Tarnished Gold: Aircraft, fuel key to illegal Amazon mining
BOA VISTA, Brazil (AP) — The scorching Amazon sun beats down as agents inspect the body of a black helicopter. Nearby, in the backyard of the federal police headquarters in the city of Boa Vista, sit more than twenty aircraft — all seized.
Some bear signs of violent crashes: caved-in cockpits with wings broken off. Others feature interiors with stripped-out passenger seats so they can be loaded with more people, plus additional motors, fuel, food and other cargo.
Here in Roraima state, where all gold mining is illegal, the planes 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 Mourão, put the number closer to 3,500.
“Our focus over this last year has been to go after the logistics of illegal mining,” the police superintendent for the state, José Roberto Peres, 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. Generally, the illegal aircraft owners are local elites who launder their money in Boa Vista hotels, restaurants, gyms and gasoline stations, according to police officials, who declined to disclose names.
Drawn by high gold prices, reduced state and federal oversight and outdated mining legislation, plus pro-mining rhetoric and proposed legislation from far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that would make it legal to mine on reserves,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 gallons of fuel needed to power them and other mining equipment – forms the backbone of the shadowy economy of illicit mining in Roraima. Without that network functioning smoothly, law enforcement officials and environmental experts say illegal mining operations would collapse.
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 risks that include possible arrest or getting lost in the vast, pristine expanse of the Amazon. Last year, one pilot crashed in the jungle and survived on his own for five weeks, losing 57 pounds in the process. Another vanished flying between two regions of Yanomami territory known for illegal mining. Local media reports have documented numerous lost and missing pilots.
Small aircraft frequently carry supplies to illegally mined gold from the Yanomami reserve, which borders Venezuela. Nimbler helicopters used for internal logistics, moving from one mining site to another within the reserve, can quickly hop the border beyond Brazilian authorities’ reach.
Adding to law enforcement’s difficulties, mining pilots fly low to avoid radar detection, according to Superintendent Peres. In addition, identifying tail numbers on the planes are often altered or removed to make them harder to trace.
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. Locations are constantly switched to try and avoid seizures, he said in an interview at a riverside public square in Boa Vista.
The former prospector and a federal police spokesperson told the AP 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. Last year, miners gunned down two young Yanomami men that were hunting near a clandestine helicopter landing spot.
Those involved in the illegal gold trade represent a cross-section of individuals and companies ranging from shady fly-by-night operators to otherwise legitimate businesses. And a variety of federal agencies have been clamping down on criminal enterprises that profit from illegal mining in protected areas.
Brazil’s civil aviation agency is investigating an air taxi company, Icaraí Turismo Táxi Aéreo, that was awarded government contracts by the country’s health ministry to transport Indigenous people and medical equipment. The agency has said it was probing whether the company was also using its planes to bring in prospectors and supplies for illegal mining. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment from the AP.
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. But reports from Brazil’s Council for Financial Activities Control indicated the amount of money was beyond the individuals’ means, suggesting possible money laundering, the police said.
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. He had permission from the state environmental agency, despite it being illegal, according to the Federal Police. Investigators said the man used his air taxi company to supply wildcat mining operations. Police said those involved include his two children, three others and front men.
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. Videos shot by agents from helicopters often show people on the ground fleeing the scene by car, motorcycle or small boat. Three videos show helicopters taking off just as the agents’ aircraft draws close.
In his office in Boa Vista, Alisson Marugal, a federal prosecutor, stood beside a map of the Yanomami reserve and pointed to its border. There, he said, are “many more” illegal airstrips, mostly on private properties like farms.
“There is a huge demand inside (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.
Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro.