Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
Brazil pushes illegal miners out of Yanomami territory
ALTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Armed government officials with Brazil’s justice, Indigenous and environment ministries pressed illegal gold miners out of Yanomami Indigenous territory Wednesday, citing widespread river contamination, famine and disease they have brought to one of the most isolated groups in the world.
People involved in illegal gold dredging streamed away from the territory on foot. The operation could take months. There are believed to be some 20,000 people engaged in the activity, often using toxic mercury to separate the gold. An estimated 30,000 Yanomami people live in Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory, which covers an area roughly the size of Portugal and stretches across Roraima and Amazonas states in the northwest corner of Brazil’s Amazon.
The authorities — the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama, with support from the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples and the National Guard — found an airplane, a bulldozer, and makeshift lodges and hangars, and destroyed them — as permitted by law. Two guns and three boats with 1,320 gallons of fuel were seized. They also discovered a helicopter hidden in the forest and set it ablaze.
Ibama established a checkpoint next to a Yanomami village on the Uraricoera River to interrupt the miners’ supply chain there. Agents seized the 39-foot boats, loaded with a ton of food, freezers, generators and internet antennas. The cargo will now supply the federal agents. No more boats carrying fuel and equipment will be allowed to proceed past the blockade.
The large amount of supplies bound upriver could indicate some of the gold miners were ignoring President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s promise to expel them after years of neglect under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, who tried to legalize the activity.
Other miners, however, sensed it was better to return to the city. On Tuesday, The Associated Press visited a makeshift port alongside the Uraricoera River, accessible only by three-hour drive on a dirt road. Dozens of gold miners arrived over the course of the day, some of them after walking for days through the forest, en route to state capital Boa Vista.
One of them, Joao Batista Costa, 61, told reporters the Yanomami are dying of hunger and that recent emergency food shipments have not been enough.
The federal government has declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people, who are suffering from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria as a consequence of illegal mining.
A report by the Health Ministry found that gold miners have invaded four clinics inside Yanomami territory, leaving them inoperative. In the city of Boa Vista, where starving and sick Indigenous people have been taken by medevac to a temporary medical facility, there are 700 Yanomami, more than three times its capacity.
The gold miners, who come from poor regions such as Maranhao state in Brazil’s Northeast, usually cross the forest wearing flip-flops, carrying only food and personal belongings in their backpacks. They sleep in hammocks in campsites.
But their mining depends on sophisticated logistics to outfox authorities and is backed by investors outside the forest. Such tactics include: illicit fuel distribution on the outskirts of Indigenous land; airstrips carved from the jungle for transport of miners and supplies; light planes with modified tail numbers, registered to front companies; helicopters operating between mining sites on the reserves; and clandestine communications networks.