Brazil’s government says police burned 131 boats used by illegal gold miners in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
The operation marked a shift in direction for the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, which has seen an increase in deforestation following its initial weakening of environmental protections and a more permissive approach to gold miners tapping natural resources in the region.
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In a Twitter post on Monday, Justice Minister Anderson Torres described the raid as “quick and efficient”. Federal police were aided by agents of Brazil’s navy and environmental enforcement agency IBAMA, officials said.
Most of the fires were east of Manaus, capital of the Amazonas state, in a region of dense forest.
According to the Associated Press news agency, on Saturday smoke began wafting over the Madeira River, where images over the last week have shown hundreds of boats gathered as miners searched for gold.
Miners are historically known for polluting rivers in the Amazon and for opening the way for loggers and cattle ranchers, who bring destruction to the untouched areas.
Local media said three people had been jailed and an undetermined amount of gold had been seized in the operation.
‘Only the clothes they were wearing’
Meanwhile, many locals complained the raid had left them stranded in the rainforest.
Luiz Henrique Ribeiro said police burned his boat on Saturday.
He said agents did not allow him to get his belongings from the boat before setting it on fire. Many miners live on their boats, which often have satellite televisions, hammocks and pets on board.
“Federal police came by boat and told everyone to get out – they used pepper spray and told us to back off. Everybody left with only the clothes they were wearing,” the 26-year-old Ribeiro, who denied he was conducting illegal mining on the river, told AP.
Amazonas state prosecutors said in a statement that authorities must coordinate a plan within 30 days to end the presence of mining boats on the Madeira.
Simao Peixoto, mayor of the riverside town of Borba and an ally of the miners, said he would meet federal authorities and legislators to discuss the issue.
“You are workers, you don’t deserve to live what you lived there. Being thrown on the mud like beasts,” Peixoto said.
From August 2020 to July 2021, the Brazilian Amazon lost 13,235 square kilometres (5,110 square miles) of rainforest – a 22-percent jump from the same period a year before and the largest yearly loss to deforestation since 2006.
In early November, Bolsonaro arrived at the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in Scotland touting a raft of new climate commitments and policies to combat deforestation.
However, rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, quickly dismissed the change in tone as lacking an immediate operational plan.
Bolsonaro has also been criticised for not stating how his government plans to meet his pledge of ending illegal deforestation in the country by 2028.