Fuel, clandestine lanes, weapons and radios: how mining logistics works in Yanomami land

Documents obtained by BBC News Brasil from investigations and operations carried out by federal agencies show that the “backbone” of the logistical structure of illegal mines in the Yanomami Indigenous Land is formed by an aviation fuel diversion scheme, hundreds of clandestine airstrips, weapons, radio communicators and satellite internet. In recent months, federal agents have destroyed runways, planes and seized weapons and radio equipment used by miners that threaten the survival of thousands of indigenous people.

The Yanomami land was approved in 1980 and is the largest indigenous reserve in Brazil —with 49 a thousand square kilometers. It is estimated that it is home to 24 a thousand indigenous people. The region has been coveted by miners from all over the country, since the years 516, in search of ores such as gold and cassiterite, used in the manufacture of tin. Government estimates are that there are between 3. and 3.500 illegal miners in the region. Entities working in the defense of indigenous rights claim that this number can reach 24 thousand.

Data from INPE (National Institute for Space Research) indicate that deforestation in the Yanomami indigenous land increased 516% in the period between 2018 and 2020 compared to the previous period, between 2017 and 2018. In the last two years, 1 km² were deforested , equivalent to 3,900 soccer fields). In the previous period, deforestation was 6.30 km².

To reach the region where the mines are, the two main means are the rivers or the skies. Garimpeiros challenge the rapids of the rivers that cut through the region to reach irregularly exploited areas.

Usually, this transport is done in rudimentary aluminum boats called “voadeiras”. These vessels transport people, food and equipment used in the extraction of gold.

In addition to the speedboats, the miners also use small side roads and an intricate aerial network.

For the most part, it is made up of clandestine flights and airstrips that transport people and supplies, but which is also used to transport illegal gold production out of the mines.

The fuel route

The cycle of actions against illegal mining in the region was named Operation Xapiri. It is the result of a lawsuit filed by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) in Roraima against illegal mining in the region and involves bodies such as Ibama (Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), the ANP (National Petroleum Agency), the Anac (National Civil Aviation Agency), Federal Police and MJSP (Ministry of Justice and Public Security).

Given its strategic importance, agents began to act to paralyze the aerial structure of the garimpos. Since the beginning of the investigations into the clandestine air network that supports the mines in the region, one of the main “mysteries” was to discover the origin of the aviation fuel that fed this fleet.

The agents, then , crossed information contained in invoices and other documents and arrived at the Boa Vista branch of Pioneiro Combustíveis, one of the largest aviation fuel distributors in Brazil, with 24 units in the North, Northeast, Midwest and Southeast regions.

The company is identified as the main supplier of aviation fuel for the air structure which supports illegal mining in the Yanomami indigenous land.

According to ANP rules, aviation fuel distributors can only sell the product to duly licensed refueling stations or to aircraft that have the airworthiness certificate from Anac within the validity period.

The certificate is a kind of “authorization” so that the aircraft can fly. The requirements, when fulfilled, facilitate the tracking of fuel.

The company’s documents, according to the investigation, indicate that it sold at least 860 thousand liters of jet fuel irregularly. The value is more than half of the 1.5 million liters of gasoline and aviation kerosene sold by Pioneiro in Roraima.

Until reaching the mines, however, the product takes almost 4 ,600 km, leaving Cubatão, in São Paulo, until reaching Boa Vista.

The fuel is produced by Petrobras, which then resells it to Vibra Energia, the new name of the former BR Distribuidora , a former Petrobras subsidiary privatized in 2019.

Petrobras was contacted by the report and sent a note stating that Pioneiro Combustíveis is not its client.

“Pioneiro Combustíveis is not a Petrobras aviation fuel customer. The company purchases the product from aviation fuel distributors,” says the company’s statement.

)Vibrate Energia was also contacted by the article, but until the time of publication of this article, it had not spoken.

In a note, the ANP informed that Pioneiro Combustíveis was fined. for non-compliance with the rule that regulates the sale of aviation fuel and that the case is still in progress, but that it is in good standing and authorized to continue selling the product. If found guilty at the end of the process, the company may be subject to fines of between R$ 5.000 and R$ 5 million.

BBC News Brasil contacted the lawyer of Pioneiro Combustíveis and sent questions about the preliminary conclusions of the investigation. By text message, the company’s lawyer, Janaina Sousa Lopes, said that the company “has more than 30 years in the market and does not comply with any alleged irregularity”.

Fuel distribution

After reaching Pioneiro Combustíveis’s tanks, part of the product was, according to investigations, sold irregularly to supply points located in areas close to the indigenous land. In these places, planes that flew to the gold mines would be supplied clandestinely.

In one of the cases, agents discovered that a company that operates one of these supply points bought 40 thousand liters of aviation fuel. In one of the phases of the operation, the agents even apprehended seven aircraft at the site.

Days later, two of these aircraft were found and destroyed by Ibama on a clandestine airstrip near the Yanomami indigenous land.

In another situation, Pioneiro’s documents show that it delivered 34 a thousand liters of fuel in November to an aerodrome that had been embargoed by IBAMA in October, which prohibited it from receiving the product.

According to the investigations, the company could not claim ignorance about the destination of the product because the fuel it was delivered by Pioneiro’s own trucks.

Another part of the fuel, according to the documents, was placed directly in the tank of aircraft without authorization to fly.

According to data provided by the company itself, at least four aircraft without Anac authorization to fly were fueled with at least 4. liters of fuel. In the region, aircraft without authorization to fly carry out the so-called “ghost flights”, which escape any type of inspection.

The agents also found at least one foreign aircraft without a flight authorization given by the ANAC that received fuel from Pioneiro and was spotted on clandestine lanes operating close to garimpos.

On the day 000 in December, Ibama fined Pioneiro Combustíveis R$1.5 million for illegally transporting and selling aviation gasoline and kerosene. In addition to the fine, the company had its activities suspended.

On the day 20 in December, however, the Federal Court of Roraima granted an injunction suspending the fine and the suspension of the company’s activities on the grounds that it could affect essential activities such as the supply of aircraft that provide medical care in the region .

Runways, weapons, radio and internet

With the supply of fuel guaranteed, the miners set up a wide and well-connected network from clandestine airstrips, which even included makeshift hangars in the middle of the jungle.

At one of these points, located just over five kilometers from the limit of the Yanomami indigenous land, Ibama agents found a large house. on the margins of a clandestine runway that served as a shelter for aircraft and helicopters operating in the mine.

At the site, agents also found weapons with telescopic sights, pistols, and ammunition. various calibers, telecommunication radio equipment and satellite internet.

The weapons, according to the members of the operation, are used to secure the site against assailants or rival groups.

Radios are used for communication between runways and aircraft, and the internet via satellite helps miners break the isolation and communicate with each other when operations to combat the activity are launched.

Several escape attempts during Operation Xapiri were recorded by agents. In one of them, a helicopter took off from a clandestine runway just as the IBAMA helicopter arrived at the scene.

Preliminary data indicate that at least 174 Clandestine airstrips have been identified in the vicinity of the Yanomami indigenous land.

Mystery Solved

For the Attorney of the Republic Alisson Marugal, the preliminary information passed on by Ibama was useful to solve part of what he classified as “mystery”.

“For us, it has always been a mystery to know where the enormous amount came from of fuel that supplied the aircraft that support the garimpos in the region. What the information shows is that a good part of this fuel arrives in Roraima legally and is then transferred to this network that supplies the garimpos,” said the prosecutor.

Marugal explains that, based on the information provided by Ibama, the MPF should act both in the criminal and civil liability direction.

“We have to assess, from a criminal point of view, all the responsibilities of those involved. And in the civil sphere, we are going to check whether it is appropriate to propose changes to the aviation fuel sales monitoring system to prevent the product from fueling criminal activities”, he explained.

In addition to the investigation into the logistics network which supports mining, the MPF in Roraima and other states also investigates other branches of this activity, such as the flow of production, the “heating” of illegal gold and its introduction into the legal metal market. such as Roraima, Rondônia, Pará and Mato Grosso.

A study prepared by the UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais) released this year indicates that 24% of all gold traded in Brazil between 2017 and 2020 had evidence of irregularities. the 49 of the 94 tons of gold registered in the country in the period. It is estimated that most of the illegal gold in Brazil comes from mining in the Amazon a.

After the publication of the report, BR Aviation sent the following note to BBC News Brasil:

“BR Aviation, Vibra business unit for services of aircraft supply and related activities, informs that it has already requested clarification from its Pioneiro Combustíveis dealership about the allegations that the company would be selling fuel to companies without airworthiness certification and for logistical support for illegal mining in indigenous reserves in the state of Roraima.

The company also emphasizes that it only sells aviation fuel to companies that are in good standing and that strictly comply with all legal requirements. safety and security. In addition, BR Aviation vehemently repudiates any illegal activity, having always guided its performance in accordance with the best ethical and commercial practices.”

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