Brazil has ousted almost all illegal gold miners from the Yanomami territory, its largest indigenous reservation, and will remove miners from six more reserves this year, the head of the federal police’s new environmental crimes division said on Tuesday.
Police are setting up new Amazon rainforest bases and are seeking international cooperation on law enforcement in the region, including the development of radio-isotope technology to prove the illegal origin of seized gold, Humberto Freire told Reuters.
Freire is the director of the newly-created environment and Amazon department of the federal police, marking what he called a new era in the battle against environmental crime and in defense of indigenous people in the rainforest.
Adding to the urgency in the early months of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s term, the government in January declared a humanitarian crisis in Yanomami territory.
The territory had been invaded by thousands of gold miners threatening communities with firearms, driving deforestation, spreading malaria, polluting rivers and scaring off wild game, which led to malnutrition and hundreds of deaths.
“We still have some pockets of miners who are holding out by hiding in some areas, so we going through the Yanomami territory with a fine comb,” Freire said in an interview.
Enforcement operations supported by satellite imagery and aerial photography have destroyed 250 miner camps – many of which were already deserted – and 70 dredging rafts, along with speed boats and planes, he said. Police have seized some 4,500 liters of fuel and 1.2 kilos of gold, he added.
Police encountered and then released at least 805 miners and 94 boats on rivers, but most fled before the eviction operation.
The police did not focus on arresting miners, Freire said, instead seizing or blocking 68 million reais ($13 million) of resources belonging to those accused of financing the illegal miners, while dismantling a prostitution network that took underage girls to the mining camps.
Junior Hekurari, head of the local indigenous health council, estimated that 85% of the gold miners had left or been forced out of the reservation the size of Portugal, which extends along Brazil’s northern border with Venezuela.
Two months after the state of emergency was declared by the government, Hekurari told Reuters that the government response is still short of staffing and helicopters to confront the scale of the health emergency among the Yanomami.
The Brazilian government is also studying new laws to stamp out illegal gold mining, which accounts for roughly half of Brazilian gold the country exports to nations, including Switzerland and Britain.
One proposal aimed at cracking down on laundered gold would require electronic tax receipts for the buying and selling of the precious metal.
Police have also embraced a technology using radio isotopes to identify where gold is mined, even after it has been melted into bars, Freire said. His staff hope to have the main gold producing areas of Brazil mapped out by the end of this year.
Freire said Brazil is also preparing an international police base for the Amazon with neighboring countries.
They also plan to inaugurate on Thursday a floating police station in Atalaia do Norte, on the river where British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira where murdered last year by fishermen.