastation at Serra Pelada in the 1980s: photo by Sebastião Salgado|
A year after winning the election, Bolsonaro invited miners from Serra Pelada to the presidential palace, reminiscing about “happier” times for miners during Brazil’s two-decade-long military dictatorship and making the widely criticized and crude remark, “Interest in the Amazon isn’t about the Indians or the f***ing trees. It’s about mining."
|"It's about mining"|
Bolsonaro’s frequent derogatory comments about Indigenous land titling, his systematic rollback of environmental policing and his promises of a “blank check” for miners fueled a massive surge in illegal mining on Indigenous lands throughout Brazil, even as the coronavirus pandemic threatened vulnerable Indigenous populations. The invasion of the Yanomami Indigenous Lands by tens of thousands of illegal miners helped spread the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed over 20 Yanomami people (out of a total population of 20,000) while increasing deforestation by 30% in just one year.
Health studies among the Munduruku people of Pará state showed that 60% exhibited unsafe levels of mercury that has been introduced to the food chain by illegal miners. Nonetheless, Bolsonaro’s pro-business environmental minister Ernesto Salles has intervened in support of illegal mining operations in the region. More recently, Minister Salles has become implicated in an international investigation over illegal lumber exports from Brazil to Europe and the US.
|Mining in Munduruku lands has fueled an epidemic of mercury contamination.|
The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 does not forbid mining on Indigenous lands. Rather, it stipulates that mining will only be permitted after the passage of regulatory legislation by Congress, which would include congressional hearings with affected Indigenous communities and the formalization of agreements on benefit sharing.
Even before Bolsonaro’s time, Indigenous communities in different regions had considered the possibility of sustainable mining projects. However, experiences with informal mining prior to Indigenous land demarcation highlighted numerous risks, while calling into question the ability of governmental agencies to carry out proper oversight. There are currently over 4,000 requests for mining concessions that would affect nearly a third of Brazil’s Indigenous lands if such legislation were to be passed.
As soon as Bolsonaro consolidated majority control over both of Brazil’s congressional houses in February of 2021, his government announced a list of legislative priorities that included the legalization of mining on Indigenous lands. Bolsonaro has met personally with minority pro-mining voices among some Indigenous communities in order to move this agenda forward.
|Bolsonaro has met with Indigenous leaders to promote mining as an economic alternative|
Even though Bolsonaro touts himself as a crusader for Indigenous peoples’ rights to benefit from the development of mineral and other resources on their lands, a recent comparative study of data from municipal authorities throughout Brazil has concluded that gold and diamond mining operations do not bring about lasting improvements to socioeconomic indicators, but rather “leave the region poor, sick and lacking in education”.
Growing criticisms of Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 500,000 Brazilians, has weakened his political position. An open admirer of former U.S. president Trump, Bolsonaro is also facing pushback from the Biden administration for his lax attitude towards deforestation and forest fires in the Amazon.
Just before the Global Climate Summit in April, Bolsonaro wrote president Biden promising to end deforestation in the Amazon, apparently eager to cinch a billion dollar aid deal. Brazilian indigenous leaders warned Biden not to trust such disingenuous overtures.
|Bolsonaro and Salles announce measures to monitor deforestation|
The economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil as well as Bolsonaro’s falling popularity in 2022 election polls put the Biden administration in a strong position to seek major concessions for any cash-for-conservation deal. High on that list should be reining in illegal incursions and withdrawing the legislative bid to legalize mining on indigenous lands.
After over a month of inaction from federal authorities, the Brazilian Supreme Court has finally mandated the immediate removal of illegal miners from Yanomami and other indigenous lands. It remains to be seen whether this judicial victory will bring about meaningful enforcement, or whether it will only further embolden president Bolsonaro and the wildcat miners he has so vociferously supported.
This text is the full and updated version of my letter in Nature Correspondence, first published in abbreviated form on June 8.