26 abril 2023
Theme was one of the highlights at the Free Land Camp, which brings together in Brasilia around 6,000 representatives from 200 peoples
By Ayla Tapajós and Fábio de Castro
The impacts of illegal mining and the threat that this activity poses to Indigenous Lands (ILs) in the Amazon were highlighted on the second day of the Free Land Camp (ATL, in Portuguese), a mobilisation that gathers this week in Brasilia around 6,000 representatives of more than 200 peoples from all over the country. The debate, promoted this Tuesday (25/04) by Coiab (Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon), included many testimonies on how gold mining in the region affects human health, destroys biodiversity and harms the way of life of populations. Participants also stressed that, in order to combat illegal actions, it is essential to generate income, encouraging the development of sustainable economic alternatives, such as non-timber products extraction, handicrafts and community-based tourism.
“In the 1980s, before the demarcation of our territory, our region was taken over by gold miners. Our people believed that they would live well, earning money, getting a nice house and food every day”, recalled Fernando Tukano, indigenous leader of the Alto Rio Negro, in the municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in Amazonas state. “But gold is just a delusion. What happened is that today we live in poverty, our communities and plantations were destroyed because everyone wanted to earn money with gold. And our children started to go into gold mining.”
Like Fernando, other participants in the debate warned of the need to generate income, so that indigenous people are not vulnerable to enticement. “Girls and women are the most affected. They are co-opted to work in the mines and, when they get there, they are forced into prostitution,” said Auricélia Arapium, president of the Deliberative Council of Coiab and CITA (Tapajós Arapiuns Indigenous Council). According to her, as sustainable and non-predatory activities are developed in the region, the local culture and indigenous identity are strengthened.
The presence of illegal gold mining is a serious social and environmental issue, with startling proportions in the Amazon. A survey by HAY (Hutukara Yanomami Association), carried out in partnership with ISA (Socio-Environmental Institute), showed that the problem grew 54% in 2022 alone in the Yanomami IL, devastating 5,053 hectares in the territory. The activity is strongly linked to the increase in deforestation, contamination of water and fish by mercury, sedimentation of rivers, land grabbing and the growth of violence within the biome.
In ILs, where mining is expressly forbidden by the Federal Constitution, these negative impacts are even more intense. With the contamination of rivers by mercury, which is used to separate gold from sediment, the food security of the indigenous people is affected, since fish are the basis of their diet. The presence of gold miners also increases the proliferation of diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis, syphilis and tuberculosis in the territories. Conflicts eventually also escalate to assaults and murders.
Conserving ILs doesn't just benefit local residents, it is also positive for all of humankind, as indigenous and traditional peoples are recognised as the main guardians of the forest and their territories are an important factor in controlling deforestation in the Amazon. The more invasions, the more deforestation and the greater the effects of the climate crisis. For the production of just 1 kilo of gold, for example, 12.5 tons of CO2 equivalent are emitted.
Loan sharks and drug dealers
Illegal mining, stresses Auricélia, is financed by loan sharks and drug trafficking, which increases the presence of criminals in the territories. In addition, exposure to mercury used by mining harms communities in other ways. “The permanence of mercury in the human body affects the entire organism, including the brain, threatening mainly pregnant women and children. Deforestation and scarcity of traditional food produce food insecurity,” she said.
According to her, with this, the gold miners themselves become suppliers of food for the indigenous people, who end up dependent on criminals. “This proximity also leads our young people to addiction to alcohol and drugs. And violence increases, as young people who want to escape mining and return to the villages are often killed, as are those who make complaints,” adds Auricélia.
“We are very concerned about mining on indigenous lands,” agreed Jorge Marubo, leader from Javari Valley, the region where indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Phillips were murdered last year. “For some years, mining has existed in our territory and is getting stronger. We are concerned because we saw what happened in the Yanomami Indigenous Land. We are very afraid ”, he pointed out.
“I came here to ask for help, because in my land there are gold miners and I don't like that. We want to be heard”, said in her traditional language Panh-ô Kayapó, an indigenous leader from Pará state: “Our land is being devastated by mining. Lately, the men from my village got together and went on foot to remove these miners from our land. They were successful, but there are still many hidden. We want to get them all out of there so that our children have a future.”
Another appeal for an end to mining in ILs was made by Socorro Munduruku, also from Pará. “I want the authorities to remove these miners from our territory. I am fighting for our land and for our demarcation. We, the indigenous people, own the land,” she said, addressing representatives of the Federal Prosecution Service who were taking part in the event. “Help us to demarcate our land... for our children, our grandchildren. The miners are there, the water is dirty and now they are mistreating us. I am against mining,” she declared.
The hardest hit territories
A study carried out by MapBiomas in 2022 shows that, between 2010 and 2021, the mining area jumped 625% in ILs in Brazil. The most affected indigenous territories were the Kayapó (11.5 thousand hectares), the Munduruku (4.7 thousand hectares) and the Yanomami (1.5 thousand hectares). It is estimated that at least a third of the gold exported annually by the country originates from illegal mining, which has increased intensely, especially in the Amazon.
The impacts on nature and human health are very serious. Studies carried out by WWF-Brazil and partners, such as Fiocruz (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation), the Federal University of Western Pará (Ufopa) and Iepé (Institute of Research and Indigenous Training), show that, in addition to bringing harm to indigenous peoples and traditional populations, the mercury used in gold extraction can also affect any citizen of the Amazon. The most consumed fish in Amapá, for example, are also the most contaminated
by the toxic metal. And 75.6% of residents of urban and riverside areas of LowerTapajós River have higher levels of mercury in their blood
than the safety limit established by the WHO (World Health Organisation).