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Amazon gold rush: Brazil's military stakes its claim.

In his recent trip to the United States and Europe, Brazil's President-elect, Fernando Collor de Mello, was described as something of an environmentalist, like George Bush. While Collor was enjoying the pristine beaches of the Seychelles in January the present Brazilian government was up to its knees in mud, both in the northern Amazon jungle and in the halls of power in Brasilia. Collor will inherit an environmental and political mess, along with the worst economic crisis in Brazilian history, when he is inaugurated on March 15.

For months, lame-duck President Jose Sarney promised to remove thousands of goldminers from Yanomami Indian lands in the frontier territory of Roraima. In January the government reversed Sarney's promise. This is grim news, not only for the Indians but for supporters of democratization in Brazil.

After more than two years' pressure by members of Brazil's Congress, indigenous-rights groups and enviromnentalists, the federal police, army and air force began the removal operation on January 8 but stopped the next day, citing miners' threats of resistance. The decision to allow more than 40,000 miners to stay in Yanomami territory and pan gold inside a national forest, taking two-thirds of the Yanomamis' traditional lands away from them, was essentially the military's.

Brazil's National Security Council called Saden and principally comprising military men) forced Funai, the federal agency for Indian affairs, and Ibama, the environmental protection agency, to accede to this action. This violated new constitutional provisions guaranteeing indigenous land rights and flouted earlier decisions by the attorney general, who had declared the 'government's 1988 demarcation of Yanomami lands unconstitutional, and a federal judge, who ordered the federal police and, if necessary, the army, to remove the miners.

During the past two years, more than half the 9,000 Yanomami in northern Brazil have contracted malaria and other deadly diseases through contact with the goldminers. Congress recently appropriated funds for an emergency medical team to evacuate critically ill Yanomami, who have been without medical care since Funai closed two health posts in their territory in 1988. Indian supporters, doctors and human rights advocates say the plan is grossly inadequate.

The miners are mostly poor men who already tried their luck in government-sponsored colonization projects. They move from gold rush to gold rush, polluting rivers with mercury, invading indigenous lands and devastating the forests. They have gained access to the remote Yanomami territory by illegally using landing strips that the military has built during the past four years.

The airstrips are part of the Brazilian military's Calha Norte project to "Brazilianize," colonize and exploit a 6,500-kilometer-long, 150-kilometer-wide corridor of land along the frontiers with five other countries. The military began implementing Calha Norte in 1986, without the approval or even the knowledge of Congress. Even so, it has since managed to gain big appropriations from Congress for the project. A Calha Sud program was announced last year for the western Amazon.

The military's rationale for Calha Norte was to protect Brazil's borders, to prevent drug trafficking and to keep guerrilla movements in neighboring countries, such as Suriname, from spilling into Brazil. However, drug traffickers have increased their activities in the Amazon since the plan began, and the few troops stationed in the huge project area seem incapable of stopping this activity. Some of the troops are said to be engaging in illegal goldmining as well. Guerrilla groups seem uninterested in using Brazilian territory as a refuge, but Brazilian prospectors have made incursions into Venezuela, creating an embarrassing situation for the Brazilian government. Thus the Calha Norte program seems ineffective at achieving its stated objectives but all too efficient at facilitating devastation of the environment and destruction of the Indians.

The federal police and the military dragged their feet for months, claiming they "had no resources" to carry out the removal of the goldminers. But outside observers, including the Action for Citizenship human rights group, which is made up of eminent Brazilians, said federal authorities could easily dislodge the miners by closing the landing strips. Without the airstrips, miners could not continue to subsist or work in Yanomami territory. The government stopped 300 illegal flights during the twenty-four hours when it actually implemented the removal order.

Brazilian indigenous-rights advocates never believed that the govermnent would carry out Sarney's program. The miners have the backing of big mining companies, local developers and the governor of the territory of Roraima, who is under federal investigation for corruption during his tenure as director of Funai. And the army minister expressed his contempt for Indians in a speech he made on "The Day of the Indian" last April, when he called indigenous ways of life "on a low level and not respectable."

Racism against Indians is overt in Brazil, especially in frontier areas. Land speculators, developers, big landowners and others who want to exploit the Amazon say that Indians "don't deserve" to keep their traditional lands "because they're idle and lazy, don't work and don't cultivate the soil:' But thousands of Indians and other forest dwellers do conduct extractive activities without devastating the environment, whereas the deforestation, cattle ranching, mining and logging practiced by outsiders ruin huge areas in the Amazon.

The Brazilian government's broken promise has significance beyond its disastrous consequences for the Yanomami and their environment. In refusing to carry out a federal judicial order based on a ruling by the attorney general, the military has violated separation of powers and constitutional provisions and put itself above the law, compromising the legitimacy and power of the civilian government.

Some observers believe that when civilians took over the Brazilian government in 1985, the military made a deal that would allow it to determine Amazon development policy for the foreseeable future in exchange for giving up control of the state. The armed forces consider the Amazon region, which makes up almost half the nation's territory, to be a national-security area. During the twenty-one-year military regime, they tried to carry out ambitious, sometimes destructive, development projects there that helped drive Brazil deep into debt. Since 1985 they have intervened on numerous occasions in order to carry out their long-term plans for the Amazon, whether or not those plans violate the Constitution or other federal laws.

For example, when indigenous groups and rubber tappers complained to the Inter-American Development Bank in 1988 that the government was not complying with the conditions of an I.D.B. road-building loan in the frontier state of Rondonia, it was Saden that sent representatives to renegotiate the conditions. When the Brazilian government came up with its Nossa Natureza ("Our Nature") program to protect the Amazon as a result of international pressure, it was Saden's president, Gen. Bayma Denys, not President Sarney, who developed and announced the plan. In December 1989 Saden spearheaded a new bill on mining in indigenous territories. And Saden has had representatives in every interministerial group working on Amazon development.

With its refusal to remove the goldminers, the Brazilian military continues to insist on its control of Amazonia, preempting civilian authorities and warning President-elect Collor not to challenge the armed forces in this critical area.

Brazil's transition to a genuinely democratic civilian regime may be more problematic today than it was before last December's election, the country's first direct presidential vote in twenty-nine years. United States lawmakers and World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials will all have to bear in mind the continuing power of the Brazilian military when they draft legislation and negotiate new loans for Brazil. So will environmentalists as they draft their campaigns to preserve the Amazon rain forest. The military needs to be convinced that sustainable development is in its and Brazil's best interest. Otherwise, the destruction of Brazil's Indians and the Amazon's fragile environment will continue, along with the weakening of civilian institutions and the erosion of democracy.
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Title Annotation:gold, other industries and the environment
Author:Rabben, Linda
Publication:The Nation
Date:Mar 12, 1990
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