Brazil’s military and security forces have dealt successive blows to illegal mining in the Amazon. The most recent focus of the actions is the Yanomami Indigenous Land (TIY), where transnational criminal organizations extract gold and cassiterite — a mineral used in the manufacture of plastic, paints, and fungicides.
“The Brazilian Army is in full operation to combat environmental crimes and provide humanitarian aid support in TIY with Operation Ágata Northern Border [Operação Ágata Fronteira Norte],” the Communications Office of the Brazilian Armed Forces’ Amazon Military Command (CMA) told Diálogo. The operation, under a Joint Command, is made up of personnel from the Brazilian Navy (MB), the Brazilian Army (EB), and the Brazilian Air Force (FAB), with the support of environmental protection and public security agencies.
In the first half of 2023, authorities demobilized 335 camps in TIY. They seized 35 aircraft, 28,000 liters of fuel, 36,000 tons of cassiterite, 33 satellite communication equipment, 32 rafts, and 30 boats, the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment indicated. Ágata Northern Border also dismantled an infrastructure used for illegal mining.
On June 16, for example, military forces conducted a raid in the upper Catrimani region and discovered a clandestine airstrip in the middle of indigenous land. “The runway is approximately five soccer fields long and shows signs of being used by aircraft that support mining activities,” MB said in a statement. “Weapons were seized, and fuel storage materials used to supply the miners’ aircraft was burned,” the statement said.
In parallel to actions on the ground, authorities have been attacking the finances of criminal organizations that carry out illegal mining operations. On July 10, the Brazilian Federal Police (PF) launched Operation Gold Benefits (Operação Frutos do Ouro) to investigate a group linked to the financing of gold mining activities in Roraima. “The investigations began with the arrest of a person who was trying to board a plane with more than 5 kilograms of gold at Boa Vista Airport, bound for Campinas,” the PF said in a statement. “The police investigation identified a network dedicated to gold exploitation extracted from TIY and money laundering.”
Satellite images show that actions by Brazilian authorities have reduced deforestation linked to illegal mining in the Amazon. Mining alerts in Yanomami territory fell 95 percent in a year, from 442 in April 2022 to 19 in April 2023.
“It was a profound drop, showing that the efforts made by the police and the Armed Forces, Ibama [Brazilian Institute of the Environment] and Funai [National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples] have resulted in the reduction of this illegal mining activity in Yanomami territory,” Brazilian Minister of Justice and Citizenship Flávio Dino said in a May 18 press conference.
According to Dino, Brazilian authorities carried out almost 130 search and seizure warrants and made 74 arrests in the states of Maranhão, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, and Amazonas in April. They also dismantled 465 rafts, dredges, and aircraft, among other equipment. The operational capacity of Ágata Northern Border has been a key component of these results.
“With the use of advanced monitoring, intelligence, aviation, and logistics technologies, the institutions involved have been able to identify illegal extraction areas, dismantle clandestine mines, and seize equipment,” the CMA told Diálogo.
Help for indigenous communities
In addition to combating illegal activities, Ágata Northern Border has been providing humanitarian assistance to Yanomami indigenous communities. FAB planes and helicopters carried out airdrops that have already exceeded 500 tons.
The loads are prepared at the Boa Vista Air Base, where the teams place the equipment and parachutes following the Container Delivery System (CDS) method. “Each CDS weighs approximately 560 kg and is prepared for the FAB’s C-105 Amazonas or KC-390 Millenium aircraft, which are essential for this support at TIY,” the FAB said.
On the ground, teams collect the containers with the food baskets and materials dropped. The baskets are then loaded onto FAB, EB, and MB helicopters, which take off to make deliveries to various indigenous villages, FAB said.
“The work of distributing food baskets to indigenous peoples is only possible thanks to the integration and joint work between the Armed Forces and other agencies involved,” Brigadier General Carlos Alberto Rodrigues Pimentel, deputy commander of the Ágata Northern Border Joint Command, said in a statement.
According to the CMA, service members also provide medical care and evacuations (in more serious cases), ensuring support for those most in need.