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Priscilla Peixoto and Gabriel Abreu – from Cenarium Magazine

MANAUS and BORBA/AM – A day after agents of Operation Uiara, launched by the Federal Police (PF) and inspectors of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), set fire to more than 60 rafts in the stretch between the municipalities of Autazes (120 kilometers from Manaus) and Nova Olinda do Norte (133 kilometers from Manaus), rafts were abandoned under protests from miners against the action.

Other miners, who decided to stay in the region, held, on Sunday morning, 28, a protest in the main square of the town of Borba, in Amazonas (distant 149 kilometers from Manaus). In the video, shared on social networks, people appear holding signs.

Protest in the main square of Borba (AM), this Sunday morning.
Several rafts and dredges parked in front of the city of Borba, in Amazonas (Reproduction)

In another video, a miner, surrounded by people who appear to be family and friends, asks for help and a boat to leave the site. The man, who says he is in the community of Rosarinho, in Autazes, appeals to the mayor of Manicoré, Lúcio Flávio do Rosário (PSD).

“We want here to ask for the support of our mayor of Manicoré, we request help for us who are in Rosarinho. Please send a boat or authorize someone to take us, someone who is watching this video, we are in need of support. Many parents are in need. Mayor, do something for us”, says the miner.

Garimpeiro asks the mayor of Manicoré for help.

Operation Uiara

The operation aims to dismantle the action of illegal miners who worked in more than 300 “rafts-dragas” that performed the illegal extraction of metals from the Madeira River. On Sunday morning, 28, PF agents continue their inspections in the municipality of Borba, where several rafts were abandoned in front of the city by miners who dispersed during the operation.

On Saturday, 27, during the operation, at least 30 rafts were set on fire and hundreds of others were seized. In some cases, the boats were removed by the miners before the operation, after the police action on Madeira was publicized on WhatsApp groups.

The Minister of Justice, Anderson Torres, disclosed in a social network that the operation had destroyed 69 illegal mining rafts in the Amazon.

Minister of Justice and Public Safety, Anderson Torres talks about Operation Uiara (Reproduction/Internet)
Rafts from illegal mining being burned by federal agents. (Reproduction/Internet)

According to the Federal Police, the operation has the support of agents from Amazonas and Paraná, Federal District, Paraíba and Pará. In addition to the “rafts”, machinery, mercury and gold were seized by the agents, in quantities not yet reported. Videos released by the miners and captured by local residents also show moments of the operation with the rafts set on fire in the Paraná do Maracá, one of the branches of the Madeira.

Access to the rafts occurred, for most of the operation, by Ibama helicopters, which landed on the banks of the Madeira River. Agents left the aircraft armed and approached the miners, who, for the most part, showed no resistance.

Combating illegal mining

The Vice-President of the Republic, Hamilton Mourão, said on Thursday, 25, that the activities of hundreds of miners on illegal rafts on the Madeira River may have the support of members of the drug trade. According to the vice-president, the interest of drug traffickers in exploiting the Amazon river routes involves not only the transport of drugs, but also the trade of gold.

“We have had several reports that drug trafficking, these gangs, in order to protect their routes, have gone up there. One of the ways they maintain themselves is by supporting actions of this nature (garimpo). Even because, if the gold is extracted illegally, it is an asset that they can exchange for drugs,” affirmed Mourão.

The vice president also commented on Thursday that the PF, the Navy and Ibama were already preparing to act. “The Navy has to verify who has a legal vessel. The people who are illegal will have their boats seized,” he said.

Environmental degradation

Besides being a criminal practice, the extraction of minerals from Amazon riverbeds causes countless damages to the ecosystem and, consequently, to the human being. Among the environmental impacts are: water contamination with heavy metals, reduction of dissolved oxygen in aquatic ecosystems, increase in water turbidity due to contact with chemical products, variation in water quality, and others.

In practice, illegal mining vessels stir up the bottom of the river. The soil is destroyed with excavators and water jets. The mud created in this process is filtered to collect the minerals, such as gold. To separate the sediments, substances such as mercury, cyanide, and arsenic are added. The mercury forms an amalgam with the gold, and the sludge contaminated with the residue is discarded into the environment.