Musk internet kit is a boon for bad actors in the Brazilian Amazon

Musk internet kit is a boon for bad actors in the Brazilian Amazon

ATALIA DO NORTE, Brazil (AP) – Brazilian federal agents in three helicopters descended on an illegal mining site in the Amazon rainforest on Tuesday. They are met with gunfire, and the gunmen flee, leaving an increasingly familiar find for the authorities: the Starlink Internet Unit.

Starlink, a division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has about 4,000 low-orbit satellites in the sky, connecting people in remote corners of the Amazon and giving Ukrainian forces a critical advantage on the battlefield. The lightweight, high-speed Internet system has also proven a new and valuable tool for Brazil’s illegal miners, providing reliable services for coordinating supplies, receiving advance warnings of law enforcement raids, and getting paid without having to return to the city.

Agents from Brazil’s environmental agency’s special inspection group and the federal highway police’s rapid response group found a Starlink terminal next to a crater on Tuesday, an official involved in the operation told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his personal safety.

They also seized 600 grams (21 ounces) of mercury, 15 grams (0.5 ounces) of gold, 508 cartridges of ammunition of various calibers and personal documents. They destroyed 3,250 liters (848 gallons) of fuel, four mining barges, 12 generators, 23 camping and storage units and seven outboard motors.

According to a federal investigation, the mining area known as Oro Mill is controlled by Brazil’s most feared criminal organization, known as the capital’s First Command.

Since taking office this year, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has empowered authorities to crack down on environmental violations, particularly illegal mining on Yanomami lands, Brazil’s largest indigenous territory. In recent years, an estimated 20,000 prospectors contaminated important waterways with mercury used to separate gold. They disrupted traditional tribal life, brought disease and caused widespread famine.

The environmental agency, known as Ibama, has seized seven Starlink terminals on Yanomami land in the past five weeks, including two this Tuesday, the agency’s press office said in an emailed statement. A myriad of highly portable Starlink terminals can be carried with miners as they flee sites into the rainforest.

Illegal miners have long used the Internet to communicate and coordinate, but until now it required sending a technician to install a heavy, permanent antenna, usually by plane, that could not be carried whenever mining sites were moved or raids were conducted. . Nevertheless, the connection was slow and unstable, especially on rainy days. Small and medium-sized cities in the Amazon were not well connected.

Starlink – which was first available in Brazil last year and has spread rapidly – has solved these problems The installation is done by yourself, the equipment works even on the move, the speed is as fast as in the big cities of Brazil and it works even during storms.

Starlink has long seen Amazon as an opportunity. Musk’s visit to Brazil last May shows that. He met with then-President Jair Bolsonaro and the region was at the center of their conversation.

“Excited to be in Brazil to launch Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas and Amazon’s environmental monitoring,” Musk tweeted at the time.

That project, however, did not progress with the Brazilian government. SpaceX and the communications ministry have not signed an agreement, and only three terminals were installed in Amazon schools for a 12-month trial period, the ministry’s press office said in an emailed response to questions.

Nevertheless, Starlink has embarked on a journey and change in the region.

In Atalía do Norte, on the western edge of the Brazilian Amazon near the border of Peru and Colombia, Rubení de Castro Alves installed Starlink in his hotel in December. Now, he can make bank transfers and make video calls. He even started binging Netflix.

“There are so many new things to see that I can’t even sleep,” Alves said with a laugh.

His son once flew to Manaus, the state capital, 1,140 kilometers (708 miles) away, to speak with a group of tourists via conference call. Today, Internet at his 11-room hotel in Atalia do Norte is more reliable than in Manaus, Alves said.

He bought a second terminal for his tour boat. So far, even on its 10-day journey passengers have had to do without any contact. If something went wrong, no one would know until the boat arrived on time.

With internet in high demand, dozens of the riverside town’s 21,000 residents flock to Alves’ hotel every day. Its balcony is a meeting point for teenagers who spend hours playing online games on their phones.

“It has revolutionized our city,” Alves said.

A world away, in Ukraine, Starlink has a battlefield advantage in the war with Russia.

Ukraine already has around 24,000 Starlink terminals. Amid ongoing Russian shelling of civilian infrastructure, they allow continued Internet connections in the country’s most vulnerable regions in the southeast. In all major Ukrainian cities, authorities have set up “resilience points” that offer free internet with hot drinks.

The benefits of connectivity were immediately apparent to Amazon’s bad actors, Hugo Los, operations coordinator for Brazil’s environmental agency, told the AP in a phone interview. It allows the combination of tools, mining, food and fuel.

“This technology is extremely fast and really improves the ability to operate an illegal mine,” Los said. “You can operate hundreds of mining sites without ever setting foot on one.”

Another official with the environmental agency told the AP that it had just begun evicting miners from the Yanomami region and that Starlink’s spread was a fever among illegal miners, complicating the mission. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of personal safety concerns.

An unauthorized reseller of Starlink in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state, a gateway to travel to the Yanomami region, is marketing units in a WhatsApp group for illegal miners and promising same-day delivery.

He costs $1,600 for a terminal, with monthly installments of $360 – six times what Alves pays for services at his small hotel in Atalía do Norte.

As law breakers have access to superior internet services, the authorities themselves have started using Starlink. Federal agents set up a terminal at a new checkpoint on the Uraricora River – a vital corridor for miners entering Yanomami territory. The official who informed the AP about Tuesday’s operation used Starlink to send photos and even heavy video files of their operation via way transfer.

Brazil’s environment agency AP said in an email that it, along with other federal agencies, is studying how to block Starlink’s signals in illegal mining areas.

“This measure is important to break the sustainable logistics of illegal mining in tribal areas,” its press office said.

The AP emailed SpaceX communications director James Gleason with questions about Starlink’s presence in Brazil and its use by illegal miners in remote areas, but did not receive a response.


AP reporter Yuras Karmanou contributed from Tallinn, Estonia.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiatives here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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