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Opinion To stop Amazon plunder, Brazil must change hearts and minds

A Yanomami woman and a baby in a rural area in the Amazonian state of Roraima, Brazil, on Feb. 1. (Raphael Alves/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

Mac Margolis, a Global Opinions contributing columnist, is the author of “Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.” Robert Muggah is co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank.

In late January, harrowing pictures from the Yanomami Indigenous reserve began popping up on Brazilian social media. Emaciated children with famine-bloated bellies stared at nothing. Adults reduced to wraiths languished in hammocks. Rescue choppers airlifted dire cases to critical care. The stricken were not victims of a natural disaster or deadly pathogen, but of an all-too-familiar Brazilian affliction: human plunder, waved on by the highest authorities.

It is encouraging that the new government has declared a health emergency and dispatched first responders to northern Roraima state, where Brazil meets Venezuela — the epicenter of the Amazon gold rush. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited a crowded Indigenous infirmary in Boa Vista, the state capital. Later this week, the armed forces are expected to begin removing the roughly 20,000 garimpeiros, or miners, who have been razing the forest and menacing its inhabitants.

This will be the easy part. Brazil has the technology, troops and know-how to strangle the gold miners’ supply chain, which depends on excavation machines, mercury, boats and small airplanes. In 1992, on the eve of a landmark United Nations Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development hosted by Brazil, security forces and environmental officials evicted some 40,000 garimpeiros from Roraima. Brasilia went on to set aside 37,320 square miles for the Yanomami. Sadly, it has yet to demarcate that safe space in Brazilian hearts and minds.

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, the Amazon became a political battlefield and garimpeiros became its foot soldiers. The area dedicated to gold prospecting tripled, expanding 54 percent on Yanomami territory last year alone. In turn, in the October 2022 election, Roraima delivered Bolsonaro the highest share of votes (79 percent) of any of the 27 Brazilian states.

It was much the same across the Amazon Basin. Even in Pará, in eastern Amazonia, where Lula eked out a win, Bolsonaro won landslides in gold-mining towns such as Itaituba, Novo Progresso and Trairão. Dozens of so-called pro-garimpo candidates rode his coattails to the polls.

Tellingly, Bolsonaro also bested Lula in the 265 Amazonian municipalities with the highest levels of deforestation. Yet the assault on the Amazon predates Bolsonaro. The signature monument in Boa Vista, a statue of a miner panning for treasure, dates to 1969. “The Yanomami are at grave risk and need your help,” poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade wrote in a newspaper column in 1979, when a military junta ruled Brazil and the assault on the Amazon rainforest was not yet a global scandal. From 2010 to 2021, the area dominated by wildcat mining in Brazil doubled in size.

Yet no Brazilian leader has been so effusively pro-miner — or anti-Indigenous — as the former army captain and gold-prospecting hobbyist Bolsonaro. As president, he visited an illegal gold mine on Indigenous land and rarely missed an opportunity to shill for more. “It’s a shame the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians,” he told an interviewer in 1998.

Bolsonaro fled to Florida late last year, but his incitements still make pulses race. “Even today, 523 years after the Portuguese landed here, it’s rare to find a Brazilian who respects Indigenous life and culture,” said Indigenous affairs expert Sydney Possuelo, who oversaw the creation of the Yanomami reserve.

Indeed, for every Drummond warning of ruin there is an Antonio Denarium, the Roraima state governor, who sees the Yanomami as a speed bump to progress. Indigenous people “need to acculturate,” Denarium declared last month. “They can’t remain in the middle of the forest, like animals.”

Preventing the next invasion is ethically and legally imperative — and also existential. The intruders who blast riverbanks with power hoses and hoover up stream beds for specks of gold also chase away game and fish, and foul the water and ecosystems with mercury. Destruction is followed by disease.

Malnutrition among the Yanomami is rampant, stunting growth and leaving victims prey to diarrhea and infectious diseases. Vaccine coverage is dangerously low. The most aggressive strain of malaria (falciparum) has multiplied tenfold since 2015.

Satellite imagery, powerful radars and innovative geolocalization tools such as the Igarapé Institute’s Amazonia in Loco platform enable officials to peer under the forest canopy — to track deforestation and environmental crimes.

Yet technology alone won’t rescue the Amazon. To save imperiled Indigenous groups, Brazil must strengthen command and control of the region through data-driven policing and by rebuilding the institutions supporting environmental protection and Indigenous affairs that were pauperized under Bolsonaro. Brazil also can’t neglect the miners, who need gainful alternatives to plunder.

Ultimately, the country must restore regional diplomacy with traditionally reticent neighbors such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, which share the world’s signature rainforest but still lack a common agenda to preserve it. If they fail, the grave risk Drummond flagged four decades ago could become tomorrow’s extinction event.