Garimpeiros escape mega-operation in the Amazon – 05/26/2023 – Daily life
A joint operation that has been focusing, over the past few days, on rivers in the Amazon, close to the border with Colombia, has so far burned at least 29 dredgers. Videos circulating among miners’ WhatsApp groups show equipment on fire.
The action, called Operation Ágata – Uiara Joint Command, involves the Armed Forces, Ibama and Funai, among other agencies, and focuses on the Juami and Puruê rivers, where a reporting team from the Amazon Underworld project —an alliance between InfoAmazonia and La Liga Contra el Silencio (Colombia) and Armando.Info (Venezuela)—was there in February this year and counted more than 80 dredgers as he covered 226 of the approximately 400 kilometers of the Puruê, between the Japurá River and the community of Purezinho, a tiny village of prospectors made up of simple wooden houses and two floating brothels known locally as “boats of love”.
Garimpeiros, government officials and people connected to the gold trade in Japurá estimate that there are about 150 dredgers operating along the Puruê river and its tributaries and another 150 along the neighboring Juami river, which passes through the Juami-Japurá Ecological Station, a unit of conservation by the federal government. Therefore, this month’s operation would have burned only 10% of the number of dredgers operating there.
This may have happened because, despite the large apparatus set up by the operation in recent weeks, many garimpeiros left the river before the arrival of security forces, after hearing rumors and having indications of possible combat action in the region. A prospector commented to the report that he was scared to see a small plane flying over the area. In response, some dredger owners have moved the vessels or tried to take them into nearby rivers and lakes, hidden by denser vegetation.
Another prospector left for Tefé, the largest city in the region, before the raid, when the owner of the dredger he was working on hid it in a riverside community. The attempt, however, did not work – the security forces found it and burned it.
One of the videos shows a prospector throwing buckets of water onto his burning dredge. In another, a speedboat full of police pulls up to a dredger as the person filming says, “It won’t be long before they get ours.”
Due to the strong presence of illegal mining, the Japurá region is considered one of the most dangerous and violent in the Amazon, even by the local police.
Despite its remote location and the dangers of mining, Puruê attracts poor workers with little formal education. Along the river, everything – from working hours to soft drinks to prostitution – is quoted in gold. This makes prospectors prey to pirates, especially on the long journey from the area where the dredges are to Japurá, the closest city to the mining region, where prospectors stock up and sell precious stones.
Ibama estimates that a dredger can cost from BRL 600,000 to over BRL 7 million. Also according to the agency, the 29 dredgers destroyed could have produced up to R$ 23 million in illegal gold per month. According to the Navy, the operation also seized 1.1 tons of marijuana and 7.3 kg of mercury —an extremely toxic and environmentally harmful element, widely used in mining—as well as weapons and ammunition.
Satellite shows immediate effect of dredgers leaving
The impact caused by the action of the dredgers in the rivers is so violent that, through satellite images, it is possible to observe in a matter of a few days how the escape of the miners and the interruption of the work of exploration of the beds cause a rapid change in the color of the waters . In the image from the 3rd of May, the Puruê river can be seen in a café au lait color, a consequence of the movement of the riverbeds caused by the dredger machinery. In an image from May 17, with the operation underway, the river is closer to its natural, darker color.
The dredges used in this region are huge pieces of equipment, and although they may look improvised, many are multi-story and extremely powerful. Usually, the machinery is located downstairs, while workers and sometimes family live upstairs, which usually has comforts such as Wi-Fi and satellite TV.
Garimpeiros do their best to stay one step ahead of the security forces. In February, one of those who spoke to the report said he started working at Puruê in the 1980s and described a decades-long game of cat and mouse between illegal miners and the police. When an operation came, he says, the police closed the mine and they moved to another.
Not even the risk of losing a dredger in an attack discourages prospectors. No other occupation – with the exception, perhaps, of drug dealing – offers the promise of such a high return. Even if his equipment is burned and destroyed, the owner of a dredger can recover the value in a few months of illegal exploitation.
If garimpeiros return to Puruê, it will be at least in part because Ibama does not have enough people to monitor the Amazon, says Suely Araújo, former president of the body and expert at the NGO Observatório do Clima. “The Lula government found the environmental bodies in a scorched earth situation, delegitimized, disorganized”, she evaluates, adding that the new government is committed to enforcing the law in the Amazon, but the reorganization will take time. “The country cannot be dominated by crime. The republic needs to be refounded in some parts of the Amazon territory that are suffering from the lack of a State, are dominated by bandits.”
The narrow and winding Puruê River leaves Colombia, where it is called Puré. The fact that it crosses the border makes operations to combat illegal mining very difficult, since the vessels can cross relatively quickly and easily to the other country, where the security forces of the neighbor cannot act. Colombian police sources claim that operations in the region are ineffective if they are not carried out jointly.
Asked whether the ongoing operation was somehow being coordinated with Colombian forces, the Command of the 9th Naval District (AM) limited itself to informing that the operation “has the objective of combating cross-border and environmental crimes, in addition to intensifying the presence of the Brazilian State along the border. It is coordinated by the Ministry of Defense and executed by the Brazilian Navy, Brazilian Army and Brazilian Air Force in cooperation with federal, state and municipal bodies and government agencies”.
Article originally published here.
This publication is part of the Amazon Underworld project (The Underworld of the Amazon), a joint investigation by InfoAmazonia (Brazil), La Liga Contra el Silencio (Colombia) and Armando.Info (Venezuela). The project aims to map the activities of armed groups in the Amazon and its entirety will be published in July. The work is done in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network and funded by the Open Society Foundation and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.