Tarnished Gold: Aircraft, fuel key to illegal Amazon mining

Here in Roraima state, where all gold mining is illegal, they are essential for transporting prospectors and equipment to far-flung Indigenous reserves, including Brazil’s largest, Yanomami. Environmental and Indigenous rights groups estimate some 20,000 illegal miners are present on the reserve that is roughly the same size as Portugal. Government officials, including Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourao, put the number closer to 3,500.

“Our focus over this last year has been to go after the logistics of illegal mining,” Jose Roberto Peres, the police superintendent for the state, told the Associated Press during an interview in November. “These are expensive machines; we can deduce that there is a lot of money involved.”

Police have intensified their efforts to identify and capture aircraft supporting illegal mining, but tracking down planes’ owners is stymied by the fact they’re usually registered to fronts – relatives, workers, or spouses who refuse to name names. Police claim they are able to identify the real owners of many of the planes they seize and will keep these as evidence during the investigation. According to local police officers, they believe that the owners of illegal planes are wealthy Boa Vista residents who use Boa Vista restaurants, bars, gyms and gas stations to launder money.

Drawn by high gold prices, reduced state and federal oversight, and outdated mining legislation, plus pro-mining rhetoric and proposed legislation from far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that would make it legal to mine on reserves, thousands of miners have flocked to the Yanomami reserve in search of the precious metal, exacerbating a longstanding problem that has only grown worse in recent years.

An Associated Press investigation, which includes interviews with prosecutors, federal law enforcement agents, miners, and industry insiders, shows that the unauthorized aircraft — and the countless liters of fuel needed to power them and other mining equipment — form the backbone of the shadowy economy of illicit mining here in Roraima state. Law enforcement officers and experts in environmental law say that illegal mining would be impossible if this network was not functioning well.

But attempts to disrupt the illicit operations have been met with just as many countermeasures to subvert the authorities.

Dozens of pilots arrived recently in Boa Vista from other states looking for work during Brazil’s economic downturn, a time that coincided with high gold prices and a drop in inspections due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Potential rewards for the pilots outweigh the risks which include possible arrest by police or getting lost in the vast, pristine expanse of the Amazon. Last year, one pilot crash-landed in the jungle and survived on his own for five weeks, losing 57 pounds in the process. One pilot was flying between Yanomami territories known for their illegal mining. Another one vanished. Many missing and lost pilots have been reported by local media.

Small aircraft frequently make trips carrying supplies to and illegally mined gold from the Yanomami reserve, which borders Venezuela. The Nimbler helicopters are used to transport internal logistics from one site within the reserve to the next. Brazilian authorities can not reach them.

Adding to law enforcement’s difficulties, illegal mining pilots fly low to avoid radar detection, according to Superintendent Peres. To make it harder for law enforcement to track them down, the tail numbers of illegal mining pilots can be altered or removed.

A former illegal miner who said he used to operate on the reserve until he was indicted, and spoke with the AP on condition of anonymity, said aircraft serving illegal sites are usually kept in one location, loaded with supplies in another, and then flown to the Yanomami reserve. He said that locations are always changed to avoid seizures in an interview in Boa Vista’s riverside square.

It is possible to reach parts of Yanomami reserve by boat. It is difficult to navigate rivers and can take many days making this an inefficient choice. Smugglers rely heavily upon aircraft.

The former prospector and a federal police spokesperson told the AP said that the average cost to reach Yanomami land by plane is 10 grams of gold, worth more than $500 at black market prices.

The rush for gold and the building of illegal airstrips have created frictions with Indigenous groups and have led to a reported uptick in violence. Two young Yanomami hunters were attacked by miners last year. They were near an illegal helicopter landing site.

Months later, according to a federal police statement at the time, when they raided the properties searching for one of the suspects, police found guns, cash, and gold – but the suspects were long gone.

Those involved in the illegal gold trade represent a cross-section of individuals and companies ranging from shady fly-by-night operators to legitimate businesses. A variety of federal agencies are focusing their efforts on criminal organizations that make illegal profits from mining in areas protected.

Brazil’s civil aviation agency is investigating an air taxi company, Icarai Turismo Taxi Aereo, that was awarded government contracts by the country’s health ministry to transport Indigenous people and medical equipment. According to the agency, it is investigating whether or not they were using their planes for illegally mining supplies and prospectors. The AP did not reach out to the company for comment.

Federal police also froze 9.5 million reais ($1.7 million) in assets from a group thought to be operating illegal aerial logistics on the Yanomami reserve. Investigations suggest that the group had transactions totaling 425 million reais ($75 million) over a two-year period. The police stated that reports by Brazil’s Council for Financial Activities Control suggested the group had transactions totalling 425 million reais ($million) over a two-year period. This suggests possible money laundering.

Police investigators found that the main suspect, who wasn’t named, had leased land bordering a protected forest and installed an aviation fuel storage tank. According to federal police, the suspect had obtained permission from the state environment agency for the installation of an aviation fuel storage tank, even though it was illegal. Investigators found that the man was using his air taxi business to transport wildcat miners. His two children and three other frontmen were also involved, according to police.

Brazil’s environmental regulator, Ibama, has also ramped up its efforts against illegal gold mining operations. Last September, the agency closed 59 clandestine airstrips, five helicopter pads, and three river ports within the Yanomami reserve. Agents also seized 11 aircraft, eight vehicles, and three tractors.

More than 300 mostly short videos filmed by agents — part of a report obtained by the AP — show planes hidden with brush and tarps, plus stockpiles of fuel under the forest canopy, sometimes after agents have set them ablaze. Agents frequently film people fleeing from the helicopter, often by small boats, motorbikes, and cars. The helicopters take off as agents approach the aircraft. Three videos are shown.

In his office in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Alisson Marugal, a federal prosecutor, stood beside a map of the Yanomami reserve and pointed to its outside border. He said that there were “many” more illegal airstrips on private property, such as farms.

“There is a huge demand inside (coming from the wildcat mines on the reserve),” said Marugal. “For food, for fuel… And if this demand is not met, they (the miners) will leave.”

“At the same time, such huge demand always guarantees that there are willing suppliers,” he said.

According to data provided exclusively to the AP by MapBiomas, a network of nonprofits, universities, and technology companies that study Brazilian land use, there are at least 40 landing strips within the Yanomami reserve, most of them illegal.

Even airstrips that are supposed to be used by the government to send doctors and medical supplies for the Indigenous people are used by illegal miners, according to Marugal.

Last year, a young Yanomami tribesman was killed when struck by a plane piloted by illegal miners.

“It is supposed to be a landing strip for us, but they’ve taken it over,” Junior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana Indigenous Health Council, said angrily in an interview in his office.

Superintendent Peres, of the federal police, said despite the beefed-up efforts to go after illegal gold mining and clandestine airstrips in Roraima state, cracking down remains a challenge.

“It’s very easy to make a landing strip,” he said.

Brazil’s Amazon gold prospecting is a far cry from the folkloric image of a man with a pan and a dream wading into the river. It is also far from the low-tech operation of huge pits filled by thousands of men hauling sacks full of dirt. These pictures were taken by Sebastiao Salagado, a Brazilian photographer.

Instead, it has become increasingly mechanized. International brands such as Caterpillar and Hyundai have developed high-powered backhoes that can dig huge trenches in the earth. The Tapajos River basin is where the Munduruku ethno group lives. It looks as though an explosion has destroyed the forest and left toxic pools.

Authorities earlier last year raided a huge illegal mining camp on the Munduruku Indigenous territory, destroying multiple backhoes.

The prospectors are invaders “who want to destroy, who are sick with hatred,” Maria Leusa Munduruku, president of the Munduruku Womens’ Association, whose house was burned to the ground by the miners in retaliation, said during a panel discussion last October.

“People who are sick wanting to exploit us, take the gold. Gold is not something we can eat. We don’t value gold. What’s valuable to us is the water, the river and the forest.”

Prospecting on the Yanomami Indigenous land mostly takes two forms: dredging of waterways with barges and surface mining. Prospectors use powerful hoses to blast the sediment from the ground, then they extract the gold using mercury.

Due to illegal satellite internet networks that are ubiquitous on Yanomami land, miners are alerted when law enforcement operations begin, giving them time to hide themselves and their valuable equipment.

“When an operation begins, people there are already talking about it,” said Superintendent Peres. They hide their machinery and sink the dredger barsges in rivers. After they retrieve them, they still work.”

The spread of clandestine communications networks on Yanomami land is one of the many new challenges authorities are scrambling to adapt to in Roraima’s modern-day gold rush.

Authorities have long considered seizing or destroying costly planes, helicopters, excavators, and dredging barges an effective means of kneecapping the investors financing the illegal mining.

“Investigations into individuals are slow and take time, proof is difficult to acquire,” said Marugal, the federal prosecutor in Roraima state.

But they told the AP they are targeting a new flank in their fight: fuel. Highway police routinely seize huge quantities of diesel believed to be being sold to illegal miners.

The former prospector, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said that illegal mining fuel providers constantly switch up which gas stations they use to avoid detection.

Superintendent Peres confirmed the federal police are also investigating the source of fuel used in aircraft engaged in illegal mining operations.

“It is a concern of ours to identify where this fuel is coming from,” Peres said, declining to provide details on the probe. “It would be very difficult to supply the mining sites without this fuel.”

Last month, Brazil’s environment regulator dismantled a scheme by a company to resell fuel taken from Boa Vista’s airport to clandestine airstrips, according to an agency statement. This company was penalized 1.5 million Brazilian reais. Pioneiro Fuels was also fined 1.5 million reais by the oil regulator. The regulator stated in an email statement that the company had not provided sufficient documentation about where and how it transported aircraft fuel. When AP reached Lindinalva Lobato, the director of Pioneiro Fuels, they declined to speak with us.

The internal report from Brazil’s environment regulator obtained by the AP shows a list of Pioneiro’s clients from Jan. to Oct. 2021, and detailed investigator notes that revealed some of the alleged buyers had no planes or activities requiring aircraft fuel. Some 868,000 liters (229,000 gallons) of the fuel had no known destination — more than half what the company sold in the 10-month period, according to the report.

In addition, the report said Pioneiro supplied fuel to illegal airfields and planes that are unlicensed, grounded for technical reasons or for other violations. Authorities seized at least two aircraft on Yanomami’s outer reaches. Their tail numbers match those of previous Pioneiro-supplied planes.

“The direct connection between the airfields supplied irregularly by the Pioneiro company with aircraft used in logistical support for irregular mining operations in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory was clear,” the report said. “As such, there is indisputable evidence of the link between the company and illegal activities in the Indigenous Territory.”

The civil aviation agency, with support from the federal police and environment regulator, last September raided a property where Cataratas Pocos Artesianos, a well-drilling contractor, is based. They found thousands of liters and mining equipment as well as illegally modified aircraft, including stripped interiors.

One of the business partners is Rodrigo Martins de Mello. He is also a partner in the government-contracted air transport company investigated for possibly flying equipment and miners to illegal gold mining sites.

Since 2018, the health ministry has awarded contracts worth a total 26 million reais ($4.6 million) to the air taxi company, according to an AP review on the government’s transparency database.

De Mello’s lawyer, Ana Paula Cruz, said in a statement to the AP that neither he nor his companies have any involvement in illegal mining on Yanomami territory nor the logistics to support it, and that aircraft were seized while parked on his company’s property in Boa Vista, not on Yanomami lands. Cruz stated that she cannot discuss details of the investigation because of a court order placing them under lock and key.

While De Mello is under criminal investigation, he has not been charged with a crime. Cruz stated that De Mello, the leading police detective, and several agents from the aviation regulator and environment regulator have been accused of crimes such as abuse of authority or producing illegal evidence.

A judge found those arguments partially convincing and last month ruled that half of De Mello’s seized assets must be released. Although the ruling is yet to be implemented, De Mello’s aircraft remains parked at Boa Vista’s federal police headquarters.

Attempts to crack down on illegal mining in Roraima state face fierce local resistance, despite the fact all mining in the state is illegal. The region’s history has been heavily influenced by mining for many years.

In downtown Boa Vista, there is a seven-meter statue adorned with the names of prominent past miners. It is located next to the state legislative assembly.

There, on a recent Thursday morning, members of the Association of Independent Prospectors of Roraima gathered for a public hearing to protest recent operations by environmental agency Ibama and federal police that destroyed mining equipment, during which a miner was shot and killed.

Dozens of them, donning yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a print of the Boa Vista miner’s monument and the words “The Prospector is a Worker,” sang Brazil’s national anthem.

“We are the founders of the state,” said Isa Carine Farias, the association’s president, and who told the AP she previously worked with illegal mining. “They take an Indigenous person to the United Nations (climate summit); why not take a miner, too?”

Earlier last year, the vast majority of state legislators voted to pass a law allowing gold mining in the state as long as it wasn’t on Indigenous lands. Later, the Supreme Court struck down this measure.

Critics feared the law could have allowed the gold mined on Indigenous lands to be fraudulently passed off as gold mined elsewhere, which has occurred in other Brazilian states.

Meanwhile, Sen. Telmario Motta, who represents Roraima state, has proposed legislation to prevent the destruction of mining equipment by federal officials. Brazil’s law allows agents to dispose of equipment that is not able to be auctioned or seized. This is usually the case for aircraft or mining equipment located on remote lands.

President Bolsonaro, who is popular in Roraima state, has also repeatedly spoken out against the destruction of equipment.

But the biggest legislative flashpoint is a bill presented by Bolsonaro’s mining minister, which would regulate mining on Indigenous territories nationwide. Bolsonaro pressured legislators to vote it in, even though federal prosecutors called it illegal and activists warned it would cause severe social and environmental damage.

Vice President Mourao, who oversees the government’s Amazon Council, said in response to an AP question during a meeting with the foreign press that authorities face great challenges in combating mining on Indigenous lands.

“This is a game of cat and mouse,” Mourao said on Oct. 25. “It will end in one of two ways: either the community approves legal production, and that would be considering all environmental norms, or else we will have to keep soldiers all over that whole jungle area.”

But while soldiers can provide an additional show of force to aid law enforcement operations, they do little to help the investigations by understaffed environmental agencies, police, and prosecutors working to disrupt a sprawling illicit network bent on outfoxing them.

“If a big figure is arrested, another simply steps in… There is no big boss; there are too many,” said Marugal, the federal prosecutor in Roraima state.

He added that the time between enforcement operations by federal police and environmental agencies is often too long, allowing the miners to reorganize quickly and resume their mining of Yanomami lands.

“In certain regions (of the territory), even after operations this year, with equipment seized and destroyed, wildcat mining grew,” he said.

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