In Conversation: Unveiling Illegal Mining in the Amazon with Bram Ebus

FACT Policy Fellow Sofia Gonzalez interviewed Bram Ebus, Lead Journalist and Research Coordinator at Amazon Underworld, on his work investigating illegal gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon. This is their conversation, edited for clarity and length. FACT does not necessarily endorse the policies reflected in this discussion.

The interview below follows and expands upon interviews conducted during the development of FACT’s latest report, “Dirty Money and the Destruction of the Amazon: Uncovering the U.S. Role in Illicit Financial Flows from Environmental Crimes in Peru and Colombia.The full report, including recommendations for U.S. policy makers, can be found here.

What is Amazon Underworld currently working on? 

We have been trying to identify the presence of gold mining in the Puruê River in the Brazilian Amazon. We wanted to write a story about who those miners are, the conditions they work in, and how much gold they dredge up as well as what their relationship is with armed groups in the territory. We noted that this river, which springs in Colombia, is also a drug trafficking route, and that a FARC dissident group from Colombia uses this route to bring cocaine and potent marijuana into Brazil. Of course, if there is illegal mining, which is often coupled with the presence of criminal organizations, there could be a correlation. So we decided to analyze satellite imagery and travel to the remote regions of the Puruê River to track the presence of barges used for illegal mining.

How has Amazon Underworld approached its research on illegal mining in the Amazon Basin? 

Before traveling to the region, we started by analyzing satellite imagery. Nevertheless, we encountered some logistical problems, since the Amazon often has cloud coverage, and the algorithm we were developing to detect them cannot always account for that. Further, since mining barges are mobile, counting the number of mining barges on a river spanning hundreds of kilometers is challenging. It was also difficult to identify whether a barge seen on one side of cloud cover definitively was or was not the same barge we saw on the other side days later.

We also analyzed the change in water color, which indicates the presence of mining barges. Typically, this river is very dark because of the organic material it contains. Recently, after the mining barges showed up, the color of the river changed to what we call “coffee with milk,” which is this brownish color due to the heavy sedimentation caused by the river dredging. This, for us, is evidence that there are a large amount of barges and dredging for fine minerals and traces of gold. 

Can you talk about the types of illegal mining networks you observed, and the profits generated by the mining barges in the Purus River?

When we traveled to the region, we knew there was a presence of FARC dissidents and miners who could be armed and river pirates. On the PuruêRiver, we spoke with some of the garimpeiros, or illegal gold miners. They explained that there’s a considerable quantity of about 150 mining barges on both sides of the border, and that they can extract about 2 ½ or 3 kilos of gold monthly. Even though the Puruê River is quite small, there is still a very large industry of gold dredging there. In the Japurá municipality, in just a year, the gold barges can extract gold worth more than the total national budget of Brazil’s environmental police. 

When we went over to the Brazilian side of the Purus River, we counted about 80 mining barges, but then we ran into a security incident with the Brazilian military police who roamed those waters. They intimidated us, seized our memory cards, and obligated us to abort the whole trip. When we came back, we, of course, had a lot of questions. So we noted that Colombian armed groups are benefiting from illegal mining in Brazil, but that there are also state armed groups working with the military police benefiting from the same illicit gold mining economy. As long as there is no collaboration between law enforcement in both countries, illegal miners will always win this game. 

In your research, have you identified connections between environmental crimes, such as the illegal mining barges and their owners, and the use of U.S. ties to facilitate illicit financial activities? 

We noticed that most of the illegal gold that comes from the Puruê River reaches gold hubs like Porto Velho and Manaus, where it enters the legal supply chain. From there, it ends up with São Paulo gold exporters, who then export gold to the U.S. and to India. Illegal mining leads to the destruction of the Amazon but also finances groups that are generating violence, such as FARC dissent organizations, which are on the U.S. Treasury terrorist list. Further, some of the gold is reaching clients in the United States. 

When we were interacting with some of the illegal miners on the barges, one man told us that he had been a career miner in the Amazon on mining barges for more than three decades, and also spent time in São Paulo. The Brazilian career miner then bragged about his home in Miami and the time he spent in the United States. Some of these career miners are multi-millionaires who visit different countries and lead lives in the two worlds, which can be the Amazon and international urban hubs where they can spend their money. And, of course, the people who work on these mining barges are often people from local and Amazon regions who want to make ends meet. 

From your perspective, in what ways is the U.S. enabling these environmental crimes in the Amazon Basin, and what suggestions do you have for addressing these issues both at home and from an international policy perspective? 

We think that the U.S. is still not asking for enough due diligence from gold extracted from the Amazon region. Take, for instance, the case of Venezuela. There have been sanctions on gold in Venezuela, which have been lifted temporarily. Gold is still coming from controlled armed groups, including groups on U.S. terrorist lists. Sanctions on Venezuela haven’t worked, in part because, unlike other precious materials like diamonds, gold does not have an identifying signature that reflects its place of origin. In the case of Venezuela, gold is trafficked to neighboring countries instead, where it is legalized and then shipped to the U.S. 

The U.S. isn’t pressuring those countries enough to work on transparency and traceability and to clean up their supply chains. But then we also feel that the U.S. needs to do more to really investigate their gold refineries and their downstream clients within U.S. territories to open up their books and be extra diligent with the gold they are acquiring from international markets. 

How can the NGO and government sectors best support local civil society and indigenous communities that are most affected by illegal mining, logging, and other environmental crimes?

It is very important to help local civil society and community organizations monitor the presence of illegal mining. Another idea is to work with local universities to continue to do hair and blood sampling to detect mercury levels not only in mining areas but also in rivers connected to the mining areas. We need to know more about which communities are affected. Environmental implications are significant because oftentimes, they are not included. 

Secondly, we need to amplify access to databases and research tools. Local journalists or civil society groups who want to investigate supply chains can’t do so because they don’t have access to expensive databases or research tools to track and trace the gold. These tools have information about the most important piece of the puzzle, which is where the gold goes after it’s mined and to what local hub it is sent. The local hub is where the paper trails usually start. Prior to researching, however, we must know whether the gold from the mine even reaches the local hub to begin with.

How are local and international law enforcement collaborations helpful? 

Lastly, collaborations between local and international investigators are very important so we can track who buys the gold and where the gold goes. This allows us to advocate for change in the consumer markets. This is not always helpful, however, as we see actors like China or countries in the Middle East have been rather immune to external pressures. They are pretty hard to influence.

There is no quick fix to this issue since the gold industry is nearly impossible to crack down on if we don’t work on the root causes. These oftentimes have to do with a lack of economic opportunities, the lack of governance in the Amazon, and the lack of protection for both ecosystems and local communities. 

Is there any additional information you would like to share regarding the research and reports you’ve worked on related to environmental crime and illicit financial flows or anything else you’d like to bring into this conversation? 

In the Amazon, there are disappearing barriers between the legal and the illegal economies. Oftentimes, we talk about deforestation, but we must also talk about legal industries such as cattle ranching and industrial agriculture. When we look at these two massive sectors promoting and driving (illegal) deforestation in the Amazon, we have noticed criminal convergence. We have seen times when illegal miners and drug traffickers bribe government functionaries and help to finance cattle ranching and land grabbing in the agricultural sectors. There is also the reinvestment of dirty money from economies that contribute to environmental degradation. We must understand these linkages between both sectors. 

It’s hard to investigate these industries because oftentimes, in the depth of the Amazon, there is no state presence, which we see in all Amazon countries. The Amazon is slowly being taken over by organized crime or groups that are multiplying their illicit revenues. They also have a very high capacity to bribe and to corrupt, especially knowing that the few government agencies in the Amazon have low budgets and don’t pay high salaries to their M.P.s, who are very susceptible to corruption.

Looking at the data, it would be impossible for there to be full state presence in the Amazon, which may be for the best because state presence doesn’t always translate into security and protection. It is much more important to look at the capacities of local communities and those living in the Amazon, amplify their collective territories with legal land titles, and help them monitor that lens and get rid of violent invaders and illicit economies. It is more beneficial to help the local communities and civil society groups instead of investing in more law enforcement budgets.

Bram Ebus is a criminologist and research journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. He specializes in resource conflicts, environmental crimes, and security trends. As a journalist, his work has been published in English, Dutch, and Spanish, with contributions featured in such publications as the Miami Herald, the Guardian, Al Jazeera. and Newsweek. Since 2017, Ebus has been actively covering mining conflicts in Venezuela for InfoAmazonia and has led three collaborative media investigations, resulting in multiple awards, including two Online Journalism Awards and a Gabo (Premio Gabriel García Márquez). This year, he completed a fellowship with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network, and he currently spearheads Amazon Underworld, a media alliance in the Amazon region. He also works as a consultant on conflict and environmental issues for the International Crisis Group.