Hundreds of armed men have set fire to environmental agency buildings in Brazil’s Amazon region, forcing extra troops and federal police to be deployed to the scene of the attack.
The arsonists are believed to be illegal gold miners seeking revenge against officials who seized boats which are used to extract gold from the muddy bottom of the Madeira River.
During the attack, buildings occupied by the Humaitá branches of Brazil’s Environmental Protection Agency, the IBAMA, and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation were set ablaze, along with several agency vehicles.
Other vehicles belonging to the National Institute of Colony and Agrarian Reform were also destroyed in dramatic scenes, with flames and smoke seen shooting hundreds of meters into the air.
The fires raged for more than five hours before firefighters were able to extinguish them.
Jose Leland Barroso, head of IBAMA in the state of Amazonas, told a Brazilian newspaper: “This is a barbaric attack, an act of terrorism. They are challenging the Brazilian state and they will get the proper response. Ibama will carry on with its activities. They may set fire to our offices, but we will carry on.”
The attack is the latest in an ongoing battle between federal agencies and thousands of small-scale illegal gold miners operating in the expansive Amazon region, often targeting protected wildlife areas and indigenous lands.
Illegal miners, believed to number more than 1,000 in the RENCA reserve near the Brazil and French Guiana border alone, dump “tons” of mercury directly into rivers to separate the gold from residue.
A state-sponsored study released in March found that people living near illegal mining sites had “more than double the level of mercury considered to be a serious health risk.” Such levels can cause damage to the “central nervous system, kidneys, heart and reproductive organs.”
In early September, it was reported that illegal miners had murdered between 18 and 21 members of the Warikama Djapar tribe in the Vale do Javari Indigenous land, which borders Peru. A new oversight committee to monitor illegal mining is now pending congressional approval.
President Michel Temer signed a decree in August to open the RENCA reserve, which covers over 46,000 square miles, to commercial mining.
The administration later changed the text to ban mining in protected and indigenous areas after the announcement was met with global condemnation.