Operation Amazon

ENVIRONMENT, 8 Apr 2024

Jon Lee Anderson | The New Yorker – TRANSCEND Media Service

As miners ravage Yanomami lands, combat-trained environmentalists work to root them out.

The G.E.F. burns mining camps as part of a long-running counteroffensive against environmental depredation. ‘Wherever they go, the miners destroy everything,’ Felipe Finger, the unit’s leader, says. (photo: Tommaso Protti/The New Yorker)

3 Apr 2024 – In a clearing in the Brazilian Amazon, I stood with a group of armed men, discussing a viral TikTok video. The video, shot from a helicopter full of illegal miners, showed a vast stretch of rain forest, with dense foliage extending in all directions. The only sign of human habitation was below: a dirt circle surrounded by fanlike lean-tos made of wooden poles and palm fronds. It was a maloca, a traditional compound of the Yanomami, an Indigenous group that inhabits a remote territory in the rain forest of northern Brazil.

As the helicopter hovered, five Yanomami ran into the clearing, gazing up at the intruders. Several lifted bows and shot arrows. The miners whooped with derisive laughter. “Look at the cannibals,” one of them cried. Another said, “Go on, throw the arrow,” before telling his friends, “Let’s get out of here.” They flew away, yelling, “Bunch of faggots!”

For many viewers, the video was a rare document of an encounter with isolados—members of a Yanomami community living with no links to the outside world. For the armed men I was with, it was evidence: a potential lead in a high-profile initiative, sponsored by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to dislodge thousands of illicit miners from Yanomami territory.

The men—fighters with combat gear and assault rifles—belonged to a tiny special-forces unit known as the Specialized Inspection Group, or G.E.F. Most of them wore face coverings; mining in the rain forest is increasingly infiltrated by violent criminals, making it dangerous for them to reveal their identity. The G.E.F.’s leader and co-founder was Felipe Finger, a wiry man in his forties with a salt-and-pepper beard. Finger trained in forestry engineering, and his unit works under the Brazilian ministry for the environment. But he has spent much of his adult life in armed operations to protect the wilderness, and he talks like a soldier, with frequent references to operations and objectives and neutralizing threats. The current mission was known to national authorities as Operation Freedom. Finger and his men called it Operation Xapirí, from a Yanomami word for nature spirits.

The group formed a circle as Finger laid out the day’s targets. On a G.P.S., he pointed to a yellow circle showing where the isolados had been harassed in the TikTok video, and then red dots, representing the miners, in an irregular cluster around them. Miners had been detected roughly eight miles from the isolados—meaning that they had penetrated dangerously far into a protected ecosystem. “Wherever they go, the miners destroy everything, entire river systems,” Finger said indignantly. “And they do it at the expense of these highly vulnerable people.”

The Amazon faces many threats. The constant proliferation of road networks—both legal and illegal—brings new settlements, and growing human populations burn forests to clear land for cattle and crops. The rain forest is enduring an unprecedented drought, and in Roraima, the state where the Yanomami territory is situated, wildfires set off by such slash-and-burn efforts have spread out of control; more than four thousand square miles burned there this year, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But mining for gold and cassiterite, a mineral used in electronics, exacerbates the environmental problems with singular ferocity. Wildcat miners, using giant excavators, dredgers, and mercury, can devastate miles of river and forest in a matter of days. With the price of gold now above two thousand dollars an ounce on the global market, a rush is under way in the Amazon, and illegal prospecting accounts for more than half of Brazil’s supply.

The G.E.F. team was travelling to its targets in two helicopters. Finger took the lead, along with another founder of the unit—Roberto Cabral, a boyish-looking man of fifty-five. When a mine site was found, their chopper would go in first, in case there was gunfire.

As the helicopters picked their way through the forest, Finger radioed to say that he had “a situation.” We followed G.P.S. coördinates to a river bend, where his chopper had landed on a sandbank. Just upriver was a boat, loaded with equipment and fuel cannisters—a miner’s supply launch. Finger and several of his men waded toward it, their weapons drawn, but its occupants had fled. While we looked on, the G.E.F. men torched the boat, a plume of fire rising from the water.

A few miles downriver, the helicopters paused over a scarred patch of jungle and a carved-out stretch of riverbank: a mine that the team had destroyed in a previous operation. There was no evidence that digging had resumed, but not far off were signs of another miners’ camp: a huddle of plastic tents barely visible beneath the tree canopy. In a clearing at the edge of the river, the miners had driven rows of cut saplings into the dirt—a low-tech defense against landing helicopters. Eventually, Finger found a way to set down, and his men yanked the poles from the sand and threw them aside.

The team fanned out and searched for miners, but there was no one in sight. When the G.E.F. can’t catch garimpeiros, as the illegal miners are called, the goal is to destroy their camps and their equipment: excavators, planes, house-size dredging rafts used to dig up the river bottom. The team quickly found the mine pit, an ugly gouge of muddy water with a pump, a giant hose, and a sluice, along with a truck engine that served as a generator. Using cans of fuel left by the miners, they doused the machinery and lit it on fire. For good measure, one of them peppered the generator with bullets.

While a few men stood guard, scanning the forest edges, others moved through the tents and a cookhouse area, searching for anything that might provide a clue to who controls the mines. (Some were makeshift local operations; others were run by crime syndicates or shadow investors in major cities.) Then they piled up flammable materials and set the rest of the camp ablaze.

As we watched the fire spread, a small plane buzzed away over the trees. It belonged to the miners, Cabral said; they must have been warned that the G.E.F. was coming. He pointed to a white rectangular antenna on a tall pole in the center of the camp and said, “Starlink”—Elon Musk’s portable satellite-communications system. One of the men hacked at the pole with a machete until it toppled, and Finger broke the antenna and took the modem. The G.E.F. fighters are well trained, and equipped with satellite imaging, combat gear, assault rifles, and night-vision goggles provided by the U.S. State Department. Increasingly, though, their opponents have similar resources. The day’s raid had destroyed a facility that might have employed a dozen miners. The number of people involved in illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon is believed to be as many as half a million.

For four years, Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, insisted that the crisis in the rain forest was an elaborate hoax. A far-right former military officer who embraced Donald Trump as an ally and a role model, Bolsonaro maintained that advocates for the environment and for Indigenous rights were part of a communist-globalist conspiracy. He ran for the Presidency promising to dismantle environmental safeguards, and his supporters took him at his word. He assumed office in January, 2019, and within months an estimated twenty thousand garimpeiros were at work in Yanomami land. Despite Yanomami leaders’ pleas for help and a Supreme Court judge’s order for the miners to be forced out, Bolsonaro did nothing.

Lula, a veteran left-wing politician who served as Brazil’s President from 2003 to 2010, took office again last year, after a perilously close election. By then, the Yanomami were enduring a crisis, with malaria, hunger, and infant malnutrition spreading widely; hundreds of children had died. Outsiders committed growing numbers of rapes and murders, including incidents in which miners on motorboats shot and teargassed Yanomami as they sped past a riverside community.

The crisis gave Lula an opportunity to present himself as a savior, and in one of his first acts as President he flew to Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima. He toured a clinic that treated Indigenous patients, and in emotional remarks afterward he blamed Bolsonaro for “the neglect and abandonment of the Yanomami.” It was “more than a humanitarian crisis,” he added. “What I saw was a genocide.” He vowed to end illegal mining on Indigenous land, just as he had vowed, during the campaign, to achieve “zero deforestation” in the rain forest by 2030. “The planet needs the Amazon alive,” he said.

Lula declared a public-health emergency and ordered an ambitious series of raids to eject the miners. After operations began, in February, 2023, dramatic footage emerged of security forces surging in and destroying equipment, and of miners fleeing the forest. By June, Lula declared the Yanomami land “free of illegal mining.” Soon afterward, his government promoted new statistics showing that illegal deforestation in the Amazon had fallen thirty-four per cent in six months.

Last August, in the city of Belém, Lula presided over a meeting of regional heads of state, and called on them to join him in realizing “a new Amazonian dream”—a grand plan for conservation linked to sustainable development. A few months later, in Dubai for the annual climate-change conference, Lula hailed Brazil’s progress in preserving the rain forest, and celebrated its selection as the site of the 2025 summit.

But, for all Lula’s talk about a green future, the large-scale operations in Roraima lasted only a few months. The armed forces, which had joined last year’s initiative only reluctantly, ceased coöperating. It wasn’t even clear how much loyalty the new President could expect from the military, a largely conservative body that ran the country as a dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. After the inauguration, Bolsonaro partisans had launched a chaotic assault on the Presidential palace, Congress, and the Supreme Court, and some police and members of the military had assisted the mob. Lula subsequently pushed out the commanders of the Army and of the police force that guards the capital. But the military is still regarded as hostile to Lula—not to mention to the idea of Indigenous rights.

When I visited Roraima, authorities there said that garimpeiros had been returning to Yanomami territory. Some politicians were not only tacitly accommodating the miners but in some cases coöperating with them. For many people in Brazil, the lure of easy money far outweighed environmental concerns. Even the judge who had tried to force Bolsonaro to intervene in the Amazon, Luís Roberto Barroso, acknowledged the persistence of the problem. “There is an inescapable reality,” he told me, “which is that you have people living in poverty sitting on top of vast wealth.”

Boa Vista is a low-slung city of half a million people, spread along the banks of the Rio Branco. Although Brazil has a complex web of laws to protect the wilderness, settler communities inevitably find ways to profit from the minerals and the timber found in the rain forest, and Boa Vista is booming. Newly built avenues are lined with ostentatious villas, restaurants, and boutiques. Downtown, a children’s water park has been constructed next to an artificial beach, decorated with huge, colorfully painted statues of anacondas, jaguars, anteaters, and crocodiles. Near the government offices, a modernist stone sculpture depicts a prospector panning for gold.

Local officials leave little doubt about their support for mining. In 2022, the Roraima state legislature enacted a law that prohibited destroying equipment confiscated from illegal miners within its jurisdiction. Outside the office of the governor, a Bolsonaro ally named Antonio Denarium, miners and ranchers gathered to celebrate with a barbecue and concert, under a banner that read “Garimpo Is Legal.” (Last year, after Lula took office, Brazil’s Supreme Court threw out the law.)

Cognizant of the local attitudes, the G.E.F. keeps its presence in Boa Vista quiet. When I’d arrived, I was told to check into a hotel and wait. Nearly a week later, I got a call telling me that an unmarked car would take me to meet the team at one of the helicopter launchpads that it uses in town: a walled-in grassy patch at the regional headquarters of the federal police. Around the wall were rusting carcasses of helicopters and airplanes confiscated from miners on previous raids. A couple of years before, an angry group had protested the seizures by attempting to set a government helicopter on fire.

The G.E.F. helicopters took us past the edge of Boa Vista, where vast, treeless cattle ranches and soy farms stretch into the distance. In thirty minutes of flying at a hundred and twenty miles an hour, we could see the open plains start to give way to forest, until my chopper landed at a site where the paved road turns to red-dirt track. It was the team’s refuelling point before seeking out mines in Yanomami territory. Near a farmhouse, a shiny steel tanker was parked by a mango tree. The truck drove several hours from Boa Vista each morning with an armed escort.

During the raids last spring, the G.E.F. had been able to refuel in a Yanomami community where the military maintained an outpost. But, a few weeks before my visit, the Air Force had suddenly removed the fuel tank, offering no explanation. The arrangement at the farm was provisional and seemed unlikely to last. One of the agents providing security told me that men in a pickup truck had pulled up early that morning, taken pictures of the tanker and its guards, and then driven away.

Within a few minutes of taking off again, we had entered Yanomami territory: a rolling green blanket, punctuated only occasionally by the bright-yellow flowers of an ipê tree. Deep in the forest, we set down at a gouged mining area. In a camp under the trees, we found a cook fire still burning. The miners clearly weren’t far away.

The G.E.F. members started to burn the camp, monitoring the flames to make sure that they didn’t spread. While the men worked, Finger quietly headed into the forest, like a hunting dog that had picked up a scent. Fifteen minutes later, he reappeared with a woman in tow. He explained that he’d found underwear drying on a clothesline and a stack of warm pancakes in the mess, and he figured the camp’s cook must be nearby. He’d found her hiding in some bushes. She was in her fifties, wearing a pink dress and carrying a bag stuffed with belongings. She looked frightened.

Speaking in breathy bursts, she told Cabral and Finger that her name was Margarida. She was a widow, and after her husband’s death she had struggled to pay rent and buy food. She had arrived at the mine two days before, after a long river journey, she said, and she didn’t know anything about its operation—not even what the miners’ names were. Cabral, looking skeptical, asked what her salary was. She gave a figure that amounted to about four hundred dollars a month. It was a suspiciously small amount, but the cooks, invariably women, were the worst-paid employees of the mines; younger cooks earned extra money as sex workers or were coerced into prostitution.

No one could say precisely how many miners had made their way back into the territory after last year’s raids, or had never left, but one government ministry recently estimated the number at about seven thousand. Many of the people who worked the mines were impoverished locals looking for any job they could find; others made a career of it. At one camp, we’d come across the résumé of a thirty-seven-year-old named José, who had been a sales assistant at an auto-parts shop in Boa Vista, then moved to the city of Manaus to work in a shoe store. His legal employment history ended in 2016, which presumably was when he had turned to illegal mining. Finger drew a distinction between people like Margarida and those like José. “These simpler people, a hundred per cent are there for financial gains,” he said. “But many of the miners are in this for a better life style. If he can make five thousand reais per week mining, why would he stay in the city earning a thousand or less?”

Indigenous people who got involved in mining had more complex incentives. Many were motivated by fear, some by necessity, others by the lure of consumer goods that miners offered, including liquor, shotguns, and new iPhones. “If an Indigenous person was co-opted by a criminal, either simply to turn a blind eye or to directly participate, it’s a sign that the state failed,” Finger argued. “The state is not present, and the criminals managed to occupy this gap. And some Indigenous people, without another way to carry on their lives there, end up getting involved.”

The G.E.F. team sometimes showed concern for the miners; when they found prescription medicine during a raid, they threw it clear of the burn zone so that its owner could retrieve it. But, when I asked Cabral if we were going to fly the cook out with us, he shook his head. “She got herself here,” he said. “She can get herself out.” He reassured me that most of the miners attached to the camp were hiding in the forest and would surely emerge as soon as we left. With their food stores destroyed, they would have to evacuate the jungle, and would make the journey together.

Heading back to the choppers, Finger was frustrated. This mine had been destroyed not long before. “They were quiet for a couple of months,” he said. “But when they saw that the operations had decreased they came back, and they’ve learned how to adapt to our tactics.” He pointed to a wide trail leading from the mine into the forest. It was a track for A.T.V.s, built under tree cover to thwart detection from the sky. On his G.P.S., Finger measured our distance from the isolados. “Less than thirty miles,” he said. “It’s very close, considering the range some Yanomami need for hunting.”

For four decades, the Amazon has existed in a state of persistent conflict—protected by federal law but threatened by the people who live there. On the way to Boa Vista, I’d had lunch in Brasília with Sydney Possuelo, who had seen much of this history at first hand. Possuelo is a legendary sertanista—one of the jungle scouts who made the first contacts with isolated people. He started travelling into the Amazon six decades ago. Since then, he has hiked thousands of miles through unexplored jungle, been shot by arrows, and made first contact with seven Indigenous groups. Now eighty-three, he occupies a position in the Brazilian consciousness somewhere between Buffalo Bill and John Muir.

We met at an open-air restaurant and sat outside, at his request, until a tropical downpour forced us indoors. We were joined by Rubens Valente, the author of “The Rifles and the Arrows,” an authoritative book on Indigenous resistance movements. A soft-spoken man of fifty-four, Valente is one of a very few Brazilian journalists who have made a career of reporting on the Amazon and its Indigenous inhabitants. This media inattention is symptomatic of a larger national neglect, which is partly a result of geography. The rain forest makes up seventy-eight per cent of Brazil’s landmass but contains less than fifteen per cent of its population. For Brazilians who live outside the Amazon, it can seem as remote and exotic as it does to Americans.

As a young man, Possuelo worked for FUNAI, Brazil’s agency for Indigenous affairs. In those days, the Indigenous were thought of as “wild Indians,” and Possuelo’s job was to initiate contact in order to “tame” them; the military government planned to open the “green hell” of the Amazon to development by building a highway through it.

By the early nineteen-eighties, Possuelo had begun to understand that exposure to the outside world was largely disastrous for Indigenous groups. Many succumbed to disease; others suffered from alcoholism and sexual exploitation, their forests targeted by unscrupulous loggers and miners. Some chiefs sold access to their lands and began to make profits of their own.

In 1987, after the fall of Brazil’s dictatorship, Possuelo created a department at FUNAI that organized expeditions to confirm the presence of isolados, to legally protect their territories—but he insisted they be left alone unless they initiated contact. “The true importance of the isolados isn’t in their numbers,” Possuelo told me. “It’s in their languages and cultures and societies, about which we know little, and that has to be respected.” A new constitution, instituted the following year, contained provisions to protect Indigenous lands. Soon afterward, Possuelo led the demarcation of the vast Yanomami territory, a chunk of jungle that spans almost twenty-four million acres—an area larger than Portugal—along the border with Venezuela.

In those days, the Yanomami were one of Brazil’s most secluded Indigenous groups; regular contact with the outside world had begun barely two decades before. Today, about thirty thousand Yanomami live in the Brazilian Amazon. Spread out in some three hundred communities, they live much as they always have, in malocas that house communal groups of several dozen families. They hunt, fish, and gather fruit in the forest, and also grow a few crops—plantains, cassava, maize—for their sustenance.

The gold in Yanomami rivers has been a problem for as long as outsiders have made their way into the jungle. Possuelo said that, in the early nineties, there were perhaps forty thousand miners operating there, but that he and his allies had forced most of them out. It was harder now, though. The Indigenous were more involved in the trade, and the miners were better equipped and more organized. Perhaps most important, he said, the military wasn’t helping to protect the Yanomami. The armed forces maintained three bases in the territory, but, he said, it had not deployed soldiers to stop river traffic, or consistently used aerial surveillance to prevent the miners from coming in. The military had opposed the creation of the Yanomami territory from the beginning, Possuelo explained; when he was marking its borders, the commander of the Army accused him of advancing an independent “Yanomami empire,” stretching across the border with Venezuela. Possuelo laughed as he recalled news stories that the military had orchestrated to spread the conspiracy theory.

Valente said that the armed forces’ view of the Amazon hadn’t changed: “The military fundamentally doesn’t believe in conservation. They think the development of the wilderness is necessary and see it as inevitable.” He showed me a book titled “The Yanomami Farce,” released in 1995 by the Army’s publishing house. The cover depicts a blond, fair-skinned man holding up a mask with the face of a Yanomami man in a feather headdress. The book, written by an Army colonel, argued that the Yanomami were not a real Indigenous community but the invention of an international cabal that intended to take over the Amazon. Bolsonaro promoted the same idea, accusing Greenpeace and environmentalist celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio of being part of this nefarious master plan.

Yet Possuelo was also skeptical of the current government’s campaign, pointing out that Lula had acted after a Supreme Court judge ordered the government to remove the miners. “The fact is that the Brazilian state has never liked the Indians,” he said. “The left doesn’t like the Indians, and the right doesn’t like the Indians, and the center doesn’t like the Indians, either.”

One afternoon, as we approached a mine from the air, a crew of panicked miners went running into the forest. One of them fell over a log, scrambled to his feet, and took off again. As I followed their progress, something caught my eye: two dazzling macaws, flying away from the commotion. After we landed, I found macaw feathers, yellow and blue, hanging on a string from a pole in the camp. Cabral shook his head and said that the garimpeiros must have hunted and eaten the bird. “The animals die a silent death,” he said mournfully.

For a public servant, Cabral is unusually outspoken—at least on Instagram, where his account is devoted to denouncing animal cruelty. In one recent post, he shared a photograph of someone’s pet parrot, with green feathers tinged yellow. “This is mistreatment,” he wrote. “The yellow pigmentation indicates nutritional deficiency. A trained environmental agent would notice and fine the person responsible.”

At the camp, Finger told Cabral that he had found signs of an active site deeper in the forest. We followed him, moving silently along a path through the woods. As we advanced, we could hear a dog barking. Finger scouted ahead, then crept back and motioned for us to follow. In a clearing, there was a wooden shack and a cookhouse, abandoned except for a black dog with distended teats, yowling in distress. Then we heard a peculiar squalling from a box next to the shack. Cabral lifted a plastic cover, revealing a mass of wriggling puppies, just a few days old. He picked up a couple and held them, then walked to a rack where the miners had been drying bush meat—tapir, he guessed. He threw a piece to the mother dog, which began devouring it.

The team searched through belongings, but no one poured gas or piled up flammables. Were they going to burn the place? I asked. The men didn’t answer; they were looking at Cabral, fussing over the puppies. Eventually, Finger barked, “Let’s go.” As the team fell in, Cabral told me that they were leaving the camp intact because of the puppies: “We could move them away from the shack, but the mother might run away in fright and not be able to find them afterward.” One of the men joked that, if there had been a child in the camp instead of the puppies, they would have burned the shack. Cabral laughed and shook his head, but he didn’t protest.

Early in his career, Cabral acquired the nickname Rambo, but it seemed mostly like a joke. He had taken up armed patrols only in service of wildlife conservation, his lifelong passion. He came from Juiz de Fora, a city in Brazil’s interior, and spent his childhood immersed in nature, watching wildlife programs and reading about animals. “This is all I ever wanted to do,” he told me. He earned a degree in biology and another in ecology, then joined IBAMA, a branch of the environment ministry that protects threatened ecosystems.

Working in the Amazon, Cabral became increasingly aware that ecological abuses converged with other crimes: gunrunning, drug trafficking, homicides. But the Brazilian government dealt with these things through a patchwork of federal bureaucracies and police agencies, with no force that had both the requisite scientific knowledge and military-style training. In 2013, Cabral secured approval to build a unit of rangers who were committed to saving the environment, by force if necessary. The next year, he was shot in the shoulder when he and his men surprised illegal loggers in the woods; he was back at work in less than two months.

The members of the G.E.F. are biology nerds who found themselves carrying guns—a gang of jungle Ghostbusters. They undergo intensive training, developed by a specialized police unit that fights organized crime. “There are courses on weaponry and shooting, survival in operational environments, vertical activities, and aerial operations,” Finger said. “We had a tactical-entry course, but adapted to our reality—they focus mostly on urban operations, while we focus on rural areas, forest environments.” IBAMA has twenty-eight hundred employees, but very few apply for the training, and fewer still qualify. Out of the twenty or so who tried out most recently, Finger said, only four were accepted.

Finger had the physique and the temperament of a natural athlete. Growing up in the city of Cuiabá, in Brazil’s farm belt, he had played soccer well enough to consider a career, but ended up emulating his father, who ran the forestry-engineering department at the local university. Even working in ecology, he was drawn to action. “If I had stayed in soccer, I’d have played offense,” he said, laughing. After college, he had found his way to IBAMA and helped establish the G.E.F.

Most members of his team had graduate degrees in the sciences. Renato, a muscular man of thirty-four with a shaved head, had specialized in fish ecology. During raids, he did a lot of the heavy lifting, keeping up a cheerful patter as he destroyed mine equipment; other times he fixed engines. Alexandre, forty-eight and the father of two young girls, had worked in a national park and in fisheries regulation before taking the G.E.F. training course. “I’d never imagined working with weapons,” he said, but he had shown an unexpected aptitude. He was generally a guard, calmly scrutinizing the surrounding forest with a gun at his shoulder.

The only nonscientist was Marcus—a former lawyer, forty-two, tall and rangy, with an easygoing manner. At the headquarters, in Brasília, he procured weapons and ammunition for the group; in the field, he was often a guard. Growing up in the interior province of Goiás, he aspired to be a photographer for skate magazines, until his parents persuaded him to go to law school instead. Halfway through, he attended a ceremony of the União do Vegetal, a Christian sect that incorporates ayahuasca in its sacraments. “During the opening chant, I left my body,” he recalled. “I started to see the Amazon rain forest and found myself walking through it in a uniform with a team, while Indigenous people chanted behind me. That moment filled me with joy, and there I discovered the mission of my life.”

In Brasília, I met Lula in his office, a capacious room with a corner view of the city. He acknowledged that his administration had allowed the situation in Roraima to deteriorate again. “We should have done something, and we didn’t do it,” he said. Yet he seemed wary of criticizing the military, whose support he needs to remain in power. Even as he allowed that the armed forces “could have made mistakes,” he said, “I don’t think we need to single out someone responsible.” All the ministries involved had failed, he suggested: “Here in Brazil, we used to say that a dog that has too many owners will starve, because everyone thinks that the other owner gave him food.” (He also noted that the armed forces had flown nine hundred and forty missions distributing aid to the Yanomami, and that “not one dumped cargo on anyone’s head, as happened in Gaza.”)

Part of the problem with policing the territory was its sheer size, he said. There was also the fact that some of the miners are Venezuelans who have crossed the border, which meant that arresting them and blowing up their boats risked creating an international incident. “If we send in the military to take such actions, I could face problems,” he said.

The greatest problem, in Lula’s telling, was that Bolsonaro had left him a mess. “The state machinery was dismantled—everything that has to do with climate change, everything that has to do with Indigenous people, everything that has to do with environmental conservation,” he said. Bolsonaro had reduced IBAMA’s staff of rangers by sixty per cent, and had imposed similar cuts at the agencies for Indigenous affairs and the environment. The agencies that worked in the Amazon were handed to archconservative military officers. The environment ministry was given to an advocate of deregulation, who later resigned after being accused of involvement in an illicit logging scheme. (The minister denied any wrongdoing.) FUNAI’s Indigenous-outreach department went to an evangelical preacher who had previously sought out isolated groups to convert them. The director he replaced, Bruno Pereira, kept up his work independently. In 2022, he was murdered, along with a British reporter named Dom Phillips, while investigating illegal intrusions in the Javari valley.

During the Bolsonaro years, the G.E.F. struggled with political interference, and for one eight-month stretch was confined to base. Now it had the government’s public blessing, but it still didn’t have the support it needed. There were vexing limitations on making arrests. “If we catch someone in the act of committing a crime, we can arrest the criminal and take them to the federal police,” Finger said. But Brazilian law made it nearly impossible to imprison mine workers, so the G.E.F. detained only those who had what Finger called “relevant strategic interest”—people higher in the command structure, who are rarely in the field. “If it’s just a worker at the mining site, we identify them but usually leave them there.”

The miners were brazenly aware of the G.E.F.’s limits. On one raid, we flew over a camp on a forested hill, where a man stood blithely watching as we circled. Cabral explained that he had probably deduced, correctly, that there was nowhere for us to land the helicopters. Technology provided another kind of cover. “Wherever the miners have Starlink, we’re at a real disadvantage,” Finger told me. “They can warn each other there is a raid going on in the territory, and they can organize their work better.”

Some members of the G.E.F. felt increasingly that Lula’s administration was doing only what was necessary to preserve its image. “There are few people in this government who really care about the conservation of the wilderness,” one told me. “Lula is not really an environmentalist himself—it’s more that he’s worried about international public opinion.” Cabral lamented that, even aside from the Yanomami crisis, obvious solutions to environmental problems were being ignored. If sawmills were properly licensed and monitored, for example, it would hugely reduce illegal logging.

Of course, Cabral said, things had improved since the previous administration. IBAMA was being rebuilt, and its ranks of active rangers had expanded slightly. Nevertheless, there were roughly eight hundred rangers responsible for all of Brazil’s regions, including not just the Amazon but also the Pantanal wetlands and the immense Atlantic coastline. The country needed at least five thousand more, Cabral said—yet the salaries were paltry, with the most experienced rangers earning no more than a rookie in the federal police. Cabral himself made about twenty-five hundred dollars a month. Even so, he wouldn’t change jobs, he said: “I love what I do.” But others were losing patience; not long after my visit, employees at IBAMA and other environmental agencies began to protest by refusing to go on field operations.

Cabral told me how many members the G.E.F. had only after swearing me to secrecy. It was a shockingly low number. Finger, who was listening in, explained, “It’s hard to find people who want this kind of life. People want to go to a desk and work for some hours and then go home.” I asked Cabral how much bigger the team would need to be in order to flush the miners from Yanomami territory. “With thirty-six men, I could do two operations simultaneously, which would be ideal,” he replied. It would still be a small team, but with the right kind of backup, he said, it could achieve a lot. To address all of the mining hot spots around the Amazon, he guessed, the G.E.F. would need at least three hundred and twenty men—many times what he had.

As we walked through the forest on raids, we were shaded by huge trees, and when we emerged into the cleared spaces around mines there was a sudden shock of heat. The signs of extraction were always the same: gouged earth, trees felled and burned, the forest floor stripped to bare soil. The camps were usually crude: stick palisades, covered in black or blue tarps, and open-sided cookhouses littered with charred pots and cans of sardines. On one mess table, I saw a Bible, an acetylene torch with a bottle of mercury, and a supply ledger listing aspirin, ointment for sores, and stomach medication. On another, I saw shotgun cartridges and a pair of black assault rifles. There was often the smell of food being cooked and eaten in close range of stagnant water and places where people shit.

At one mine, Finger led the column up an A.T.V. trail that stretched into the forest, and as we left camp the light grew dimmer and the trill of cicadas swelled. A few hundred feet along the path, two shots cracked through the trees. We all threw ourselves on the ground and waited tensely, until word came down the line that it was Finger who had fired. When we caught up with him, he was still scanning the woods with his weapon ready. He had spotted a man with a gun and had fired before his opponent could. The man had fled, apparently unharmed.

In some ways, the sweeps that Lula ordered last year had only increased the danger for Finger and his men. Most of the impoverished locals who worked in the mines had fled, and many of those who had taken their place were better armed and better funded—often because they were linked to criminal groups. The most fearsome was a São Paulo-based crime syndicate known as the P.C.C., from a Portuguese phrase meaning “First Command of the Capital.” The P.C.C., founded in a prison annex known as Big Piranha, had grown into Brazil’s largest criminal enterprise, with connections to the Calabrian Mob and a significant presence in the global cocaine trade. Gold prospecting offered the gang both revenue and opportunities to launder drug money.

Early in 2023, the G.E.F. had arrived in Roraima and started collecting intelligence. “In three uninterrupted months acting daily on the ground, we were able to gather a lot of precise information about how the P.C.C. was operating,” Finger said. The gang supplied miners with equipment and guns, and also sent its members to supervise and provide security. I saw one video, taken by a terrified, whispering Yanomami man, of heavily armed men hiking up a ravaged riverbed as he hid in the bushes a few feet away. Gang members helped transport gold out of the territory, and in settlements they sold drugs and ran prostitution rings.

On April 30th, G.E.F. members joined a group of federal highway police to raid an encampment occupied by the P.C.C. “The operation took place during the day, on a Sunday,” an agent who was involved told me. “It was by helicopter—the only way to reach the area surgically.” A river incursion would have been risky: the miners knew the terrain better.

The helicopters that ibama supplied for the mission weren’t bulletproof, so they dropped the men and left as quickly as they could—“a very quick infiltration to avoid being hit.” As the patrol moved through the jungle, gunfire came from off the trail several times. “We knew that the risk of an armed confrontation was real,” the agent said. “We had prepared for it, planned for it.” Nevertheless, the first burst of gunfire was jarring: “I thought to myself, We have to apply the techniques we’ve learned and come back alive. We have our families to take care of.” In training courses, he said, “there is a bell that you ring when you give up. In the middle of the war, there is no bell.”

When the shooting stopped, the government agents were safe and four criminals had been killed. Among them was Sandro Moraes de Carvalho—a gangster known as Presidente, the P.C.C.’s commander in the area. The firefight made national news, drawing attention to the Amazon, and Brazil’s minister of justice announced that he was sending in more than two hundred armed officers. “It was the most important action in the history of the G.E.F.,” Finger told me.

Finger avoided discussing his more dangerous missions with his wife. “I don’t know if she doesn’t ask to avoid knowing the details, for psychological reasons—but she doesn’t ask, and I don’t tell,” he said. “If my mother knew, she wouldn’t sleep.” But he showed few reservations about the use of force. “The idea that criminal groups can take over territory and hold Indigenous people hostage is more than a humanitarian emergency—it is a war,” he said. “Indigenous people are just like us, and maybe better than us. But their lives are being destroyed. The state needs to come in and protect them and treat them like Brazilians.”

The Yanomami do not have a single leader, but Davi Kopenawa, a shaman in his late sixties, is widely acknowledged as their representative to the outside world. Kopenawa, who is sometimes referred to as “the Dalai Lama of the jungle,” maintains a home in the forest, but he spends much of his time in Boa Vista, spreading awareness of his people’s concerns from the offices of the Hutukara Yanomami Association.

One morning, I visited the association’s compound, which overlooked the Rio Branco and was secured with surveillance cameras and a wall topped with electrified razor wire. Past the gate, I found Kopenawa inspecting a small strip of garden that ran between the security wall and the house, which was painted an institutional gray. Barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt, Kopenawa had wooden plugs in his earlobes and a stick in his hand. He stood scowling at a line of small bushes that had recently been planted next to the wall. In halting Portuguese, he grumbled, “This isn’t a real garden. It’s the kind of thing white people plant to say they like plants.”

Inside, his office walls were hung with photographs of the Yanomami, taken by some of the earliest visitors: a vision of life before the incursion of outsiders. Kopenawa perched in a chair and toyed with a macaw feather on his desk as we talked. I asked if he had thought of going with Lula to the climate conference in Dubai. Kopenawa waved his stick and grimaced. “That’s just for white people.” He liked Lula, he said, but Lula did not grasp the full extent of what was happening in Yanomami territory. He hadn’t even been there—only to Boa Vista, he said chidingly—and little had changed since he had declared the health emergency. In one place, Kopenawa said, the miners had built a road right into their land. In another, they had surrounded a community, razing its forest; now some Yanomami there were working for the miners and had become addicted to drugs.

Kopenawa suggested that the military was being duplicitous. “They just come to make it appear as if everything is all right,” he said. “But they’re not taking out the miners—they’re supporting them.” He asked me to pass a message to the President: “Tell Lula that the problems of the Yanomami people have not been resolved, that illegal mining continues, that I am worried about our children. Tell him that criminals with guns have joined the miners—and the police are afraid to go there.” He added, “Lula has been travelling a lot all over the world. But he should come here, to our land, which has been invaded. We need his help, too.”

The local authorities were worse, Kopenawa said: “They don’t like or respect us. All they want is to exploit our land and to rob our forest.” He had received death threats, which is why his security wall had been reinforced. The house next door to the association’s belonged to an influential senator named Chico Rodrigues, who, like the state’s governor, was a Bolsonaro ally. Rodrigues had made news in 2020, when federal police raided his house as part of an investigation into the embezzlement of COVID-19 relief funds. Agents searched him and found more than five thousand dollars’ worth of Brazilian cash hidden in his underwear and his clothes. Rodrigues had previously been fined for illegally razing more than fifteen hundred acres of rain forest and converting it into cattle range, but he never paid. (He has maintained his innocence on both counts.)

Back on the street, as I got into a car, a mud-spattered pickup pulled in front of me. A group of rough-looking young men got out and buzzed at the security door of Rodrigues’s house, an imposing white multilevel place that loomed over the association’s compound. As they were shown in, a Yanomami man in the car with me whispered, “Garimpo.”

When I met with Lula, he told me that he hoped to return to Roraima. “It’s important to go there again,” he said, adding, “We have a human obligation to solve this issue.” Despite the increasing problems in the region, he spoke energetically of his plans. His administration recently passed an emergency measure that allocated more than two hundred million dollars to efforts in the Yanomami territory. “We’re going to hire more federal police,” he said. “We’re going to hire more armed forces.” In order to facilitate a more coherent response, his administration had set up a multi-agency “coördinating center” in Boa Vista, run by one of his close loyalists; it opened in mid-March. “Six months from now, you come back to Brazil and we’ll have another conversation,” Lula assured me.

Marina Silva, Lula’s environment minister, suggested that the concerns would be difficult to address. When I visited her office, she was preparing for the latest climate-change summit, where she would appear alongside Lula. She looked exhausted. Silva, the daughter of an Amazonian rubber tapper, is a bespectacled woman with an ethereal presence who has spent decades leading efforts to safeguard Brazil’s wilderness. She served as Lula’s environment minister during his first tenure, and although she succeeded in fighting deforestation, differences emerged between them over a series of infrastructure projects, which included a huge hydroelectric dam and a major road in the rain forest. She finally resigned, citing “growing resistance by important sectors of the government and society.” Still, after the calamitous Bolsonaro Presidency, she had agreed to rejoin Lula, in the hope of repairing the damage.

In her office, Silva chose her words carefully, saying, “There have been some advances and also challenges.” Lula’s first advance, obviously, was the “reëstablishment of democracy.” Immediately after taking office, she pointed out, he had signed five decrees to protect the environment. Yet his administration had also auctioned off oil- and gas-drilling rights in nearly two hundred areas; there is talk that Lula may authorize the paving of a five-hundred-mile-long road through the rain forest.

A large portion of Brazil’s exports rely on farming and natural-resource extraction, and implementing a policy of “zero deforestation” would require rebuilding the economy. Silva acknowledged that there was “no magic key” to changing a development model that was three hundred years old. “It will require pressure, sustained policies, and also sustained investment,” she said. Unless the government found ways to provide economic solutions for its citizens, its plans would be doomed, she suggested. The only way forward was to be “sustainable,” and to “create an environmental consciousness among Brazilians.” She was talking, in effect, about a revolutionary change in the way her country’s citizens imagined their lives.

On the morning of our last raid, the rain in the jungle was too heavy to fly in, so we had to wait out the storm at a new refuelling point—a farm farther into the forest. The last place had fallen through; the owner, under pressure from his garimpo neighbors, had told the team to refuel elsewhere. The new farm had a Starlink connection, and, as the rains abated, a pilot said that he was sure the farm manager would warn the miners that we were coming.

He was right: at the first target site, the garimpeiros were speeding away on A.T.V.s by the time we approached. We found a string of mines, connected by trails, with two airstrips carved out of the forest. A stretch of riverbank perhaps two miles long had been smashed and ruined. Marcus, the former lawyer, said that G.E.F. members often told themselves, “We won’t end the degradation of the Amazon—we will only postpone the end of the Amazon.” As we hiked around one of the mine pits, he confessed that he feared that “the Yanomami jungle would become like Rio, all of it in the hands of criminal organizations.”

On our flight back, my pilot, Franke, found a radio frequency where garimpo pilots were talking. As we listened, one gave his coördinates to another. Franke’s co-pilot traced them to an airstrip in the woods—just a few miles from the G.E.F. team’s new refuelling point. Franke passed the information to Finger, in the other helicopter, and they agreed to try to intercept the plane before it could take off.

The laws concerning intercepting planes are intricate. “I can set fire to clandestine airstrips but not shoot planes down,” Finger told me. Aircraft discovered on the ground can be destroyed or flown to Boa Vista, though there was no way of knowing that they were in good enough condition to make the trip safely. The best hope was to apprehend the people on board. “When we manage to get our hands on the pilot, we take them into custody,” Finger said.

As we approached the airstrip, the garimpo plane, a Cessna, quickly took off, heading farther into Yanomami territory. Finger and Franke raced after it, as the garimpeiro pilot took evasive action—banking hard to the left, then dropping down till his plane almost brushed the treetops.

While the Cessna sped above the forest, we chased after it, listening to its pilot shouting over the radio, “He’s on my back!” But the garimpeiro stayed tauntingly ahead of us; as Franke explained, our chopper’s top speed was the same as the Cessna’s. Franke watched the fuel gauge anxiously as he flew. We’d started the chase with not much more gas than we needed to get back to base, and the needle was dropping fast. Finally, Finger had to peel away, and soon afterward so did we. As we watched, the plane flew on into the jungle.

Despite these kinds of frustrations, the G.E.F. team maintained a stubborn resolve. Alexandre, the fisheries expert, told me, “In the remote areas where we work, our efforts have consequences—we manage to halt encroachment. Even if it’s a little ant’s work, it’s possible to see the progress.” But Finger described their efforts as a zero-sum game. As the G.E.F. chased out miners from Roraima, others were encroaching on Kayapó territory, and on protected Munduruku land. An Indigenous settlement called Sararé, on the Bolivian border, was increasingly worrisome. “The feeling of fighting a losing battle is constant,” Finger said.

On one raid, Franke slowed the rotors and pulled into a wide circle over the forest, gesturing for me to look out the window. Below us was a clearing, with a circle of lean-tos at the center. According to Franke’s G.P.S., it was the same maloca the miners had flown over two weeks earlier, terrifying the isolados in the TikTok video. There was no sign of life now; the maloca appeared abandoned.

As we flew away, Franke pointed down again. I could see a river, its muddy banks gouged and punched, with shining pools of stagnant water—the signs of a mining operation. I asked him how far we were from the maloca. “One point seven kilometres,” he said. The mine was deserted, and the miners were gone, for now. But so, it seemed, were the Yanomami.

Go to Original – rsn.org


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