Find out how illegal miners in the Amazon use Elon Musk's internet to evade surveillance

Starlink is vital for invaders on the Yanomami land, from where the government has been trying to expel them

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | Londrina (Paraná state) |
Illegal mining area in the Uraricoera River, within the Yanomami Indigenous Land - Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Rea/HAY

In a video published on the social media platform TikTok, an illegal mining influencer shows off a vital working tool: a satellite internet antenna.

“Here, the internet we use is provided by Starlink. It locates the satellite signal. Nowadays, technology is very advanced. It's very easy to stay connected,” she says in the video, with no worries. 

This is an example of how billionaire Elon Musk's Starlink internet service has boosted illegal mining – known as “garimpo” in Brazil – in the Amazon by bringing fast, mobile connections to remote locations.

The Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, also known as Ibama, told Brasil de Fato that the popularization of the service in illegal mining areas makes environmental inspection more difficult and makes it easier for mining logistics, with the transport of food, fuel and other supplies for this illegal activity. 

“Every camp, every boat, every [mining] dredger has a Starlink antenna. This internet is widespread in mining areas,” said Hugo Loss, Ibama's operations coordinator.

“We take the antenna and run into the forest” 

In March 2024 alone, Ibama seized 25 Starlink antennas. They were all in illegal mining areas. After the seizure, the equipment is stored with the environmental agency and can’t be reused, as it is linked to the buyer's CPF, a mandatory document for Brazilian citizens, similar to the US’s Social Security Number. Federal agents destroy the antennas that can’t be seized due to being in very remote locations.

In the video published on TikTok, the illegal mining influencer explained why Starlink is so important for illegal miners in the Amazon:

“We can no longer be without the internet because of the [environmental enforcement] operation. We have to be connected. We have to participate in groups and keep informed. Because when there's an operation, we're warned. And we run. We take the [Starlink] antenna, take out the most important things and [hide in] the forest,” the woman, who introduced herself as a cook in illegal mining areas, posted.

With Starlink, inspection operations have been less effective, according to Ibama's operations coordinator. 

“Once the inspectors land on a garimpo, the information is sent to all other garimpos simultaneously and in real-time, enabling them to remove the equipment. They often throw the engines and hydraulic excavators into the water to prevent us from destroying them,” said Hugo Loss.

“Buru going up towards the garimpo” 

Brasil de Fato had access to an exchange of messages in a WhatsApp group of illegal miners that exemplifies how they exchange alerts about Ibama operations. In the audio transcribed below, a man informs us about the arrival of the “buru”, a slang for helicopter.

“Buru going up towards garimpo, buru going up to garimpo, here to the Uraricoera [River],” can be heard in the audio shared in several WhatsApp groups to which the BdF had access.

Uraricoera, the river mentioned in the audio, is one of the areas most preyed upon by mining in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which remains a stronghold of illegal gold mining, even though the federal government has been trying for over a year to expel invaders from there.

Starlink antennas are more portable than those from other companies

When Ibama arrives, illegal miners flee with the most important objects, which are the illegally extracted gold and Starlink's antennas. The equipment manufactured by Elon Musk's company is much lighter and more portable than that supplied by the main competitor in the internet market in the Amazon region, the North American company Viasat. 

In the video, the TikTok influencer showed that the Starlink antenna is not fixed to the ground with screws, as the manufacturer instructs. The reason, according to her, is to facilitate escapes. 

“If you put all the little screws here, when the [environmental inspection] operation comes, it's going to be very difficult to get them out. [You'll have to] keep unscrewing them. When agents arrive, we take it off quickly and run,” she said. 

Another strategy is to paint the antennas in black. The intention is to make it difficult for federal agents to spot the equipment from the air.

Expert advocates for blocking Starlink’s signal

Illegal mining is causing a humanitarian crisis in the Amazon, spreading disease and generating conflicts and deaths in indigenous villages.

In the Ukrainian war, Elon Musk claimed to have cut Starlink's signal to disrupt a Ukrainian attack on a Russian naval fleet. In the Gaza Strip, Starlink was prevented by the United States and Israel from supplying the Palestinians with internet access. 

In Brazil, the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA, in Portuguese) advocates that the connection be blocked in illegal mining areas.

“In theory, the same strategy used in other countries could be employed here: identify which points are within the perimeter of Indigenous Land and which are not associated with community demands. From there, you would identify the illegal points and suspend the signal,” Senra said. 

Musk hasn't kept his promise to provide schools with internet access 

Starlink arrived in Brazil in 2022 through a partnership between Musk and the Bolsonaro government. At the time, the billionaire announced that he would make the connection available to 19,000 schools without internet access on Amazon. Brasil de Fato confirmed that only 3 state schools in the region had internet access through the partnership. 

When contacted, the Ministry of Communications said it had no contracts with Starlink.  

The Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi, in Portuguese) regrets that Musk continues to expand his business while illegal mining devastates Indigenous communities. 

Fast growth 

Starlink is growing faster in Brazil than in the rest of the world. In 2023, the company's internet traffic tripled worldwide, but increased 17 times in Brazil, according to Cloudflare, an American company that monitors global internet use.

A BBC Brasil survey showed that the company has private clients in 90% of the municipalities in the Amazon region.

The Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) regrets that Musk continues to expand his business while illegal mining devastates Indigenous communities.

“I [referring to Elon Musk] have a lot of money, so I can do whatever I want. I don't care if my technological tool [Starlink] is causing deaths or favoring organized crime. They will continue [there, in the Amazon]. So, I believe we really need to address that, denounce it and say it's a criminal thing", defended Gilmara Fernandes, a Cimi missionary in Boa Vista, Roraima’s capital city.

The other side

Starlink's representative in Brazil, Vitor Urner, told Brasil de Fato that he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the company. Brazil’s National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel, in Portuguese) did not answer whether it has plans to block Starlink's signal in illegal mines.

Edited by: Rodrigo Chagas