"Usually associated with several other crimes such as smuggling and tax evasion, illegal mining finances land grabbing and has contributed to increased violence in the countryside"
By Karla Mendes
RIO DE JANIERO, Oct 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazilian army and police officers have ramped up security in the northern town of Humaitá in the Amazon region after illegal gold miners set fire to the offices of government environmental watchdogs, officials said on Sunday.
The buildings of Brazil's Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama) and the Chico Mendes Institute of Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio) in the northern Brazilian town of Humaitá were hit on Friday, according to the military police.
The attacks came after a crackdown on illegal mining operations with a government taskforce burning about 30 boats worth about $20,000 each in a prohibited area near a forest reserve on the Madeira River early Friday morning.
Ibama acts as an environmental monitoring group to protect Brazil's natural resources while ICMBio is in charge of forest reserves.
The attacks have raised concerns of further violence from illegal miners who often look for gold in protected areas or indigenous lands amid rising tensions over land ownership.
Military police official Rogens de Souza Morais said illegal miners - or "garimpeiros" as they are known - and up to 5,000 protesters took to the streets after the operation on Friday.
"Some garimpeiros financed fireworks to protesters. People also used rocks to hit Ibama," Morais told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said army and federal police officials are now strengthening security in the region.
A gold rush in the Amazon by illegal miners has decimated parts of the forest and poisoned the rivers with mercury and other toxins while also involving human trafficking and prostitution, according to federal prosecutors.
An Ibama official confirmed a taskforce last week launched an operation against illegal gold mining along the Madeira River, saying Brazilian legislation allowed the destruction of equipment used in criminal environmental activities.
In a joint statement late Saturday, ICMBio and Ibama said the damage would be assessed as soon as the region returned to normal and their fight against environmental crime continue.
"Usually associated with several other crimes such as smuggling and tax evasion, illegal mining finances land grabbing and has contributed to increased violence in the countryside," the statement said.
"This scenario requires a strong performance of public institutions."
Federal prosecutor Aldo de Campos Costa said his office in Amazonas state would launch civil and criminal investigations to identify those responsible for the damage.
Aurelio Herraiz, a professor at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of Amazonas State, who has worked on a project with garimpeiros in Humaitá for years, feared the conflict would get worse.
"What is needed is to sit down and try to solve the problem once and for all. Garimpeiros have to understand that they need to act legally," Herraiz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Reporting by Karla Mendes, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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