Brazilian police exchanged gunfire with illegal miners in the Amazon yesterday as President Jair Bolsonaro attempts to crack down on rainforest infernos.
Federal police and members of the environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, raided an illegal mine near an indigenous reserve in the Para state on Friday.
The miners shot at them and the police returned fire, but all of the miners escaped into the jungle and no suspects were apprehended.
Nobody was injured and the federal police destroyed their equipment, including two diggers, after they fled.
Environment agents and Federal Police destroy machinery used for illegal mining on the bank of river Xingu, 43miles from Altamira town in the Amazon
Environment agents and Federal Police destroy machinery used for illegal mining on the bank of river Xingu
‘They (the miners) hid in the forest and shot at the team,’ said Hugo Loss, Ibama’s national coordinator of enforcement operations, who accompanied the mission.
Ibama had largely rolled back its field operations in Para state so far this year, over failure to reach an agreement with police at the state-level to offer support, according to Loss. State police generally accompany Ibama on potentially dangerous operations.
That came on top of efforts by the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro to weaken Ibama, including prohibiting agents from destroying machinery used to commit environmental crimes and grounding the agency’s special forces unit used on riskier raids, according to a Reuters investigation.
But news broke last week that fires in the Amazon surged to their highest level since 2010 and provoked international criticism that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the world’s largest tropical rainforest.
Following several days of public outcry, Bolsonaro authorized the military to support firefighting efforts, with his justice minister further issuing a decree allowing federal police to support environmental operations.
That federal support allowed for Ibama-organized raids such as the one on Friday to be carried out, Loss said. The raid was not directly related to the fires.
A digger used by the illegal miners goes up in flames after federal agents destroyed their equipment
Mining equipment is burned by the federal police in the jungle on Friday
‘Only now with the recognition of alarming deforestation and fire data and with the (justice minister’s) decree, did we have conditions allowing us to operate in this area,’ he said.
‘In this area we had operations planned for June and July, but we weren’t able to execute them… because of lack of support.’
Illegal mining contributes to overall deforestation in Brazil, with roughly 10% of the area of the indigenous reserve near the raid having been deforested this year alone, Loss said.
Illegal mining operations being carried out in most Amazon basin region countries causes significant damage, compounded by the use of chemicals such as mercury – particularly in gold mining – which has contaminated soil and streams.
The council of the Amerindian peoples of French Guiana declared after a recent meeting that ‘fire is not the only danger that threatens or destroys the Amazon. Extraction is largely responsible.’
Some 29,000 hectares of rainforest have been destroyed due to both legal and illegal gold panning since 2003, according to the French territory’s National Forestry Office.
Venezuela’s cash-strapped government turned to the Amazon’s resources after the collapse of oil prices contributed to its economic crisis. It launched a vast project in 2016 to extract bauxite, coltan, diamonds and gold in an area of more than 110,000 square kilometers of rain forest.
Federal police with assault rifles secure the illegal mine on Friday and dismantle equipment
An environmental agent breaks illegal mining equipment in the Amazon on Friday
‘Mining is much more serious than the fires,’ said Cecilia Gomez Miliani, head of the Venezuelan environmental NGO Vitalis. ‘All vegetation is cut, eliminated, and this poses problems of soil erosion, mercury contamination and population displacements.’
In Ecuador, oil concessions encroaching on indigenous lands are also taking a toll.
In Peru, the government has deployed the army in the Amazon to try to stop illegal mining that has flourished in remote areas long left unprotected by the state.
Colombia has also mobilised its security forces to try to protect the Amazon basin after more than 138,000 hectares of rain forest disappeared in 2018, accounting for 70 percent of the country’s total deforestation.