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Amazonian state close to legalizing harmful wildcat mining

and . Jan 18, 2021
wildcat mining Indigenous reserve in Roraima. Photo: EB

While the coronavirus pandemic halted multiple economic sectors, criminal industries have largely withstood the chaos. Indeed, with authorities’ attention turned to mitigating the Covid-19 crisis, one illicit activity has thrived: wildcat mining. A study revealed that gold mining in the Amazon region increased during the first half of 2020, with exports surpassing USD 1.2 billion between January and April alone.

And a decision by state lawmakers in Roraima could further boost this already booming illicit industry.

</p> <p>A bill legalizing wildcat mining throughout Brazil&#8217;s northernmost state was approved in Roraima state congress and is set to be <a href="https://g1.globo.com/rr/roraima/noticia/2021/01/13/conselho-indigena-diz-que-projeto-do-governo-para-liberar-garimpo-em-rr-legaliza-destruicao-de-florestas.ghtml">signed into law</a> by Governor Antonio Denarium. He says the proposal will allow for &#8220;sustainable wildcat mining,&#8221; a concept seen as an oxymoron by indigenous rights groups, who say the move will legalize deforestation and river pollution.</p> <p>State Speaker Jalser Renier, one of the fiercest advocates for the bill, has gone as far as championing wildcat mining within protected indigenous reserves, &#8220;providing it has the consent of native communities.&#8221; He says the state must acknowledge &#8220;all the work wildcat miners do for the state of Roraima.&#8221;</p> <p>Those remarks, however, seem to ignore the constant deadly conflicts between miners and indigenous groups. As recently as September, two miners were <a href="https://g1.globo.com/rr/roraima/noticia/2020/12/16/conselho-pede-investigacao-de-conflito-com-morte-de-garimpeiros-na-terra-yanomami-em-rr.ghtml">killed</a> after allegedly kidnapping two teenage indigenous girls and sexually assaulting them.</p> <p>Besides challenging the merits of the bill, environmental groups question the legality of the legislative process in question. Indigenous leaders say the proposal was voted on &#8220;behind closed doors,&#8221; while citizens battle a <a href="https://g1.globo.com/rr/roraima/noticia/2021/01/12/roraima-entra-na-fase-grave-da-pandemia-e-governo-orienta-que-populacao-tenha-cuidados-para-evitar-novas-medidas-restritivas.ghtml">health crisis</a> that inches closer to causing a full-blown collapse of the local hospital network.</p> <p>Moreover, mining issues are federally regulated matters — and state prosecutors claim the State Congress overstepped its jurisdiction when passing the bill.</p> <h2>Illegal mining fills Amazon rivers with mercury</h2> <p>Wildcat mining is highly polluting as it relies heavily on the usage of mercury on riverbanks. A study led by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) showed that one-third of the fish in the Amazonian state of Amapá contained dangerous levels of mercury.&nbsp;</p> <p>Scientists collected samples from 400 fish in five regions, including from basins located inside conservation areas. Every single fish contained mercury, surpassing safe levels in 77 percent of carnivore species, 20 percent of omnivores, and 2.4 percent of herbivores, said the study, published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.</p> <p>&#8220;Four of the seven species with the highest levels of mercury are among the most consumed in the region,&#8221; say researchers.</p> <p>Still, wildcat mining has the unwavering support of President Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Back in September, the president launched the Mining and Development Program, which, among other things, intends to regulate mining activities on protected indigenous lands.&nbsp;</p> <p>Drawn up by the Mines and Energy Ministry, the <a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2020/09/28/bolsonaro-to-open-up-indigenous-lands-to-mining-ventures/">plan includes 108 targets and guidelines to be implemented over the next three years</a>. While also including provisions for mining in border areas and fast-tracking licenses, the possibility of allowing mining in indigenous territories is by far the most controversial aspect of the program.</p> <p>Jair Bolsonaro has had his eye on exploiting indigenous lands ever since taking office as president. “Whatever we can do for you to have autonomy over your geographical perimeters, we will do,” said Mr. Bolsonaro in April last year, after a meeting with indigenous leaders. </p> <p>“In [the state of] Roraima, there is BRL 3 trillion [USD 500 billion] under the ground. And the Indians have the right to exploit this rationally. Indians cannot keep being poor on top of rich land,” he added.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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