On April 14th, Brazilian federal agents flying in three helicopters were met with gunfire when they arrived at an illegal mining site in the Amazon rainforest. The shooters were able to get away, however, they left behind evidence of their presence: Starlink internet units.
This technology, a service of SpaceX’s Starlink division, has almost 4,000 satellites in low orbit and offers high-speed internet access to people in remote areas of the Amazon. It has been particularly beneficial for illegal miners in Brazil, as it facilitates communication, allows for the transfer of money without going to the city, and even provides warnings of law enforcement raids.
The Brazilian environment agency’s special inspection group and the federal highway police rapid response group discovered a Starlink terminal that was operational in close proximity to a pit.
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Ibama, the environmental agency, has confiscated seven Starlink terminals in the Yanomami area in the last five weeks.
Illegal miners have traditionally relied on satellite internet to communicate and coordinate, but this required sending a technician to install a cumbersome and immobile antenna, which could not be taken away if mining sites were raided or relocated. This connection was also slow and unreliable during bad weather.
Starlink, which was introduced in Brazil last year and has seen a swift proliferation, has solved these issues. It is a self-installation system, portable, as fast as the internet in the largest cities in Brazil, and works even during storms. Starlink has seen the Amazon as a potential market for quite some time, and this was highlighted when Elon Musk visited the country in May 2020, meeting with former President Jair Bolsonaro.
Starlink’s internet service has enabled illegal miners in Brazil to quickly and easily manage hundreds of mining sites without ever setting foot in one. A reseller of Starlink in Boa Vista has been marketing the units in a WhatsApp group for illegal miners, and others are selling it on Facebook groups.
Brazil’s Federal agents have also started using Starlink to send photos and video files of their operations. Brazil’s environment agency is trying to figure out how to block the signal in illegal mining areas. SpaceX, which provides the service, has not commented on the matter.
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