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THE IMPACT OF ILLEGAL GOLD MINING ON BRAZIL’S INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY AND ENVIRONMENT

Benedetta Piva, Steven Cortez, SOUTHCOM Team

Week of Monday, July 19, 2021


An Image of the Yanomami Community[1]


Over the past six years, illegal gold mining has risen in Brazil’s indigenous territory and led to clashes between miners and Yanomami tribes as well as severe environmental degradation. Illegal miners have been reportedly linked with organized criminal groups, which provide them with weapons and influence, allowing them to operate with impunity in an increasingly violent context. On May 11, illegal gold miners, also known as garimpeiros, opened fire on an Indigenous community that was attempting to block their entry.[2] This attack is the latest display of violence carried out by illegal gold miners, who are almost certainly emboldened by the federal government’s inaction to extract rare minerals in the Amazon rainforest. This inaction has also led to a rise in deforestation; in 2020 compared to 2019, deforestation rose by 30%.[3] Given the alarming rate of violence and environmental degradation, it is essential that the Bolsonaro government move towards developing robust enforcement policies as well as engaging with the international community to minimize the environmental impacts of illegal mining.


The gold miners involved in the May 11 attack have been known to have ties to criminal organizations in Brazil. Obtained Whatsapp conversations highlight their affiliation to a criminal group known as the First Command of the Capital or PCC, one of the largest gangs in Brazil that specializes in drug trafficking.[4] Their backing by organized crime groups almost certainly gives illegal miners the ability to conduct attacks against the indigenous tribes and extract resources from their territory with impunity. The affiliation to the PCC coupled with the federal government’s inaction almost certainly provides illegal miners with the capacity to carry out attacks on the Yanomami and decimate the rainforest without fear of reprisal. Aerial photos of the highly organized mines show that the camp towns are fully functional with air-conditioned units, motorbikes, ATVs, and helicopters.[5] This demonstrates the gold miners’ well-orchestrated plans in the Yanomami territory and their capacity to mobilize across the rainforest in search of resources. With support from criminal groups and well-financed operations, there is very likely little to prevent illegal miners from steamrolling through the indigenous territory to obtain gold.


The skyrocketing price of gold and rising unemployment rates are pushing many to the Amazon rainforest to work in illegal gold mining operations.[6] The increased unemployment rates can very likely be linked to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. At the beginning of 2020, state exports quadrupled to $245 million as deforestation and mining also reached record highs.[7] It is likely that the pandemic contributed to the surge in the highly lucrative gold mining operations and has accelerated the growing demand for gold. This growth has very likely resulted from heightened global uncertainty and ultra-low real interest rates caused by the spread of COVID-19. Although there is no official number for the percentage of illegal gold exported, it is estimated that it makes up 16% of all gold extracted in the country.[8] The difficulty of determining the true amount is very likely due to the involvement of criminal groups in the operations and the rudimentary tracking practices by the Brazilian government, which likely contribute to laundering.


From an environmental perspective, the impact of illegal gold mining has had catastrophic consequences on the Amazon rainforest. Between 2019 and 2020, an estimated 100 tons of neurotoxic metal were used to mine gold illegally in the region.[9] The result is an increase in the pollution of Amazonian waters that not only decimates the local ecosystem but also poisons the drinking water of the Yanomami tribes. If the environment’s disruption continues, the Amazon rainforest could likely be irreversibly damaged. The increase of illegal gold miners on indigenous territory has also led to an increase in COVID-19 cases among the tribespeople.[10] It is likely that if the community had remained isolated from these miners, the COVID-19 cases would have been much lower. For the Yanomami, expansion into their territory very likely bodes an existential threat to their way of life. In June 2021, members of the indigenous community protested a bill that would allow commercial agriculture and mining on protected indigenous land.[11] The enactment of such a law would very likely put gold miners and the indigenous people on a trajectory of violence and clashes over land in the future.


Illegal mining increased in 2018 when Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, became President of Brazil. Gold miners very likely saw his election as a green light to ramp up unimpeded extraction in the Yanomami territory. In 2020, Brazil’s mining regulator continued to entertain requests to mine in indigenous territory, with 145 applications submitted, the highest number recorded in 24 years.[12] Despite the Constitutional prohibition of resource extraction on indigenous territory, the rise of applications very likely indicates that companies believe that they could receive state approval. The Bolsonaro administration’s policy has resulted in companies and non-state actors taking advantage of the lack of enforcement to continue mining on Yanomami territory, destroying the rainforest. The Brazilian government’s inaction almost certainly threatens the security of the Yanomami tribes and the Amazon rainforest.


Currently, Brazil’s National Mining Agency, in charge of ensuring mining sites are staying within their quotas, employs only 250 inspectors to monitor over 35,000 mining sites across the country.[13] It is also tasked with shutting down illegal mining sites, however, these often reopen.[14] It is likely that the Bolsonaro administration limits the ability of the agency to fully oversee mining sites across the country. Hence, the Brazilian government not only encourages the mining sites to over-extract resources but also ensures that the federal agencies do as little regulation as possible, almost certainly creating greater impunity for illegal gold mining.

International organizations and states continue to pressure Brazil to begin protecting the Amazon rainforest. Regarding human rights, the United Nations condemned the attacks on the indigenous community by illegal miners and the neglect by the Brazilian government.[15] Environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace provide satellite imagery that monitors the deforestation occurring due to illegal gold mining.[16] Such NGOs almost certainly have the capacity to maintain pressure on local and state governments to push the Brazilian government to enact stricter environmental policies and enforcement mechanisms that ensure the protection of the indigenous community and the Amazonian ecosystem. Organizations also can disseminate information to civil society about the rapidly developing situation in the Amazon. The Amazon Fund’s top donor, Norway, pledged not to make any more payments until Brazil shows that it is willing to help protect the rainforest.[17] The leveraging of funds to pressure the Brazilian government to act could likely lead to policies that ensure the protection of the Yanomami and the environment, although it is likely that the Brazilian government will initially push back on external pressure.


Measures must be taken by the Brazilian government to end illegal gold mining in the protected territory of the Yanomami. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) urges the Brazilian government to rehaul its enforcement practices and pass legislation that incorporates modern technologies, such as drones, to deter deforestation practices. Given the Bolsonaro administration’s previous stance on resource extraction from the Amazon, it is unlikely that the Brazilian government will act without international pressure. CTG recommends that the international community resume diplomatic cooperation on combating climate change, incorporating the protection of the Amazon rainforest. CTG will continue to monitor for future encroachment by miners and neglect by the Brazilian government with the objective of assessing long-term implications. The SOUTHCOM Team will maintain vigilance over new developments in Brazil’s illegal gold mining industry and will monitor pressure by the international community on the Brazilian government to intervene.

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Photo of a Yanomami community” by vandung_17, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Gold miners fire on Yanomami indigenous community in Brazil, Reuters, May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/illegal-gold-miners-fire-yanomami-indigenous-community-brazil-2021-05-11/

[3] Brazil aerial photos show miners’ devastation of indigenous people’s land, The Guardian, May 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/27/brazil-aerial-photos-reveal-devastation-by-goldminers-on-indigenous-land

[4] Illegal gold miners stalk Amazon as authorities look away, BBC News, June 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-57157017

[5] Brazil aerial photos show miners’ devastation of indigenous people’s land, The Guardian, May 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/27/brazil-aerial-photos-reveal-devastation-by-goldminers-on-indigenous-land

[6] In the Amazon, the coronavirus fuels an illegal gold rush — and an environmental crisis, Washington Post, September 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/in-the-amazon-the-coronavirus-fuels-an-illegal-gold-rush--and-an-environmental-crisis/2020/

[7] Brazil aerial photos show miners’ devastation of indigenous people’s land, The Guardian, May 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/27/brazil-aerial-photos-reveal-devastation-by-goldminers-on-indigenous-land

[8] Brazil: Indigenous communities reel from illegal gold mining, Al Jazeera, June 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/14/indigenous-reel-from-brazil-illegal-gold-mining

[9] Expansion of illegal gold mining in Brazil’s Amazon contaminates region with 100 tons of mercury -survey, Rio Times, July 2021, https://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/brazil/expansion-of-illegal-gold-mining-in-brazils-amazon-contaminates-region-with-100-tons-of-mercury/

[10] Brazil: Remove Miners from Indigenous Amazon Territory, Human Rights Watch, April 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/12/brazil-remove-miners-indigenous-amazon-territory#

[11] Firing arrows, indigenous people in Brazil protest bill curtailing land rights, Reuters, June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/firing-arrows-indigenous-people-brazil-protest-bill-curtailing-land-rights-2021-06-16/

[12] Brazil sees record number of bids to mine illegally on Indigenous lands, Monga Bay, November 2020, https://news.mongabay.com/2020/11/brazil-sees-record-number-of-bids-to-mine-illegally-on-indigenous-lands/

[13] Agência Nacional de Mineração tem apenas 250 fiscais para cuidar de 35 mil minas, O Globo, March 2021, https://oglobo.globo.com/sociedade/um-so-planeta/agencia-nacional-de-mineracao-tem-apenas-250-fiscais-para-cuidar-de-35-mil-minas-1-24902168 (translated by Google)

[14] Brazil's Mining Regulator No Match For Illegal Gold Rush, Insight Crime, March 2021, https://insightcrime.org/news/gold-standard-authorities-struggle-match-illegal-miners-brazil/

[15] Brazil: UN experts deplore attacks by illegal miners on indigenous peoples; alarmed by mercury levels, United Nations, June 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/

[16] Aerial photos show devastation of controversial gold rush in Brazil, The Hill, May 2021, https://thehill.com/changing-america/sustainability/infrastructure/555941-aerial-photos-show-devastation-of

[17] Brazil must show Amazon protection is working, top donor Norway says, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/brazil-must-show-amazon-protection-is-working-top-donor-norway-says-2021-04-14/






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