Brazil’s indigenous tribes suffer further degradation at the hands of illegal miners

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Police who arrived last month in Aracaçá, an indigenous settlement deep in the Amazon rainforest, found only the embers of burnt homes. The Yanomami who lived in the village had disappeared amid allegations that the perpetrators had brutally murdered a child.

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

But cases of abuse have risen sharply in recent years as illegal gold miners, bolstered by President Jair Bolsonaro’s backing and soaring prices for the precious metal, have flocked to 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 nearly tripled in the past three years. Much of the gold, which can be easily laundered through a lax system of self-declaration documents, is exported to the west. The United Kingdom, Switzerland and Canada are the main buyers.

And violence is endemic. In the Yanomami tradition, villages are abandoned when horrible 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 near the Venezuelan border.

“The presence of minors is increasing and they rape the Yanomami women and children and give the men alcohol and drugs. This is because the Brazilian government is not interested in indigenous peoples.

More than 100 Yanomami have been 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 demonstration against the violence suffered by the Yanomami © Adriano Machado/Reuters

Police said they found no evidence of the alleged crime in Aracaçá, an hour by flight and five hours by boat from the regional capital Boa Vista. Yanomami leaders say gold diggers, locally known as garimpeiros, took about 30 villagers to the forest and paid them to keep quiet. Their fate remains unknown.

“The miners hid the Yanomami so they couldn’t 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 scared because they don’t speak Portuguese. Women are especially scared.

After reporting the alleged assault, Junior Yanomami was threatened with libel suits by a garimpeiro pressure group led by Rodrigo Martins de Mello, which is running for Congress this year with Bolsonaro’s liberal party. “We will refute fake news that tries to tarnish the history of the garimpeiro“, said his group on Facebook.

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

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is backing legislation that would open up more than a million square kilometers of demarcated indigenous land in Brazil to mining. The right-wing leader, a staunch supporter of garimpeiroscited war-induced fertilizer shortages in Ukraine as a “good opportunity” to search for potash in the Amazon.

Small-scale wild miners have long been a feature of the Amazon rainforest. More recently, however, they have started to use heavy machinery which puts an end to any idea that their work is artisanal.

An illegal gold mine on indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest
An illegal gold mine on indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest. Miners felt bolstered by President Jair Bolsonaro’s support and the surge in the price of gold © Bruno Kelly/Reuters

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

“We know that mining is linked to drug trafficking,” said Silvio Cavuscens, coordinator of Secoya, a Yanomami support group.

“There are planes, heavy weapons, heavy equipment, even helicopters. They are very well organized,” he said, saying that more than 40 clandestine tracks 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 skyrocketing levels of deforestation as chunks of forest are demolished.

In the Yanomami reserve alone, deforestation due to mining totaled more than 1,000 hectares last year, according to the Hutukara association.

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

To process gold, miners use mercury, which seeps into the air and rivers, contaminating local produce and causing disease, including increased miscarriages among women, prosecutors and officials say. Yanomami.

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

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

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

Larissa Rodrigues, portfolio manager at the Escolhas Institute which investigates illicit trade, said almost half of Brazil’s growing domestic gold production is likely to be illegal.

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

“All countries that buy gold from Brazil run a high risk of being contaminated by this gold from indigenous territories,” he added. “That we can say with certainty.”

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