Coronavirus helps Brazilian village take back its land
An indigenous community persuaded illegal gold miners to leave, a move that could slow the rapid deforestation if other groups follow suit
Brasilia — As the new coronavirus reaches into Brazil’s indigenous communities for the first time, one village trying to protect itself in the Amazon rainforest has achieved a rare victory: getting illegal gold miners to agree to leave, indefinitely.
Kayapo leaders from Turedjam village negotiated with more than 30 prospectors, who all agreed to stop operations and remove their equipment over the course of last week, with no solid date on when — or if — they will return.
The move could help slow the country’s dizzying deforestation rate if other indigenous groups try to follow suit, environmentalists say.
For the estimated 400 indigenous people living in Turedjam, in Brazil’s northern state of Para, the decision was a matter of life and death.
“We no longer want the prospectors to circulate through the villages. They agreed to leave,” Takatkyx Kayapo, one of the community leaders who negotiated with the miners, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Brazil has more than 11,000 reported novel coronavirus cases and more than 400 deaths. The first case among indigenous communities was confirmed on April 1.
Health experts warn that the spreading virus could be lethal for Brazil’s estimated 900,000 indigenous people, who have been decimated for centuries by diseases brought by Europeans, from smallpox and malaria to the flu.
With mining paused in Turedjam, so is the relentless tree felling that miners engage in to clear the land for digging, locals say.
Deforestation is a chronic problem in Brazil, home to roughly 60% of the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, which absorbs vast amounts of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
With a population of more than 4,500, the Kayapo are one of the communities most affected by deforestation at the hands of wildcat miners, according to villagers and indigenous rights activists.
From 2016 to 2019, gold mining operations on Kayapo indigenous land in Para led to the felling of more than twice as many trees as during the previous 35 years, according to government figures.
In total, more than 8,200ha of forest have been destroyed by small-scale miners — or garimpos — in the state since 1980.
Villagers in Turedjam said that at the peak of mining activity in the area up to 70 bulldozers could be seen digging up their land at any one time.
Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has vowed to assimilate indigenous people into Brazilian society and raise their standard of living by allowing mining and commercial agriculture on their reservations.
The rising price of gold combined with the president’s rhetoric have led to a gold rush in the country over the past five years.
For some Brazilian indigenous communities, granting mining rights to unlicensed prospectors has become a vital source of income.
Others, like the Kayapo in Turedjam, have had their land taken over by illegal miners and say they are usually powerless to stop it.
Takatkyx, the Kayapo leader, said most of the villagers in Turedjam are against the mining, and the new coronavirus outbreak has provided them with the opportunity to take their land back.
The miners, also worried about their own health, have agreed to leave until the danger from the virus is gone. After that, further negotiations will decide whether they come back.
“We always wanted to close the mine. With the risk of contagion in the community, we held the meeting and everyone agreed,” said Takatkyx.
“Beyond Para, many prospectors come from other regions, it is a very big risk. When the pandemic is over, we will have another meeting to discuss what to do. Our idea is to close the mining definitively,” he said.
A spokesperson from the government’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, confirmed in an e-mail that Turedjam is the first village to ban miners since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
The agency said it had no part in the negotiations between the Kayapo and the miners, adding only that on the issue of illegal mining it works to “maintain the integrity of indigenous lands” and “combat illicit activities” with the help of the federal police and Ibama, Brazil's environmental agency.
Ibama declined to comment on what happened in Turedjam, but said in an e-mail that, together with FUNAI and other institutions, it regularly monitors “critical areas” where illegal mining is being carried out.
The virus outbreak has provided an opportunity for the government to enforce territorial protection laws against illegal mining, said Felipe Milanez, a professor at the Federal University of Bahia.
“The time to definitively close the mines has come,” Milanez, a political ecologist who has been conducting research in Turedjam for over a decade, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Turedjam’s response to the outbreak can serve as inspiration for other indigenous communities in Brazil whose land has been taken over not only by miners, but also loggers, commercial livestock operations, and agribusiness, Milanez said.
Now is the chance for government bodies and the federal police, who are often criticised for failing to protect indigenous lands, to “disable a network of illegal gold miners who have lost strength at this time”, he added.
Marcio Santilli, co-founder of the conservationist non-profit Instituto Socioambiental, and a former president of Funai, said even with the pandemic slowing mining in the country, it is unlikely illegal operations will be shut for good.
“Gold mining is a practice totally out of state control everywhere,” he said.
The government should now focus on helping to find new sources of income for those who engage in illegal mining and the indigenous communities who rely financially on the practice, he said.
“It is necessary to generate more tangible economic alternatives for the people who are living this reality,” he said.
• Thomson Reuters Foundation