Natural Security Series: New Mines Mean Bloodshed in Brazil

Emma Myers
Research Assistant, Environmental Security Program, Stimson Center

Earlier this month, reports emerged of a massacre by illegal prospectors of approximately 20 indigenous people from the Warikama Djapar tribe in Vale do Javari, along Brazil’s border with Peru. If confirmed, it would be the deadliest incident between miners and indigenous people since the 1993 Haximu massacre. The news comes on the heels of President Michel Temer’s decree to open new areas of the Amazon to mining―either an effort to stimulate Brazil’s struggling economy, or a political move to safeguard himself from congressional investigation, depending on who you ask.  Taken together, these events remind us that in the Amazon―where lawlessness rules and resource extraction is often tied to other crimes—security is central to the question of economic growth and environmental protection.

To some extent, Brazil remains on the periphery of Latin America’s illegal mining predicament. In Colombia and Peru, where illegal mining accounts for 45 and 28 percent of the sector respectively, armed or criminal groups connected to drug trafficking control resource extraction and sometimes even the land on which it happens. This trend has been widely covered, especially since Colombia’s FARC―which infamously used gold to finance its campaign against the government―demobilized. In Brazil, by contrast, just 10 percent of the sector is illegal, and small-scale operations tend not to be connected to larger criminal enterprises. Nonetheless, there are security concerns linked to the sector, which―like most everything in Brazil—is plagued by endemic corruption.

Lack of rule of law is pervasive across the Amazon, meaning tactics like intimidation and violence, especially against indigenous populations with territorial claims that threaten the pursuit of high-value resources―134 indigenous people were killed by miners in 2015―are prevalent, and they happen with impunity. For example, piracy in the Amazon’s watershed is on the rise. While not all piracy is linked to mining, there is some symbiosis, and crime begets crime. According to the President of the Union of River Navigation Companies of Amazonas State, Galdino Alencar, pirates target vessels with fuel aboard, which they can sell to illegal miners at a premium.

These security implications are hardly contained within Brazil’s borders. Population growth in the region’s cities and a rush of migrants looking for work has driven up demand for drugs, which come largely from Colombia and Peru and pass along the Amazon’s mineral-rich tributaries. In one instance last year, the police in Amazonas arrested a pirate named José Conceição de Souza, who confessed to murdering two Colombian drug traffickers and stealing 573 pounds of cocaine headed for Manaus, the Amazon’s largest metropolis and an artery in the distribution of cocaine across Brazil and to Europe.

The insecurity also flows in the opposite direction, from Brazil into neighboring countries. In 2012, illegal miners based in Brazil clashed with a Yanomami community across the border in Venezuela, where they were prospecting for gold. The miners allegedly firebombed their village, killing up to 80 people. While the most obvious convergences between illegal mining and insecurity―like drug trafficking and the financing of armed groups―are not as evident in Brazil as in neighboring countries, the security implications still resonate.

And, although criminality is a major driver of insecurity in the region, illegal mining has contributed to a range of other safety concerns, including a public health crisis. A 2014 study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and the Instituto Socioambiental of 19 indigenous villages found that inhabitants there had dangerous levels of mercury, which is used by miners to extract gold from sediment. In one Yanomami community, the rate of mercury contamination was 92 percent, and elevated levels were found in fish, the main source of food for the community.

At face value, President Temer’s move to open new parts of the region to regulated mining might drive down criminality and mitigate some of the safety and security concerns associated with the informality of the sector. The administration cited these justifications when it received criticism for the decision. But, coupled with cuts to the federal agencies that enforce environmental regulations and protect indigenous populations, as well as rampant corruption in the public and private sectors, the administration’s promises seem a chimera.

This year, President Temer cut the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources’ budget by 43 percent. Ibama, as it is commonly referred to, has a police unit that enforces against environmental crimes, including illegal mining, and backs a special security force established in 2012 in response to the increasing sophistication of illegal logging and mining enterprises. The government also reduced funding for the National Indian Foundation, or Funai, by more than 40 percent, and shortly afterwards, the agency’s president Antonio Fernandes Toninho Costa was fired, and the government closed five of Funai’s 19 bases from which its staff monitors and protects indigenous groups. Three of the closed bases were in Vale de Javari, where last month’s massacre took place. The cuts to these agencies hinder their capacity to protect the region’s environment and its people. In fact, it means there will be less oversight over mining operations.

Companies eager to tap into the Amazon’s mineral deposits are not likely to bring oversight or formality either. The prevalence of corruption in the public and private sectors means that these companies often operate outside of the rule of law. In late 2007, Canadian giant Colossus Minerals announced plans to co-develop a defunct mine in Serra Pelada, a town in the northern state of Pará, with a co-op of local prospectors called Coomigasp. The enterprise ended in 2014 after a political assassination and allegations that Coomigasp had funneled 54 million reais, 17.2 million dollars, into the private accounts of the co-op’s directors.

Indeed, corruption is not confined to far-off towns or provincial authorities. President Temer is currently caught in an corruption scandal that traces its origins to Lavo Jato, the investigation that resulted in the conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the impeachment of his successor President Dilma Rousseff. To gain support and shield himself from a congressional investigation, President Temer has appealed to the agricultural, logging, and mining lobbies, allegedly exchanging votes for an easing of environmental restrictions. Like the pirates who maraud around the Amazon, mining corporations and even the highest levels of government are vulnerable to criminality, ranging from corruption to exploitation and violence, and seemingly immune from prosecution.

To protect the Amazon―its people and ecosystems―the Brazilian government will need to contend with the lawlessness that is pervasive in the region and throughout the country. When paired with cuts to the agencies charged with enforcing regulations in the region, efforts to open the Amazon to mining will only increase insecurity. Brazil is not alone in facing this challenge. The lack of rule of law across the Amazon―in neighboring Colombia and Peru and elsewhere―has facilitated the rise and maintains the status of criminals, ranging from illegal prospectors to cartels, many of whom act with impunity.

The Cipher Brief, in conjunction with the Stimson Center, is publishing a monthly Natural Security Series featuring articles on the convergence between environmental and national security issues. Be sure to check in next month for the next part of the Natural Security Series.

The Author is Emma Myers

Emma Myers is a Research Assistant with the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center. With the Center, she works on the intersections of environmental crime and U.S. national security interests. She holds a Bachelor of Arts with distinction in Foreign Affairs and Latin American Studies from the University of Virginia.

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