Are sustainable futures possible? Indigenous people and gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon

​Reporting on fieldwork in the Tapajós region of the Brazilian Amazon, Raíssa Resende de Moraes shows how the relationship between indigenous people and gold mining reflects a complex reality that challenges a simple dichotomy of miners’ vs indigenous people.

Raíssa Resende de Moraes

The social arenas (Ferreira, 2005; 2017) that surround indigenous peoples and Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Miners (garimpeiros) in the Brazilian Amazon are characterized by controversies and inequalities. De Theije (2020) captures the shifting politics of gold mining in Brazil, highlighting how the informality that characterizes the gold mining sector becomes a problem regarding intrusion onto indigenous territories and environmental damage. 

Statue of a gold miner in Novo Progresso, the State of Pará

While portraits of indigenous people under threat from gold mining are common in international media, reality is more complicated. It is also the case that indigenous people themselves take up gold mining, in the process of abandoning other livelihood activities. The failure of the state to support indigenous communities makes them fragile and increases their exposure to illegal activities. Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) represents a way for these indigenous communities to survive but in the process it generates new fragilities with deep social and environmental consequences (De Theije and Salman, 2018; Araujo and Souza, 2018).

ASGM is an important activity in the Brazilian Amazon, since it supports the livelihoods of thousands of people. In 2013 estimates were of 200.000 ASGM working in Brazil (Cremers and De Theije, 2013). However, from a technical point of view, the socio-environmental impacts resulting from ASGM can generate barriers to sustainability. Nonetheless, it is central to question about what ‘sustainability’ means in such a context, when there are different perspectives from different groups of people. Particularly important is how these perspectives on sustainability relate to the livelihood activities that different individuals and groups engage in, including gold mining.

Between July and August 2019 and in January 2020, my colleagues from the Brazilian team of the Gold Matters Project and I carried out intensive fieldwork along the BR 163 Highway. Our fieldwork journey went from the city of Sinop, in the state of Mato Grosso, to the city of Santarém, in the state of Pará, covering a total of more than 1000 kilometers (which we describe here).

Boat travel with Munduruku in Jacareacanga

Located in the Amazon Rainforest in the southwestern of the state of Pará, the Tapajos region partially covers one of the most important gold deposits in the world. Large parts of the region are indigenous lands, and ASGM has historically had a negative impact on indigenous groups of people living in the region. Travelling along BR 163 provided the opportunity to gain insight into a complex reality that confirmed the importance of understanding the complex relationship between ASGM and indigenous people, which cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy of indigenous people vs gold miners.

Port of Jacareacanga, state of Pará

Amongst all mining activities carried out on indigenous lands, those happening on the Munduruku land (Munduruku nation) and Kayapó land (Kayapó nation) are very emblematic. The Kayapó are internationally known as “protectors of the forest” by their movement of resistance for accepting development projects on their territories (Turner, 2006). The most representative leader of this resistance movement, both nationally and internationally, is Chief Raoni. Nevertheless, part of the Kayapó group is also known for making informal contracts with small-scale gold miners to accept ASGM on their territories in exchange for a percentage of the gold extracted.

In the 1980s thousands of miners started working on the land of the Gorotire, a subgroup of the Kayapó that live on the right side of the Xingu river. The new income of the Gorotires drew the attention of other subgroups, and, as a consequence, they started to accept garimpeiros also in other areas. The mining activity reached areas occupied by the Mekrãgnoti, a subgroup of the Kayapó that lives in the left side of the Xingu river; with the only exception of the territories belonging to the subgroup Metyktire, from the indigenous land Kapoto-Jarina.

During my fieldwork within the Mekrãgnoti and Metyktire sub-groups, it became clear that different local actors have divergent positions regarding whether and how gold mining can be incorporated within indigenous territories. Some members of the Mekrãgnoti and Metyktire sub-groups thought that being involved in gold mining is not essential for their survival, as, beyond hunting and fishing, they work with socio-biodiversity products, such as nut collection and traditional handcrafts production. As shown by the words of the president of the indigenous association Kabu “We don’t want that kubein [non-indigenous people] to enter inside our lands. All the indigenous leaders don’t like that loggers and garimpeiros to enter in our lands. It is because we are working with Brazilian nuts, cumaru, handcrafts, and other projects.”

Others members of the indigenous sub-groups, however, are of the view that the money from gold mining improves the quality of life for the community members. In this sense, a leader of a village that accepts ASGM in their territories said “working with ASGM is a crime for us indigenous people. But ASGM is good to help people. For example, if an emergency situation occurs in our village, we ask for help at SESAI [Special Secretary of Indigenous Health], we ask for an airplane… But it takes too long […] the ASGM money can help people to have a good life.”

These views extended to different perspectives on the extent to which economic alternatives should be encouraged in the region. These diverse perspectives on the value of mining raise the question of which economic activity is the most compatible with the life reality of indigenous people in these region? Answers to this question are, of course, not easy and create tensions within and between different indigenous groups.

Closely entwined with indigenous people’s means of survival and the role played by gold mining for these indigenous groups are issues of land governance. Institutionally, the regulation of mining in indigenous lands is an extremely controversial subject and currently, it is regulated by the federal parliament. Protests by miners demanding the formalization of ASGM (in order to have legitimate access to mineral resources) often occur. 

Nowadays, parts of the Kayapo belong to indigenous organizations whose efforts are directed towards border protection and to the encouragement of economic activities which help maintaining their livelihoods. These include the Insituto Raoni, the Instituto Kabu, and the Associação Floresta Protegida. Despite their efforts, my interviews suggested that some groups are leaving these organizations, claiming that they do not feel effectively represented by them. Furthermore, they feel aggrieved that neither these organizations nor the State provide basic necessities. 

Kayapó Menkrãgnoti Store in Novo Progresso

ASGM is seen as an option to fill this gap and presents itself as an alternative means of survival for these people. In this sense, as described above, the negotiations between indigenous and garimpeiros consist of making informal contracts in which the authorization of gold exploration is exchanged for a percentage of the gold extracted. This is the case of young indigenous men from within these indigenous sub-groups who are attracted to mining. They are known in the community as “the leaders”, a title that does not necessarily correspond to the traditional indigenous chiefs. These men occupy position as mediators between the community and the miners and are responsible for all the negotiations that take place. Such positions provide an important dimension to sustainability, as these mediators are also gatekeepers deciding how to access the territory and how natural resources can be used, either for mining or for other livelihood goals.

The negotiations between these “leaders” and other actors in the social arena illustrate the complexity of the decision-making process of the indigenous communities in accepting, or not, ASGM in their territories. The analysis of possible sustainable futures passes through an understanding of these relationships, and through processes of negotiation and conflict between different actors in this social arena. This analysis can bring to light processes and relationships that carry the seeds of the transformations toward sustainability. Our approach is helping to explore the social dynamics and relations between different groups to understand whether co-existence between gold mining and other indigenous livelihood activities is possible for sustainable futures.

Raissa Resende de Moraes is a doctoral candidate in the Center of Environmental Studies and Research at the University of Campinas in Brazil and External PhD Candidate, Faculty of Social Sciences, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam  External PhD Candidate, Faculty of Social Sciences, Social and Cultural Anthropology.


Twitter: @Raissa54872236

Gold Matters: Sustainability Transformations in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining: A Multi-Actor and Trans-Regional Perspective is a transdisciplinary research project which aims to consider whether and how a transformative approach towards sustainability can arise in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining (ASGM). For more information see


Cite as follows: Resende de Moraes, R. (2020) Are sustainable futures possible? Indigenous people and gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon


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