Brazil’s indigenous tribes suffer new degradations at hands of illegal miners

The police who last month arrived at Aracaçá, an indigenous settlement deep in the Amazon rainforest, found only the embers of torched dwellings. The Yanomami people who lived in the village had vanished amid allegations that the perpetrators had brutally murdered a child.

Brazil’s indigenous tribes have long suffered degradations, with the Yanomami, a culturally distinct group numbering about 30,000 who mostly live in demarcated lands in the country’s far north, among the most frequent victims.

But incidences of abuse have risen sharply in recent years as illegal gold miners, empowered by the support of President Jair Bolsonaro and the precious metal’s surging price, have flocked to the supposedly protected reserves in search of treasure.

The Hutukara Yanomami Association said illegal mining on its land — officially demarcated 30 years ago this month — has almost tripled in the past three years. Much of the gold, which can be easily laundered via a lax system of self-declaration paperwork, is exported to the west. The UK, Switzerland and Canada are the top buyers.

And violence is endemic. In Yanomami tradition, villages are abandoned when horrific events take place. This is what happened in Aracaçá, according to tribal leaders.

“The miners went to the village and took a 12-year-old girl from her aunt, who tried to defend the child. The miners raped the girl and she died,” said Mauricio Yanomami, who lives in the forest close to the Venezuela border.

“The presence of miners is increasing and they are raping Yanomami women and children and giving the men alcohol and drugs. This is because the Brazilian government is not interested in the indigenous people.”

More than 100 Yanomami were killed in 2021 alone, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic church-backed land rights group.

A member of the Potiguara tribe holds a copy of the Brazilian constitution during a protest against violence suffered by Yanomami people
A member of the Potiguara tribe holds a copy of the Brazilian constitution during a protest against violence suffered by Yanomami people © Adriano Machado/Reuters

Police said they did not find evidence of the alleged crime in Aracaçá, which is a one hour flight and five hour boat trip from the regional capital Boa Vista. Yanomami leaders say the gold miners, known locally as garimpeiros, took the 30 or so villagers to the forest and paid them to keep quiet. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

“The miners hid the Yanomami so they could not report the crimes,” said Junior Yanomami, a prominent member of the tribe. “The miners don’t respect the demarcated territory, saying it’s their land. The communities are very afraid because they don’t speak Portuguese. The women are especially afraid.”

After speaking out about the alleged attack, Junior Yanomami has been threatened with a defamation lawsuit by a garimpeiro lobby group led by Rodrigo Martins de Mello, who is this year running for Congress with Bolsonaro’s Liberal party. “We will rebut the fake news that tries to tarnish the history of the garimpeiro,” his group said on Facebook.

De Mello’s Boa Vista-based aviation business was last week raided by federal police on suspicion of aiding illegal gold miners. He did not respond to inquiries.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is backing legislation that would open Brazil’s more than 1mn sq km of demarcated indigenous lands up to mining. The rightwing leader, a vocal supporter of the garimpeiros, has cited fertiliser shortages due to the Ukraine war as a “good opportunity” to search for potash in the Amazon.

Small-scale wildcat miners have long been a feature of the Amazon rainforest. More recently, however, they have begun using heavy machinery that puts paid to any notion that their work is artisanal.

An illegal gold mine on indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest
An illegal gold mine on indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest. Miners have felt empowered by the support of President Jair Bolsonaro and the surging price of gold © Bruno Kelly/Reuters

Police in Roraima state, where the Yanomami lands are located, point to the presence in the trade of deep-pocketed local interests as well as criminal groups. The PCC, South America’s largest crime syndicate, is involved, investigators say.

“We know the mining has been linked to drug trafficking,” said Silvio Cavuscens, a co-ordinator with Secoya, a support group for the Yanomami.

“There are planes, heavy weapons, heavy equipment, even helicopters. They’re very well organised,” he said, claiming more than 40 clandestine runways had been discovered in Yanomami territory.

When the price of gold surged at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Amazon became a magnet for miners. Their presence has contributed to soaring levels of deforestation as chunks of forest are torn down.

In the Yanomami reserve alone, deforestation from mining totalled more than 1,000 hectares last year, according to the Hutukara Association.

“This is the highest growth we’ve seen since we began our monitoring in 2018, and possibly the highest annual rate since the reserve was demarcated in 1992,” the group said.

To process the gold, the miners use mercury, which seeps into the air and rivers, contaminating local produce and causing illnesses, including an increase in women miscarrying, prosecutors and Yanomami say.

“There are long-term effects, including motor disability. The great danger is that these conditions are often irreversible,” said Cavuscens.

The trade is encouraged by Brazil’s notoriously weak system of regulations, in which miners fill out forms with self-declarations about the origins of the precious metal. The licensed purchasing houses have no legal obligation to corroborate this information.

The result is that large quantities of “blood gold” finds its way into the nation’s legitimate stockpile and is then exported.

Larissa Rodrigues, a portfolio manager with the Escolhas Institute that investigates the illicit trade, said almost half of Brazil’s growing national gold production had a high chance of being illegal.

“Every year the amount of illegal gold increases. Most of it is coming from the Amazon region,” she said.

“All countries buying gold from Brazil are at high risk of being contaminated with this gold from indigenous territories,” said added. “That we can say for sure.”

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