Efforts to eradicate wildcat gold mines stir up tensions in Central Brazil

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One year ago, news spread that there were gold nuggets “sprouting out of the ground” in Serra do Expedito, 25 kilometers from the city of Aripuanã in the northeast of Mato Grosso. In search of a quick buck, over 3,000 men from various parts of the country were drawn toward the wildcat gold mine, which is located in an area of 2,800 hectares on the Dardanellos farm. The land neighbors the premises of mining company Nexa Resources, a member of Brazilian multinational Grupo Votorantim, which has its own project to implement an underground mine to extract lead and copper.

</p> <p>Working day and night, wildcat miners deforested the area and excavated the earth, using rudimentary machinery and causing an environmental impact on the Aripuanã and Branco rivers. The Dardanellos farm belongs to Luiz de Almeida Saliez, who says he signed a 23-year contract with Nexa/Votorantim to use the land. The company denies this agreement, however, <a href="https://www.rdnews.com.br/cidades/conteudos/107500">saying</a> &#8220;Nexa has no contractual relationship with the individual in question which involves the property where illegal gold mining invasions are occurring.”</p> <p>In 2018, Mr. Saliez <a href="https://www.rdnews.com.br/cidades/dono-da-fazenda-invadida-diz-que-jazida-e-enorme-e-tem-ouro-e-diversos-minerios/107419">reported</a> the trespassing of wildcat gold miners and environmental crimes to the corresponding authorities in Mato Grosso. &#8220;The situation is dangerous because the illegal [miners] don&#8217;t want to talk. If we get close to them, we will be killed,&#8221; he said at that time.</p> <p>In the early hours of Monday, October 7, around 160 Federal Police officers, with the support of the Military Police, the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama), and Mato Grosso State Environment Department (Sema) went to the Dardanellos farm to carry out a court-ordered eviction of trespassers, as part of the second phase of Operation Trype, targeting illegal gold mining.</p> <p>The Federal Police operation is opposed by Aripuanã&#8217;s mayor, Jonas Rodrigues da Silva, and member of Congress Nelson Barbudo. Both have requested the intervention of President Jair Bolsonaro—who supports opening up mining activities, even on indigenous lands—to maintain the gold mining on the Dordanellos farm.</p> <p>The Federal Police told Amazônia Real that the investigations have not hinted toward the involvement of Nexa employees with the illegal extraction of gold. The corporation also said the company has collaborated with security forces, offering logistic help for the peaceful removal of gold miners.</p> <p>Mayor Silva argues that the wildcat miners &#8220;are family men&#8221; and the mine &#8220;heated up the local economy.&#8221; He declared a state of social emergency in Aripuanã to attend to the gold miners.</p> <p>The operation is part of a Federal Police investigation which indicates &#8220;that trade occurred by way of an articulated system of money laundering involving the issuance of false documents and the use of bank accounts opened for this specific criminal purpose,&#8221; reads the <a href="http://%20http//www.pf.gov.br/imprensa/noticias/2019/09/policia-federal-investiga-extracao-e-comercio-ilegal-de-ouro-no-mato-grosso">police website</a>.</p> <p>But the mood is tense in Aripuanã, the city which lies 967 kilometers from the state capital of Cuiabá. Wildcat miners have retaliated to the police operation, with one dying from two gunshots to the chest during a confrontation with special ops forces of the Mato Grosso Military Police.</p> <p>Last Tuesday, there was a march in the city, with demonstrations in front of the Aripuanã municipal courthouse. Irritated, protesters booed the police forces.</p> <p>Amid the demonstrations, the Federal Police began removing the miners and closing off the holes they had opened in the forest, using explosives and torching machinery used in the illegal extraction of gold. The operation was concluded on Thursday, with the eviction of the gold miners.</p> <h2>The pro-mining Bolsonaro supporters</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ARIPUANÃ-MT-1024x768.jpeg" alt="ARIPUANÃ-MT" class="wp-image-25980" srcset="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ARIPUANÃ-MT-1024x768.jpeg 1024w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ARIPUANÃ-MT-300x225.jpeg 300w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ARIPUANÃ-MT-768x576.jpeg 768w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ARIPUANÃ-MT-610x458.jpeg 610w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ARIPUANÃ-MT.jpeg 1040w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Dardanellos farm: a trail of destruction. Photo: Ciopaer</figcaption></figure> <p>Aripuanã is a quiet town with 20,293 inhabitants, according to the 2014 census. Police told Amazônia Real that one the gold mining activity was set up in the region, in October 2018, crime figures shot up.</p> <p>“The city was peaceful and then six people died in the gold mine,&#8221; said one military police officer, who asked not to be identified. She added that there are some miners working as &#8220;mere servants,&#8221; and that everything they find &#8220;belongs to their bosses.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>“This is a mafia sponsored by the wealthy. Gold is sold on the black market tax-free and the majority isn&#8217;t sold in Brazil. It goes out [of the country] as contraband, with no taxes, and returns to the country with a high value,&#8221; said the officer.</p> <p>In this situation of social tension, Aripuanã&#8217;s mayor went to Brasilia. Jonas Silva and congressman Nelson Barbudo recorded a video promising that they will work on behalf of the gold miners and &#8220;if necessary&#8221; they would take the case to Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>“The majority of people in gold mining are hard-working family men, who have heated up the economy in the region with the purchase of foods and fuel to power the machinery used in gold mining,&#8221; Mr. Silva told Amazônia Real.</p> <p>He is in favor of a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Dardanellos farm, where Nexa/Votorantim is set up with its mining activities. Last Tuesday, along with Mr. Barbudo, the mayor filed two documents at the Office of the Chief of Staff, under the command of Onyx Lorenzoni. They request the direct intervention of the Bolsonaro government so that gold miners are allowed to remove their machinery from the region.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-1024x576.jpeg" alt="gold mato grosso" class="wp-image-25983" srcset="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-1024x576.jpeg 1024w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-300x169.jpeg 300w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-768x432.jpeg 768w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-610x343.jpeg 610w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ.jpeg 1032w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Tractor destroyed by the Federal Police. Photo: Federal Police </figcaption></figure> <p>However, Ibama and the Federal Police got there first. Law enforcement had already begun dismantling the gold mining that same morning with the torching of machinery, including excavators worth an average of BRL 400,000. They also set off explosives in the holes opened to gold mining, as Amazônia Real understands.</p> <p>Even with the Federal Police investigations, which indicate the involvement of an organized crime ring behind the illegal gold mining, Mayor Silva argues that Nexa/Votorantim should grant a part of the area to the gold miners, by way of the formalization of a cooperative.</p> <p>“I understand there is a social matter in the area and, in this process, everyone is important: from the simple gold miner to the multinational company which will exploit the mineral in the area for the coming decades,” said the mayor.</p> <p>In a video, Nelson Barbudo defended the practice of wildcat gold mining. He said that he would appeal to the President if he had to, to stop the destruction of machinery and equipment.&nbsp;</p> <p>“So, for you there in Aripuanã to be aware: today we will be running around the Federal Police, the Chief of Staff, the Government Secretary… If needs be I&#8217;ll get to Jair Bolsonaro so we can settle this situation. We do not want conflict in this region so you may redeem your material without problems,&#8221; Mr. Barbudo said in an audio message addressed to wildcat miners and sent to WhatsApp Messenger groups.</p> <h2>The death of Zé Maria</h2> <p>Since the start of the operation, tensions have been high in the region, principally after the death of 45-year-old gold miner José Maria dos Santos, better known as &#8220;Zé Maria,&#8221; during a confrontation with special police forces. The corporation was the first group to enter the illegal mining area to remove the invaders.</p> <p>When the police officers were carrying out their sweep, &#8220;Zé Maria&#8221; came out from inside one of the miners&#8217; tarpaulin tents and shot at the police, who responded and killed him with two bullets to the chest.</p> <p>The wildcat miners revolted, with over 3,000 men taking the city of Aripuanã in protest. The movement threatened to destroy a bridge that provides access to their mine to stop security forces from reaching the region.&nbsp;</p> <p>Videos circulating on social media show the furious wildcat miners in a state of hysteria on the town&#8217;s streets. In one march, they booed and jeered law enforcement agents, telling them to &#8220;get out.&#8221; Then, they towed two of mining company Nexa&#8217;s pickup trucks and blocked one of Aripuanã&#8217;s main avenues.</p> <h2>The Nexa/Votorantim mine</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-MT-FOTO-PF-1-1024x768.jpeg" alt="gold Policiais em operação dentro da fazenda Dardanellos (PF)" class="wp-image-25984" srcset="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-MT-FOTO-PF-1-1024x768.jpeg 1024w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-MT-FOTO-PF-1-300x225.jpeg 300w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-MT-FOTO-PF-1-768x576.jpeg 768w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-MT-FOTO-PF-1-610x458.jpeg 610w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GARIMPO-ARIPUANÃ-MT-FOTO-PF-1.jpeg 1040w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Marshals in Dardanellos farm. Photo: Federal Police</figcaption></figure> <p>Mining company Nexa Resources, a member of Grupo Votorantim, says that its Aripuanã operations belong to the company Mineração Dardanelos Ltda. &#8220;It&#8217;s a joint project between Nexa Brasil (with a share of 62.3 percent), Nexa Peru (7.7 percent), and Mineração Rio Aripuanã Ltda., a subsidiary of Karmin Exploration Inc., which holds the remaining 30 percent.&#8221;</p> <p>According to the company, &#8220;Aripuanã is an underground polymetallic mine in the state of Mato Grosso, with operations forecast to begin in 2020. The estimated aggregate cost of the project is USD 354.3 million.&#8221; This multimillion-dollar investment is to be spread over three years, says Nexa.</p> <p>The company goes on to say that &#8220;the investment consists of the implementation of an underground mine for the production of 65,000 tons of zinc, 25,000 tons of lead, and 4,000 tons of copper each year. The Aripuanã Project will be the beginning of the company&#8217;s operations in the state. The undertaking is scheduled to become operational in 2020,&#8221; reads Nexa&#8217;s website.</p> <p>Aripuanã mayor Jonas Silva highlights that wildcat miners are operating in a surrounding area to where Nexa has set up its machinery for mineral extraction, and that the work of these groups does not get in the way of the mining company&#8217;s operations.</p> <p>“This is why I support an agreement, a type of consent decree on behalf of the company, to grant a part of the area to these wildcat miners, who are honest workers and live in very precarious circumstances,&#8221; said Mr. Silva.</p> <p>The mayor added that Nexa has not started to mine in the area, as it is still installing machinery. Operations are now only set to begin in 2021, with all procedures being authorized by the Brazilian Geological Service, linked to the Ministry of Mining and Energy.</p> <p>In a press statement, Nexa clarified the situation and offered logistical help whenever requested by law enforcement. &#8220;This is because the enterprise under construction is the place with the most infrastructure closest to the Federal Police operation,&#8221; says the statement.</p> <p>The mining company said that it is not the owner of the property where illegal gold mining is taking place in Aripuanã. As stated earlier in this article, the area belongs to business owner Luiz de Almeida Saliez, who claims he has a 23-year contract with Nexa, allowing him to use the area.</p> <p>“In this context, Nexa cannot make any negotiations or address measures, as the operation is under the exclusive responsibility of the Federal Police,&#8221; said the mining company.</p> <p>On its website, Nexa Resources says its mining project in Aripuanã has &#8220;an estimated minimum lifespan of 15 years, with an annual production capacity of 1.8 million tons. The project is in the environmental licensing phase.”</p> <p>Grupo Votorantim works in the industries of metals, steelworks, cement, cellulose, energy, finance and orange juice production. In 2018, it recorded profits of BRL 2 billion.</p> <h2>Operation Trype</h2> <p>The first phase of the operation was launched on September 26, after the Aripuana Military Police had seized a small aircraft with 6.5 kilograms of gold at an airstrip south of the city, two months prior. This cargo was valued at BRL 7 million and two suspects were arrested, carrying two pistols, loaders, and 27 intact bullets.</p> <p>From this arrest, the Federal Police found out that the seized gold had a direct link to illegal wildcat mining in Aripuanã, involving an intricate scheme of money laundering, issuance of false documents and the use of bank accounts opened with the specific purpose of ensuring financial transactions of the criminal organization.</p> <p>The first phase of the operation resulted in six arrests, two orders to suspend economic activity, as well as 16 search and seizure warrants in the cities of Alta Floresta, Juína, Aripuanã, and Paranaíta.</p> <p>After the arrest of some of the gang&#8217;s members, the Federal Police says that the second phase, launched last week, consists of directly closing the illegal mining, as well as locating other bosses of the criminal organization.</p> <p>According to the Federal Police, among the arrested wildcat miners, there are men answering for crimes such as the usurpation of gold belonging to the government, environmental damage, money laundering, and tax evasion.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/amazonia-real.png" alt="amazonia-real" class="wp-image-25976" srcset="https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/amazonia-real.png 305w, https://new.brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/amazonia-real-300x87.png 300w" sizes="(max-width: 305px) 100vw, 305px" /></figure></div> <h6 style="text-align:right">Originally published on<br><strong><a href="https://amazoniareal.com.br">Amazônia Real</a></strong></h6> <p>

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Marcio Camilo

Marcio Camilo is a reporter for Amazônia Real