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Police burn miners' boats in Brazil's Amazon, upping tension

Brazilian police said Monday they burned 131 boats used by gold miners in the heart of the Amazon, raising tensions in an isolated region rife with poverty and crime.

Smoke has been wafting over the Madeira river since Saturday, with many locals complaining the swift action by authorities has left them stranded in the rainforest.

Brazil’s Justice minister, Anderson Torres, confirmed on social media that the boats had been burned in what marks a change in direction for the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, which has often sided with gold miners and argued they should be allowed to tap natural resources.

One of the more than 60 dredging barges that were set on fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, drifts on the river during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)

“It was a quick and efficient raid by the Bolsonaro administration," Torres said on Twitter.

Most of the fires were east of Amazonas capital of Manaus in a region of dense forest. The federal police raid was aided by agents of Brazil’s Navy and environmental enforcement agency IBAMA.

Images of hundreds of boats on the Madeira river have been published since last week, as miners sought gold in the river. Miners are historically known for polluting rivers in the Amazon and for opening way to loggers and cattle ranchers, who bring destruction to untouched areas.

Illegal miners display a banner that reads in Portuguese "Gold miners are not bandits, They are workers," after more than 60 dredging barges were set on fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)

Local media said three people had been jailed and a uncertain amount of gold was seized.

Miner Luiz Henrique Ribeiro said police burned his boat on Saturday. He said agents didn't allow him to get his belongings before setting it on fire. Many miners live on those boats, which often include satellite television, hammocks and pets.

“Federal police came by boat and told everyone to get out; they used pepper spray and told us to back off. Everybody left with only the clothes they were wearing,” said 26-year-old Ribeiro, who denied he was conducting illegal mining on the river.

Illegal miners gather on the shore below the town of Borba after dozens of dredging barges were set on fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)

Amazonas state prosecutors said in a statement that authorities must coordinate a plan within 30 days to end the presence of mining boats on the Madeira river. Some of the tension eased at night as a promise of conciliation appeared.

Simao Peixoto, the mayor of the riverside town of Borba and an ally of the miners, said he will meet federal authorities and lawmakers to discuss the issue.

“You are workers, you don’t deserve to live what you lived there. Being thrown on the mud like beasts,” Peixoto said.

Two of the more than 60 dredging barges that were set on fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, burn on the shore during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)

Greenpeace spokesman Danicley Aguiar said mining on the river is “in itself predatory” and police have no alternative but to stop it since the miners did not have licenses to operate.

“The raid took place because of the repercussions of this situation, as an attack on the state. It put the government in a place it was forced to act due to the boldness of the criminals,” he said.

Official government data showed that the area deforested in Brazil's Amazon reached a 15-year high after a 22% jump from the prior year. The Brazilian Amazon lost 13,235 square kilometers of rainforest in the 12-month reference period from Aug. 2020 to July 2021. That’s the most since 2006.

Illegal miners gather on the shore below the town of Borba after dozens of dredging barges were set on fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)

A Federal Police motor boat patrol the river after more than 60 dredging barges were set on fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)

A family of illegal gold miners shouts from the shore after their dredging barge was set in fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)

An illegal miner throws water at one of the more than 60 dredging barges that were set on fire by officers of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA, during an operation to try to contain illegal gold mining on the Madeira river, a tributary of the Amazon river in Borba, Amazonas state, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Hundreds of barges belonging to illegal miners had converged on the river during a gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon prompting IBAMA authorities to start burning them. (AP PhotoEdmar Barros)