BOA VISTA (NYTIMES) – From some 700m in the air, the dirt airstrip is just a crack in a seemingly endless ocean of rainforest, surrounded by muddy mining pits that bleed toxic chemicals into a riverbed.
The airstrip is owned by the Brazilian government – the only way for health care officials to reach the Indigenous people in the nearby village. But illegal miners have seized it, using small planes to ferry equipment and fuel into areas where roads don’t exist.
And when a plane the miners don’t recognise approaches, they spread fuel canisters along the airstrip to make landing impossible. “The airstrip now belongs to the miners,” said Junior Hekurari, an Indigenous health care official.
The miners have also built four other airstrips nearby, all illegally, propelling such a rapid expansion of illegal mining on the supposedly protected land of the Yanomami people that crime has grown out of control and government workers are too scared to return.
This is just a small cluster of the clandestine airstrips pushing the illegal mining of gold and tin ore into the most remote corners of the Amazon rainforest.
Carved into the dense, lush landscape, they are part of vast criminal networks that operate largely unchecked because of the neglect or ineffectiveness of enforcement and regulatory agencies in Brazil, including the military.
The New York Times identified 1,269 unregistered airstrips throughout Brazil’s Amazon rainforest in the last year, many of which supply a thriving illicit industry that has surged under President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
Mr Bolsonaro has faced constant global criticism for allowing the Amazon to be pillaged during his administration.
The Amazon acts as a giant sponge, keeping tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But it has been under relentless assault in recent years – from logging, extensive burning for agriculture, mining and other legal and illegal threats.
Recent research shows that climate change and widespread deforestation are pushing the rainforest to a tipping point that could destroy its ability to recover from such damage.
Since taking office in 2019, Mr Bolsonaro has championed industries driving the rainforest’s destruction, leading to record levels of deforestation. He has both loosened regulations to expand logging and mining in the Amazon and scaled back protections.
Mr Bolsonaro has long supported the legalisation of mining on Indigenous land. He even visited an illegal gold mine on what was supposed to be protected territory, publicly signaling his support for illicit activities in the Brazilian Amazon.
“It’s not fair to criminalise wildcat miners,” Mr Bolsonaro told supporters outside his home in Brasília, the capital, last year.
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