Brazilian federal agents aboard three helicopters descended on an illegal mining site earlier this week in the Amazon rainforest.
They were met with gunfire, and the shooters escaped, leaving behind an increasingly familiar find for authorities: Starlink internet units.
Starlink, a division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has almost 4,000 low-orbit satellites across the skies, connecting people in remote corners of the Amazon and providing a crucial advantage to Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.
The lightweight, high-speed internet system has also proved a new and valuable tool for Brazil’s illegal miners, with reliable service for coordinating logistics, receiving advance warning of law enforcement raids and making payments without flying back to the city.
Agents from the Brazilian environment agency’s special inspection group and the federal highway police rapid response group on Tuesday found one Starlink terminal up and running next to a pit, an officer who participated in the raid told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity over concerns for his personal safety.
They also seized mercury, gold and ammunition, and destroyed fuel and other equipment used by miners in an area known as Ouro Mil, controlled by Brazil´s most feared criminal organization, known as the First Command of the Capital, according to federal investigations.
Since taking office this year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has sought to crack down on environmental violations, particularly illegal mining in Yanomami land, Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory.
In recent years, an estimated 20,000 prospectors contaminated vital waterways with mercury used to separate gold. They have disrupted traditional Indigenous life, brought disease and caused widespread famine.
The environment agency, known as Ibama, has seized seven Starlink terminals in Yanomami land over the past five weeks, the agency’s press office said.
Illegal miners have long used satellite internet to communicate and coordinate, but until now that entailed sending a technician, usually by plane, to install a heavy, fixed antenna that cannot be carried off when mining sites move or are raided. And the connection was slow and unstable, especially on rainy days.
Starlink – which first became available in Brazil last year and has spread rapidly – solved those problems. Installation is do-it-yourself, the equipment works even on the move, speed is as fast as in Brazil´s large cities and it works during storms.
Starlink has long viewed the Amazon as an opportunity. That was underscored by Musk’s visit to Brazil last May, when he met with then-President Jair Bolsonaro.
“Super excited to be in Brazil for launch of Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas & environmental monitoring of Amazon,” Musk tweeted at the time.
That project with the government hasn’t advanced, however. SpaceX and the communications ministry haven’t signed any contract, 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 taken off in the region and begun ushering in change.
In Atalaia do Norte, on the western reaches of the Brazilian Amazon near the borders with Peru and Colombia, Rubeney de Castro Alves installed Starlink at his hotel in December.
Now, he can make bank transfers and conduct video calls. He even started bingeing Netflix.
“There are so many new things to watch that I’m not even sleeping,” Alves said, chuckling. FABIANO MAISONNAVE, ATALAIA DO NORTE, MDT/AP