SAO PAULO, Brazil — A group of wildcat miners blocked a highway that cuts through the Amazon this week to protest a crackdown on illegal mines, amid growing international pressure to protect the rainforest.
Thousands of illegal miners operate in the Amazon, often digging up sparsely populated indigenous reserves and national parks for gold and diamonds.
Now, the miners are demanding that right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected on a promise to open the Amazon up for business , come to their defense. Earlier this week, environmental protection agents destroyed excavators and tractors found at an illegal mine in a national forest. Videos of the equipment on fire quickly spread on social media.
“Look, that’s an order from our president, Jair Bolsonaro. They are burning the workers’ equipment,” one miner said in a video widely shared on messaging apps here. The damage, he said, would cost him $200,000.
Bolsonaro, a darling of Brazil’s agricultural lobby, promised to limit indigenous rights and expand development in the Amazon as president. In April, his administration said the government would no longer burn mining and logging equipment captured in raids, a practice commonly used by agents to prevent new mines from sprouting elsewhere.
“You are not to burn anything — machines, tractors, whatever it may be. That is not the protocol. That is not the order,” Bolsonaro said in a video posted to social media in April.
Brazilian federal police raid an illegal mining operation in the Amazon rainforest, Aug. 31, 2019 (Sebastiao Moreira/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock) But that was before the world started watching.
A backlash against lax environmental oversight in the Amazon ballooned last month and dealt the president his most serious crisis since he took office in January. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation has nearly doubled, according to the country’s Space Research Institute. Deforestation rates spiked 75 percent from January through August. Forest fires have also surged. An international outcry over the destruction has jeopardized an important trade deal with Europe and led to boycotts of Brazilian leather abroad.
Caught between global demands that Brazil preserve the rainforest and domestic calls for looser environmental regulation, Bolsonaro has dodged calls for international intervention while quietly ramping up raids.
The president sent 800 soldiers and agents to the region to extinguish fires and inspect the area for illegal activity.
Tensions between environmental protection agents and farmers, loggers and miners in the region are boiling over. On Monday, 250 miners blocked traffic on one of the region’s main highways and demanded a meeting with Environmental Minister Ricardo Sales to legalize their mines. Last week, environmental protection agents were shot at when they uncovered an illegal mine at an indigenous reservation.
Brazilian environment agents and federal police watch a fire they set destroy machinery used for illegal mining about 40 miles from Altamira in the Amazon, Aug. 31, 2019. (Sebastiao Moreira/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock) The miners say they feel betrayed by the administration they helped elect.
“You said this wouldn’t happen anymore,” one miner said in a message posted online. “I wish, Bolsonaro . . . that you could see this video and explain to Brazil why this is happening.”
Brazil is wading through its fourth year of economic stagnation. Nearly 13 million people are unemployed, and in the Amazon, where jobs are scarce, mining is becoming an increasingly attractive option.
Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro said he wanted to tap into the Amazon’s riches to spur economic growth and promised to open indigenous lands for mining. While mining in indigenous reserves remains illegal, critics say Bolsonaro’s comments effectively encouraged invasions of tribal land. Greenpeace Brazil estimates that there are now mines in 18 indigenous territories.
“Miners are workers, people who unfortunately live on the margins of society,” said Danicley Aguiar, a member of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign. “But this is not how you fix their lives. They need economic growth and the creation of formal jobs.”
For the tribes who live in the reserves, mining has led to violence, disease and destruction, he said. In July, illegal miners invaded the Waipi-Apina tribal land in the eastern Amazon and killed a tribal chief.
“For indigenous people, these mines are a death sentence,” Aguiar said. “If indigenous land were to be open for mining, it would mean the complete destruction of their political and social organization and the ecosystem in which they live.”
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