Itaituba, Brazil – Jose Antonio sits on a plastic chair in an open-air wooden shack, the makeshift headquarters of his illegal gold mining operation. It is one of the hundreds here, in the Tapajos River basin in Para State in the Amazon region of Brazil.
Outside, a hydraulic digger is parked near the edge of a vast mining pit that has been carved into the rainforest’s reddish-brown earth.
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The digger needs parts that will be flown in shortly via a small aircraft to a clandestine landing strip, a 10-minute motorcycle ride away over a river crossing and through an indigenous village.
Fuelled by robust international prices amid lackluster regulation, weak enforcement – and speculation about a worldwide recession – Brazil’s Amazon is experiencing a new gold rush.
Thousands of illegal miners called garimpeiros are digging for gold, tearing down forests, polluting rivers and encroaching on indigenous lands.
Now, garimpeiros and industry representatives alike have found an ally in Brazil’s far-right leader, President Jair Bolsonaro, who pledges to “legalise” gold panning and open up mineral-rich indigenous lands to mining.
“As far as I’m concerned, if an indigenous [person] wants [to do] mining on his land, he can,” Bolsonaro said in a recent edition of his weekly Facebook Live programme.
There are more than 450 illegal mining sites in the Brazilian Amazon region. And dozens are on indigenous lands, according to research by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network.
Epicentre of the crisis
Today, the Tapajos River basin is the epicentre of the mining crisis. Taking a light aircraft flight, it’s possible to see the extent of the damage: forests and river banks opened up and turned into vast swathes of brown mud.
Some of the activity in the region is legal. But each year, 30 tonnes of gold are illegally traded here. That represents 4.5 billion reals ($1.1bn) in undeclared funds – six times more than the legal amount traded, according to information presented by Brazil’s National Mining Agency to its congress in April.
Illegal miners themselves are mostly poor men with little to no education, hoping to strike it rich. Illiteracy rates among them are high.
In the town of Crepurizao, from which dozens of light aircraft leave each day packed with parts, fuel and supplies, Al Jazeera interviewed several miners waiting for vacancies in mining pits.
They spoke of an easy-come, easy-go lifestyle where large amounts of money could be earned – then squandered in days on alcohol and prostitution.
“When it’s good, it’s good, but it’s usually more difficult than good,” said Nerivan da Silva, 37.
The pit controlled by gold mining boss Jose Antonio sits on a patch of the 2.4 million-hectare Munduruku indigenous land, home to 14,000 tribespeople.
Currently, in Brazil, mining on indigenous territories is totally prohibited. Last year, authorities destroyed Antonio’s previous digger during a raid.
“It’s us that sustain them,” he said of the indigenous people. “Because of us, they can now have food, motorbikes, fridges, TVs and good clothes.”
Sitting on the concrete floor of a wooden hut, the village chief, a man referred to simply as “the captain”, did not want to comment, and told Al Jazeera to leave.
Impact on the indigenous
Alessandra Korap, a Munduruku indigenous leader from a different village, said that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric was encouraging the advance of the miners deeper into indigenous territory.
“The president says ‘let’s legalise’ so people say ‘I’ll take my space there,'” she said.
Recent satellite images acquired by BBC Brazil show illegal mining encroaching significantly on three indigenous territories, including that of the Munduruku, since the start of 2019.
Korap explained that the village chief accepted the illegal mining on the land as a form of financial aid, as indigenous agency budgets had been slashed in recent years.
“They are cheated,” she said. “They think that they’ll get everything, but they lose everything.”
The social impacts are grave: illegal mining brings malaria, prostitution, human trafficking, drugs and violence. Then, as a gold pit starts to yield less, the miners typically move on and open up another operation, perpetuating a cycle of destruction.
“In some cases, there are indigenous leaders who get involved and get their cut. But once the door opens, it quickly gets out of control,” said Glenn Shepard, an American anthropologist who works with indigenous populations affected by illegal mining in Para State.
Illegal mining’s effect on the Tapajos River has been severe. According to a study by the federal police and the Federal University of Western Para, seven tonnes of sediment are released into the river every year. That’s the same amount of sediment – collecting every 11 years – as was released in Brazil’s 2015 Samarco Dam break.
Illegal gold mining on a mass scale requires large amounts of mercury to extract the gold – and that mercury ends up dumped in the river.
Mercury exposure can trigger sickness, birth defects and infertility, according to scientific studies.
‘Big-business level logistics’
The image of illegal gold mining in Brazil was immortalized in Sebastiao Salgado’s stunning photographs of thousands of workers climbing the Serra Pelada mine in the 1980s.
But over the past few years, experts say, mining gangs in the Tapajos region have become increasingly professionalised, and their operations more mechanised.
Pit bosses buy powerful diggers on credit, usually with investment from wealthy, seemingly legitimate businesses, investigators say.
Today, it’s common to have five to seven workers who typically pay 70 percent of their gold earnings to the boss of the pit, who has invested in the machine.
“It is big-business level logistics,” said Luis Camoes Boaventura, a federal prosecutor. “And they do it because it’s easy and there is no enforcement.”
Experts blame woefully insufficient regulation that allows for easily fraudulent transactions, including systems that are, in the main, still done using pen and paper – a practice that can facilitate money laundering for organised crime groups.
A recent investigation by Brazil’s federal prosecution office, conducted with federal police, found that just one gold-buying business in the city of Santarem fraudulently traded at least 610kg of gold – some of which was mined illegally on indigenous lands – between 2015 and 2018, costing the state 70 million reals ($17m).
“This investigation shows that in Brazil, there is no control over the chain of custody of gold,” said prosecutor Boaventura.
Enforcement operations by Brazil’s environmental agencies have also dropped off since the beginning of the year.
According to records published recently by the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo, the number of fines applied for environmental crimes by enforcement agencies is now at its lowest in a decade.
So far, Para State is still waiting for a superintendent to be appointed from Brasilia to head its local branch unit of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.
“This gives a green light for the criminals,” said a source inside the Para State government.
President Bolsonaro has spoken of his own past as a miner. In July, he spoke of legalising gold panning in Para, but offered few details.
Currently, a bill to legalise commercial mining of indigenous lands is being prepared for congress.
“Those that don’t want [this] of course don’t have to accept [it], but those that want can profit,” said General Roberto Sebastiao Peternelli, a congressman with Bolsonaro’s Social Liberty Party.
In a note to Al Jazeera, Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy confirmed that “probably in September the proposal will be concluded and ready to be submitted”.
But Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer with Brazil’s Socio-Environmental Institute, said that any bill that didn’t consult communities before being sent to congress was in breach of the constitution, and could result in judicial deadlock.
“The communities must be consulted during the elaboration of the bill and after,” she said.
The Bolsonaro government is coming under increasing fire internationally for what critics see as an all-out assault on the Amazon region.
Deforestation – which always factors into illegal mining – has continued its upward trend of the last few years, with a 15 percent increase between August 2018 and July 2019 compared to the same period a year before, according to the Imazon research institute.
Citing frustration with the Bolsonaro government, first Germany then Norway suspended some payments to the Brazilian government’s Amazon Fund, which supports projects to combat deforestation.
French President Emmanuel Macron has described the vast fires currently raging in the Amazon as an “international emergency”, and has called for the situation to be discussed at the G7 Summit – a meeting of the world’s largest industralised nations taking place August 24-26 in Biarritz, France.
For their part, many Brazilian miners hope their own president will make good on his pledge to legitimise gold panning.
In Crepurizao, as night falls, a man wearing a Bolsonaro tee-shirt drives past on a motorbike as a group of miners discuss the president’s pledge to legalise their work.
“This,” said miner Nerivan da Silva, “is our hope.”