Illegal gold miners threaten fragile way of life deep in the Amazon rainforest

Dressed in a traditional headdress, their faces decorated with paint, this indigenous community prepares their bows and spears to defend their lands against the garimpeiros, illegal gold miners in search of gold gleams in this vast and rich territory. .

Fernando, one of the Yanomami leaders, told CNN on a recent reporting trip to the riverside settlement of Palimiu what the community has been going through for months now.

“The problem is, the armed garimpeiros spend the night here,” he told CNN in May. “There’s always a lot. Up to seven canoes,” with five to seven people in each.

The miners, who have set up camps on nearly 24 million acres of the Yanomami Reserve – roughly the size of Portugal – use the waterways as a thoroughfare, carrying gasoline and people, as well as goods to their bases.

But it’s rarely done quietly, says Fernando, who accuses the miners of encroaching on Yanomami land, intimidating and shooting them.

Between May and June, the village suffered five attacks. One of them, a half-hour shootout on May 10, was filmed.

The police listened to their complaints, according to the Yanomami.

The video shows women and children running for safety as a boat passes the shores of their village.

The incident left four people dead, including two Yanomami children, according to Brazilian federal police.

The nerves are high.

“These people are ruining our land, killing our children, they are making us suffer,” Adneia, a Yanomami elder, told CNN.

Faced with the increase in violence, the government asked the federal police and the army at the end of May to investigate.

It was a welcome arrival for the Yanomami who were on high alert, taking turns patrolling the night.

The whole community was put to work, turning the paddles into weapons, the bamboos into spears.

During CNN’s May visit to the Amazon, Fernando showed police the guns that have been their line of defense for years.

“This one’s a spear. It pierces quickly and you’ll die fast,” he said. “It goes through everything and it has venom. Lots of venom.”

According to the Yanomami, illegal mining on their land increased by 30% last year, devastating the equivalent of 500 hectares.

Disturbing aerial photos by photographer Christian Braga, taken from a Greenpeace helicopter this year, show the uncontrolled expansion of this mining operation in their territory, with deep craters moving the very ground and dense forest completely obliterated.

After years of drilling and digging, the land appears barren. The impact of this is felt daily by this community.

“We are threatened by these bandits. This land is being destroyed, our trees, our fish,” Ricardo, the head of the Yanomami colony, told CNN.

Neila, a young member of the community, goes further.

“When they search for gold in our lands, they damage our river, our water. They repel our beasts of prey,” she said.

Miners set up camps throughout the 24 million acre reserve.

All they want, say the Yanomami, is to protect their children and their already fragile way of life – their very existence as stewards of the Amazon.

The struggle for land in the Brazilian Amazon is not new. Since gold deposits were first discovered, illegal gold mining has flourished, and with it, the desire to get rich.

According to the government, there are currently around 20,000 illegal miners cutting strips through the rainforest, digging several meters deep in the rich land and polluting the river with mercury, according to the government.

The Yanomami point the finger at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who since taking office in 2019 has supported legislation to open indigenous protected areas to mining, has funded agencies tasked with preventing illegal mining , logging and herding, violated indigenous rights and repeatedly claimed that indigenous territories are “too big”.

The Yanomami tribe, especially the matriarchs, told CNN that these policies have directly contributed to the destruction they see every day and the threats and intimidation that have become daily.

“They threaten us and we cannot sleep. Bolsonaro thinks that this land belongs to the garimpeiros (illegal miners) but this land belongs to us. This land does not belong to Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro sends us the garimpeiros,” Adneia said.

Neila doesn’t hold back, adding, “Bolsonaro, you are ignorant. And because you are ignorant, you let these people come into our land. You have to get them out now. This is our land. This is our water, it is not your water. “

The Brazilian government told CNN it is committed to promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. He also said that alleged violations by illegal miners on Yanomami indigenous lands are being investigated by federal authorities in a number of operations.

“Bolsonaro, you are ignorant. And because you are ignorant, you let these people enter our country.”


Bolsonaro recently visited the area where he told a Yanomami community that he would respect their wish not to exploit. But critics say his words do not mean he will tackle mining, and could instead serve to divide the indigenous community as he pushes to legalize mining and other business ventures in the indigenous territories. Bolsonaro introduced a bill to Congress that had been on hold since 2007 that would eliminate illegal mining by simply legalizing it, among other changes in indigenous land rights. Congress is expected to vote on this bill shortly.

The Brazilian federal police and army listened to their complaints, according to the Yanomami.

“We hope the soldiers will help us. They are warriors. We protect them like they protect us,” Fernando said.

But while the police want to protect them, they don’t want to make excessive promises.

The federal police and the army were called with increasing violence.

“We are not looking to fight. We are here to observe and see what is happening and to accompany you. Whatever you need, we are here,” a policeman told the community.

The reality is they can’t stay here forever – the land is just too big for them to patrol. Then, the federal police and the army board their helicopter and begin their search for illegal minors.

From above, the challenge for them is made clearer. The Yanomami Reserve sits in the heart of the vast and dense Amazon rainforest, and finding illegal miners becomes a cat-and-mouse game.

The helicopter eventually spots an opening and the police run to arrest the miners in their tracks.

“Federal Police. Come here. Sit here,” they ask.

The miners lift their T-shirts to show that they are unarmed, and questioning begins. It’s as much about catching the criminals as it is about understanding how they operate, who pays them and finances the devastation.

One of the illegal miners told the police, “Life is tough. We are here because there is no work. Yes [I] am not there, I would be in the street. I have been working as a miner for a year and a half and I am not here because I like it. I am here to survive. ”

The miner told CNN he has been at the mine for three months, but so far has yet to see any gold gains, adding: “Miners are treated worse than bandits. 95% people here have families. “

Police also interviewed a group of three women who said they worked as cooks for minors.

A cook says she arrived by canoe three days before the police arrived and had paid four grams of gold (worth about $ 200) for her trip. But with the job currently at a standstill, she feared she would struggle to earn even that amount. Not the gold rush many had dreamed of, yet in the midst of a pandemic, with rising unemployment and skyrocketing gold prices, it has become the Wild West of the world. Brazil.

Despite evidence of illegal gold mining all around them, the federal police and military make no arrests and just burn miners’ equipment. An officer told CNN: “I gave him a headache. It delays them. It can stop them for a bit – a day or two.”

In a statement to CNN, federal police said the operation did not stop illegal gold mine workers, because “the operation is only the first step in a series of actions, focusing on dismantling the logistics of gold miners and collecting information on the real owners of the gold mines, in addition to identifying the structures of any criminal organizations involved.

This is not the solution the Yanomami were asking for. But until Bolsonaro changes his environmental policy, their cries will continue to fall on deaf ears, environmentalists say; and that burden of wealth – the lungs of the world – is in danger of falling with it.

Gabriel Chaim reported from Palimiu, Brazil for CNN, while Isa Soares and Barbara Arvanitidis of CNN wrote and also reported.

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