Deep in the Amazon, a Lopsided Battle for Its Riches
Posted November 10, 2018 2:47 p.m. EST
The Times traveled hundreds of miles into the Brazilian Amazon, staying with a tribe in the Munduruku Indigenous Territory as it struggled with the shrinking rain forest.
The miners had to go.
Their bulldozers, dredges and high-pressure hoses tore into miles of land along the river, polluting the water, poisoning the fish and threatening the way life had been lived in this stretch of the Amazon for thousands of years.
So one morning in March, leaders of the Munduruku tribe readied their bows and arrows, stashed a bit of food into plastic bags and crammed inside four boats to drive the miners away.
“It has been decided,” said Maria Leusa Kabá, one of the women in the tribe who helped lead the revolt.
The confrontation had begun.
The showdown was a small part of an existential struggle indigenous communities are waging across Brazil. But the battle goes far beyond their individual survival, striking at the fate of the Amazon and its pivotal role in climate change.
In recent years, the Brazilian government has sharply cut spending on indigenous communities, while lawmakers have pushed for regulatory changes championed by industries seeking unfettered access to parts of the Amazon that have been protected under the nation’s constitution.
Now, Brazil has elected a new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who favors abolishing protected indigenous lands. He has promised to scale back enforcement of environmental laws, calling them an impediment to economic growth, and has made his intentions for the Amazon clear.
“Where there is indigenous land,” he said last year, “there is wealth underneath it.”
Long before Bolsonaro’s victory, descendants of the original inhabitants of the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rain forest, had become increasingly vulnerable to bands of miners, loggers and farmers who have been clearing it at a rate environmentalists call unsustainable.
From 2006 through 2017, Brazil’s part of the Amazon lost roughly 91,890 square miles of forest cover — an area larger than New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Connecticut combined, according to an analysis of satellite images by Global Forest Watch.
Thousands of square miles of forest have been razed in indigenous territories, where large-scale industrial activity is prohibited. With Bolsonaro’s victory, indigenous leaders are sounding more drastic warnings.
“He represents an institutionalization of genocide in Brazil,” said Dinamã Tuxá, coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples. A spokesman for Bolsonaro’s transition team said no one would comment on indigenous concerns, or respond to criticism of his views, because officials were focused on “far more important issues.”
Experts say the rate of deforestation in the Amazon, which soaks up enormous amount of the world’s carbon dioxide, makes it nearly certain that Brazil will miss some of the climate change mitigation goals it set in 2009, when it presented itself as an exemplar of sustainable development at a U.N. summit.
The trendline has led federal prosecutors and environmentalists to say that the Amazon is on the brink of irreversible damage, potentially leading to the extinction of indigenous communities that have weathered centuries of calamities.
“The combined impacts of deforestation, climate change and extensive use of fire have brought the Amazon to the tipping point,” said Thomas Lovejoy, an environmental science and policy professor at George Mason University. “The indigenous people, who are the best defenders of the land, become vulnerable if the forest vanishes.”
— ‘Divide and Conquer’
Many indigenous leaders see the threats against their communities as a modern-day David-versus-Goliath struggle, with tribes facing violent bands of men who take advantage of the Amazon’s lawlessness to turn a profit.
Officially, the fight over the Amazon’s future is playing out far away in the legislative chambers of the nation’s capital. After Brazil’s economy plunged into recession in 2014, politicians and industry leaders who favor loosening environmental protections gained the upper hand in a long-running contest over the rain forest.
They have had some success in weakening protections enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution. But in many instances, the legal battle lags far behind reality. As miners, loggers and farmers charge into the Amazon, legally or not, the landscape is being radically reshaped.
“They haven’t given up on changing the law, but they are prioritizing a strategy of creating facts on the ground,” said Cleber Buzzatto, executive secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council, an indigenous rights group. “By creating an irreversible reality, they will then seek to change legislation.”
From the air, those facts on the ground look like bright orange gashes carved in the banks of lazy, zigzagging rivers that meander through the jungle.
Few are as striking as the gold mine built around Posto de Vigilância, or Lookout Point, one of the most remote Munduruku villages.
Osvaldo Waru Munduruku, the rail-thin village chief, looked ashen as he explained how his tiny hamlet, home to about 15 families, became a hub of the illegal mining trade that has transformed the region in recent years.
The National Indian Foundation, a federal agency that helps indigenous people, had its aid budget slashed in recent years, making it hard for remote villages to get food or basic services. Beyond that, many indigenous leaders like Waru long for much better living standards, education and opportunities than an isolated, arduous forest existence allows.
So when the first “white miners,” as he calls them, dropped by in 2015 to suggest a partnership, Waru was tempted.
He and other indigenous leaders knew there was little they could do to stop the miners. The brutal recession had driven large numbers of unemployed Brazilians into the jungle, hunting for gold. If a gold rush was about to break out in his part of Pará state, he reasoned, the village might as well take a cut.
This kind of co-optation has become common in remote areas of the jungle — and precisely what many indigenous leaders want to stop.
“Divide and conquer,” said Fernanda Kaingáng, an indigenous rights lawyer who belongs to the Kaingang tribe. “That is the strategy used to promote division with indigenous communities in order to secure access to wood, minerals and land.”
The miners in Waru’s village cleared a long strip for a runway and built a parallel settlement, with sleeping quarters and a small church. The miners rewarded him with 10 percent of the haul each month — worth a few hundred dollars, he said.
“We would save it and save it until there was enough to buy things for the community,” Waru said. It paid for a new boat motor, a generator and a radio.
But then the bouts of diarrhea among children began. Erosion from the mines turned the river a sandy brown. Fish that had long been a staple of the community’s diet now had high levels of mercury, which is used to extract gold.
“Before, we had a lot of food here, but since the water became dirty, the fish vanished,” he said. “We became concerned about the future of our children.”
— After Brink of Annihilation, Revival More than 896,000 indigenous people live in Brazil — less than 0.5 percent of the population. They belong to 300 tribes and speak more than 270 languages.
Their ranks are small compared with the millions of indigenous people in countries like Bolivia and Peru. Yet half a century ago, they were nearly extinct.
In 1500, when the first Portuguese settlers arrived, 3 million to 5 million people lived in what would later become Brazil.
Smallpox and other diseases brought by the Europeans wiped out hundreds of thousands. Enslavement followed, first in sugar plantations and later when the rubber boom drew profitseekers to the Amazon starting in the 1870s.
By the 1960s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship began, the indigenous population had fallen below 100,000. The generals regarded indigenous communities in the Amazon as impediments to development and drew them out of remote villages to assimilate them.
That policy was formally abandoned in 1988, when Brazil’s current constitution was drafted. It sought to atone for past abuses, setting in motion a process to mark and protect indigenous territories. There are now more than 600 of them, encompassing more than 13 percent of the country — a fact that has long rankled Brazilian loggers, miners and farmers.
Here along the Tapajos River, the Munduruku, nearly 14,000 members strong, have splintered into dozens of small villages, scattered across a territory slightly larger than New Hampshire.
But as the recession hit Brazil’s impoverished northeast and Amazon states particularly hard, outsiders with families to feed ventured into Munduruku land. They revived gold mines that the government had shut down in the 1990s.
When the miners showed up in indigenous villages along the Tapajós in 2015, they found communities in worse shape than their own.
In one, Caroçal Rio das Tropas, families live in dilapidated wooden huts and sleep in hammocks. Skinny dogs with festering wounds sniff the ground for scraps of food. Poisonous snake bites are treated by using the body of the serpent as a makeshift tourniquet while the patient makes the six-hour boat ride to the nearest town.
Some families fare better than others, with television sets, cellphones and appliances powered by rumbling old generators. That, said Ezildo Koro Munduruku, is the result of gold proceeds that have transformed the area — and the tribe.
“Our grandparents’ generation, they had a strong organization,” said Ezildo, 41. “They were all united. They had little contact with white people.”
As mining camps multiplied, bringing processed foods, alcohol, drugs and prostitution to the area, several Munduruku men jumped at the chance to make money. Their diets changed and vices took hold. Many Munduruku worried that their way of life was being irreparably altered.
“Within our families, this began pitting brother against brother,” Ezildo said.
Some indigenous leaders initially argued that mining could be a boon, without causing too much environmental damage. But the gold brought only modest and fleeting benefits, he said.
“We are sick, physically and spiritually,” Ezildo said. “If one earns 100 grams of gold, they will spend it on alcohol and prostitutes.” — ‘The Law of Survival’
After three days of tense debate, the women of the tribe gave the final word. Some pointed fingers defiantly at men in the room, while others cried as they took turns speaking into a scratchy microphone.
When it was done, Kabá, the mother who helped lead the uprising, hung up a sign with bullet points to summarize the plan.
“Paralyze illegal mining activity in the indigenous area; clean up the territory and expel all the invaders from Munduruku territory,” it said.
The miners knew a revolt was coming and had tried to head it off. They flew to the village by plane, bearing massive bags of rice, beans and pasta, along with packs of grape- and orange-flavored soda — a peace offering.
Cleber da Silva Costa, the miner who brought the bounty, said he knew what he and his fellow miners were doing was illegal and harmful to the environment. Yet he argued that his crime was merely a symptom of more egregious wrong.
“If you didn’t have so many corrupt people in Congress, you might be able to consider preserving the environment,” he said.
Da Silva, 47, a miner with three children, said the camp was doing more to preserve than destroy indigenous communities.
“The little they have today is from miners,” he said. “The government doesn’t help. All the money gets stolen. We may be in the wrong. But out here, it’s the law of survival.”
— ‘This Territory Is Not Yours’
Weapons in hand, about 30 members of the tribe set out to evict the miners.
But after trudging for more than six hours through rivers, mud and steep hills, they reached the first gold mining camp exhausted, hungry and thirsty.
Amarildo Dias Nascimento, the camp supervisor, sensed that a confrontation was imminent. So, in a disarming gesture, he welcomed the Munduruku delegation effusively, instructing his cooks to put on a feast of grilled chicken, beans and rice for the guests.
“Tonight, we’ll just focus on joy,” he said.
Nascimento, 47, argued that the miners were merely trying to survive.
“Many have been left without options,” he said, pointing at his men. “Do you become a thief in Rio de Janeiro? Many are here because they don’t want to resort to that. We’re here fighting for our daily bread.”
The next morning, Kabá breast-fed her baby as she summoned the miners for the showdown.
“This is our land,” she said. “This territory is not yours. This is where we get sustenance for our children. We don’t depend on gold, but rather the fruits and animals you are driving away.”
Nascimento listened politely, his head bowed.
“The moment you ask us to leave, we will do it immediately,” he said.
After the meeting broke up, several members of the Munduruku crammed into a bulldozer driven by one of the miners to avoid crossing a long, muddy patch of the trail on foot. But as they left, it was still unsettled when, or even if, the miners would leave.
The Munduruku headed to the next mining camp, determined to deliver the same message. But the camp was larger, and they faced a far less welcoming group of miners. Several were drunk.
“We had to turn back because they were armed,” Kabá said.
— ‘Midas Dilemma’
Weeks later, dozens of heavily armed federal police officers and agents from Brazil’s two environmental agencies descended on a mining camp in Munduruku land, sweeping in aboard four helicopters.
The mission was the unveiling of Operation Pajé Bravo, code named for an indigenous myth about a malevolent person who must be exiled.
While Brazilian lawmakers press to expand mining, logging and farming in the Amazon, some prosecutors and officials remain steadfastly against it, using their authority to enforce environmental laws for as long as they exist.
But the raids do little. As usual, miners scattered into the forest as the aircraft approached, preventing investigators from making arrests or even asking many questions. Agents set fire to several machines and camp dwellings before taking off.
“It was like something out of a war zone,” said Valmir, a miner who used his first name because he feared prosecution. “None of us here are bandits. If the government offers some sort of employment for us outside of mining, no one would return to mining.”
Days later, federal prosecutors searched gold dealers in the nearest major urban areas — the second phase of the investigation. This one was called Midas Dilemma, a play on the tale of King Midas and his dangerous ability to turn everything he touched into gold. “We see a parallel with the exploitation of national riches,” said Gecivaldo Vasconcelos Ferreira, a federal police officer who helped lead the investigation. “If they aren’t exploited in a responsible way, they end up becoming a curse.”
Luis Camões Boaventura, a prosecutor on the case, says authorities have only scratched the surface of an enormous industry backed by local and national politicians.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of gold mines along the Tapajós, and supply chains are deliberately opaque, making it hard to go after illegal mining bosses, he said.
“It is a very serious problem,” he said.
In May, prosecutors issued a call to action, warning that the gold trade “could potentially lead to the extinction of indigenous communities and traditional cultures.”
Federal prosecutors have characterized the plight of some indigenous communities as “genocide.”
But that stance is not widely shared by local, state or federal politicians. In Congress, a large coalition known as the ruralist bloc has championed scores of measures to ease access to minerals and potential farmland in protected areas.
Bolsonaro, a veteran congressman who easily won the presidential election last month, has long expressed the sentiment.
“If it were up to me, we would not have any more indigenous areas in the country,” he said after winning.
Doing away with them would require changing the constitution. But Bolsonaro has threatened to take smaller steps on his own, like halting fines against companies and individuals who break the law. He has put forward similar positions before. In 2012, after Bolsonaro was fined for fishing in a protected area, he introduced a bill in Congress seeking to bar agents from two federal agencies that pursue illegal mining, logging and fishing from carrying firearms.
While campaigning for president, he called the system of protected lands obsolete, echoing the policy during the military dictatorship that such areas shackle economic growth and the individual prospects of indigenous people. The time had come, he said, to “reintegrate them into society” and recognize that they “don’t want to live in zoos.”
Bolsonaro argues that Brazil can no longer tolerate having so much land set aside as indigenous territories, national parks and conservation zones.
“All those reserves stymie our development,” he said.
Munduruku leaders opposed to mining were elated about the raids by federal agents. But soon, leaders like Kabá received threats.
“The expectation of the indigenous leaders when they denounced what was happening was that the state would go in and expel the white people,” said Danicley de Aguiar, a Greenpeace activist who has counseled Munduruku leaders. That did not happen.
And while protecting the environment and indigenous traditions is laudable, it’s not realistic, argued Adonias Kabá Munduruku, one of the tribe’s leaders who does business with miners.
“It’s the only way for us, as indigenous miners, to send out children to study in the cities, to have them go to university,” said Kabá, 40. “Parents want their children to learn, to be prepared, so they don’t end up like their parents: working here in the mines.”
Prosecutors have yet to charge anyone from the raids, and gold mining continues to flourish in the area.
“What we’re seeing is that crime is paying off,” said Paulo de Tarso Moreira Oliveira, a federal prosecutor.