How Regulating Gold Mining In The Amazon Works Towards Stopping An Ethnocide Among Latin American Indigenous Populations

Threats posed to Indigenous populations in Brazil’s Amazon due to COVID-19 have unraveled existing problems in the area. Economic needs and illegal mining are driving out the diminishing populations of Amazon natives, fueled by President Bolsonaro’s attempts to rapidly expand and deregulate the Brazilian economy. The environmental consequences of Bolsonaro’s decisions highlight the need for increased governance which ensures that Indigenous populations are not at risk of ethnocide, driven away from deforestation and the effects of the disease itself. Attempts to help save these communities can lead the world towards global peace and cooperation in response to climate change.

More than 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon Rainforest and nearly two-thirds of the Rainforest is found in Brazil. According to National Geographic, 90 Indigenous colonies have been wiped out in Brazil since 1900 due to deforestation and disease. The Constitution of Brazil has had a long history of protecting the rights of Indigenous populations. These have been broken down by the election of Bolsonaro and his nationalist agenda to pursue the economic needs of the state. Bolsonaro is an advocate for opening up mining and large scale-farming, previously made illegal for the protection of indigenous villages and the environment.

However, the President has taken a nationalistic approach in his efforts to vamp up the economy at the risk of Brazil’s indigenous population. In an interview, Bolsonaro proclaimed, “The Indigenous person can’t remain in his land as if he were some prehistoric creature,’’ stating that Indigenous people pose threats to the economy. In February he made plans to legalize mining that drives pollutants downstream and drives out Indigenous locals. 

The biggest problem with this is that these illegal loggers are bringing diseases to otherwise isolated Indigenous communities. Already small populations of Amazon Tribes that live in close quarters to each other, making coronavirus more communicable within these small communities, are facing fears of ethnocide in the face of the global pandemic. At the beginning of April, the Yanomami tribe witnessed its first COVID-19 related death of fifteen-year-old Alvanei Xirixana. The tribe is located across from the Uraricoera River, which is frequented by illegal miners to access mineral-rich territory. Reports suggest that illegal miners have brought the disease into the village. While the village is currently under isolation, the pandemic has brought to light the severity of the impact that illegal mining has on Brazilian Indigenous populations. 

The Yanomami Indigenous Reserve was ravaged at the beginning of the year by 20,000 garimpeiros, who are illegal gold miners that have taken over the region. The government currently has provisions against illegal mining and introduces soldiers to break up these mines and fine individuals, however, this rarely works as miners wait until the soldiers leave then start their businesses back up again. Government corruption is also apparent as many bribes take place to keep mining. Bolsonaro has often criticized Indigenous populations and made statements on trying to assimilate them into mainstream culture, ultimately posing an ethnocide before the pandemic. Now, the impacts on the populations have made it clear that these environmental issues and Indigenous issues work together and Bolsonaro’s threat to one impacts the other. 

In order to avoid genocide, governments should consider this issue from an environmental justice perspective. For years international actors have been trying to create a social movement that demands fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact that environmental hazards have on people of color. While Bolsonaro’s actions are intended to open up the Brazilian economy in attempts to isolate and excel industries within the country, these policies indirectly include amounts of environmental racism. The Amazon used to cover 14% of the world’s rainforest and today it is reduced to less than 6%. Indigenous communities have felt the economic fallout of these illegal mining activities, but now it has become a human health issue that goes beyond the economic needs of the state. 

According to the New York Times, Bolsonaro has cut the Federal Indigenous Agency’s budget by nearly 40 percent just this year, which means less money for Indigenous communities to regulate land grabbers and illegal miners. This is the first time since the creation of the Brazilian constitution that the government will be allowed to not consider the full extent of Indigenous rights. Because these budget cuts and legislations work to put economic needs above Indigenous rights, this is a human rights issue as well. International legislation is needed to create compliance among the Brazilian government and stop an ethnocide from occurring. Indigenous populations were as big as 11 million in the 1500s, and today numbers linger around 70,000. Brazil’s coronavirus death toll is up to 6,750 Brazilians and is only increasing because the national government is putting economic needs before the needs of the people. 

This issue should be solved through environmental law and governance among local communities in the Amazon. But it is necessary for the international community to push for this legislation. It is clear that environmental issues and poverty issues are intertwined, so making efforts to eradicate environmental issues associated with illegal mining in the Amazon, should help to ease some of these impacts on Indigenous communities. Ultimately it should be up to the local and national governments of Brazil to regulate mining industries, but it should also be up to international governments to stop supporting illegal economic activity by regulating gold in their own countries. Most of Brazil’s illegal miners sell these products overseas, international communities can help stop both deforestation and save Indigenous populations by simply regulating their laws to stop the influx of illegal gold into their nations. 

In order to do this, international agreements must be made through international trading organizations to stop all imports of illegal mining from Latin America. Mainly this would involve cooperation from Brazil’s three largest trade partners: the United States, China, and Argentina. If these three countries created an international agreement to implement trade embargos on illegal gold within Brazil, then the price of illegal mining would go up and create negative consequences for illegal miners. The cost of illegal mining would be more than its profits, driving illegal miners out of Indigenous areas. This type of legislation is needed even more during the current pandemic. If countries truly care about human rights then they should consider the environmental and social consequences of illegal mining. 

Ultimately, the world has an environmental responsibility to protect the rainforest and a chance to stop a potential ethnocide of some of the oldest Indigenous tribes on Earth. This starts with gold regulations and pushes from the international community to make Brazil’s government create policy around illegal mining. Creating economic sanctions on the illegal gold market will deter illegal miners and create changes in the environment and Indigenous communities. Now is the time for action before illegal mining brings in coronavirus to more vulnerable communities and potentially drives one of the biggest Indigenous ethnocides in history.

Paulina Colwell


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