Roraima faces illegal mining and disorderly advance of agribusiness


Roraima is experiencing a process of accelerating environmental degradation. One of the states in the Legal Amazon where the destruction of the biome took the longest to advance, with areas of forest still considered intact, Roraima nevertheless has half of the ten indigenous lands in the country most threatened by deforestation. Last year’s rates were the worst of the decade.

With a 122% increase in the average annual area of ​​deforested forest between 2019 and 2021 compared to the previous triennium, it was the state of the Legal Amazon that saw deforestation grow the most, according to a report by Ipam (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia).

The biggest environmental problems in the state are the advance of grain agribusiness, land grabbing, wood theft and illegal mining.

“This intensification in the pace of deforestation in Roraima has actors already known in other regions of the Amazon, such as land grabbers and prospectors, who take advantage of factors such as the easing of penalties for environmental crimes and the feeling of impunity”, points out agronomist Bianca Santos, researcher at the Amazon Monitoring Program at Imazon (Instituto do Homem e do Meio Ambiente da Amazônia).

One of the consequences of illegal activities is the contamination of rivers. A study carried out in partnership between Fiocruz, ISA (Instituto Socioambiental), Instituto Evandro Chagas and Universidade Federal de Roraima concluded that fish from three rivers are highly contaminated by mercury in the state — including a stretch of the largest of them, the Rio Branco.

Mercury is used by illegal miners to separate gold from other sediments and then dumped into the waters, even though it is toxic.

The problem is felt even in the capital, Boa Vista, where the fish started to present levels of contamination far above acceptable, as the study points out.

Those who live in the region say that carnivorous fish, for example, are avoided due to the risk of diseases. “The effect of illegal mining has reached the capital. Most of the species that the population consumes on a daily basis are highly contaminated”, highlights Ciro Campos de Souza, a researcher at ISA.

There are at least two strong fronts of environmental pressure in the state. While deforestation advances through the Amazon rainforest in southern municipalities, along with land grabbing, the savannah areas to the north are disputed by grain agribusiness.

“We are currently experiencing an acceleration of all types of land use and occupation here in Roraima”, summarizes Ciro Campos.

Illegal gold mining is growing mainly in the Yanomami Indigenous Land, which is now experiencing its highest level of degradation, according to entities. The Hutukara Associaçāo Yanomami estimates that there are more than 30,000 people engaged in this illegal activity within the indigenous land.

Even so, there is little action by the state and federal governments — the Union is responsible for inspection on indigenous lands, supported by state forces.

In line with the environmental vision of President Jair Bolsonaro (PL) and leader in this year’s electoral polls, the governor of Roraima, Antonio Denarium (PP), in July this year sanctioned a law that prohibits the destruction of equipment seized from illegal miners.

At the time, he explained that Roraima has more than 50,000 families that depend on this activity and called the illegal miners “mining entrepreneurs”.

Asked by the report if the decision would not encourage illegal activity, the Government of Roraima denied it. In the management’s view, the law only creates rules for the items to be used by the public authorities on other fronts, instead of being set on fire.

The invasions of indigenous lands are still leaving a trail of violence in the countryside, especially against forest guardians. According to activists who preferred not to be identified, the actions of criminal organizations linked to drug trafficking are increasing.

To combat deforestation, the Government of Roraima says that it develops inspection actions, environmental education, fire fighting and technical assistance. According to the government, in 2021, 122 fines were applied, totaling R$ 6 million.

According to experts, however, the next government should act with stricter actions.

“The state government can take the lead against the actions of illegal deforesters by strengthening its state and municipal environmental agencies”, suggests researcher Bianca Santos.

She says that it is necessary to reanalyze the environmental policies sent to the Legislature that represent a setback of environmental laws.

Ciro Campos points out that the solutions must also include planning for the expansion of grain agribusiness, so that it does not occur in a disorderly manner in the entire area of ​​natural fields outside indigenous lands.

In addition, incentives for tourism and actions to enhance the energy transition are identified as urgent. “We have a potential similar to that of the Northeast in solar energy”, he points out.

The election for the state government of Roraima this year has two candidates at the forefront of the polls. Together they concentrate more than 80% of voting intentions.

Denarium, who seeks re-election and is ahead in the polls, cites “care for indigenous peoples” in his government plan. It provides for digital inclusion and mobility with land and river infrastructure for communities.

The text also promises a program to capture drinking water and alternative energy, in addition to strengthening artisanal, agricultural, forestry and extractive production activities.

The second best placed candidate in the polls, Teresa Surita (MDB), says she wants to reduce the bureaucracy of environmental licensing documentation, resume dialogue with the federal government on the state’s energy matrix and create new, alternative and clean forms of energy generation.

It also proposes to encourage the creation of municipal environmental departments.

The Planeta em Transe project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.

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