Gold Miners Bring Fresh Wave of Suffering to Brazil’s Yanomami

Reuters photo
Members of the Special Inspection Group from the environmental protection agency Ibama talk with an illegal miner while he is detained during an operation against illegal mining in Yanomami Indigenous land on Dec. 6.

YANOMAMI INDIGENOUS LAND, Brazil (Reuters) — Brazil is losing the upper hand in its battle to save the Yanomami Indigenous people, who are dying from flu, malaria and malnutrition brought into their vast, isolated Amazon rainforest reservation by resurgent illegal miners.

A year after President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared a humanitarian crisis among the Yanomami and vowed zero tolerance for illegal mining, environmental enforcers warn that Brazil is jeopardizing last year’s hard-won progress, when about 80% of roughly 20,000 wildcatters were ousted from the Portugal-sized reservation.

As the Brazilian military has rolled back its support for the government crackdown, the gold-seeking miners have come back, they say, making fresh incursions into Yanomami land.

According to Brazil’s health ministry, 308 Yanomami died of disease, malnutrition and violence last year, with 50% of the deaths being children under 4. Deaths from malaria, which is introduced by the miners, doubled in 2023 from 2022.

The presence of armed miners has also scared the Yanomami from planting manioc, their staple along with river fish, and reduced the game they can hunt.

During a Reuters visit to the Yanomami territory in December and January, agents of the environmental protection agency Ibama said they are now flying solo in the battle against the miners after crucial military support was scaled down.

The Brazilian military reduced operations in mid-2023 and stopped transporting fuel for Ibama’s helicopters to forward bases inside the reservation, limiting their range across the giant territory. The Air Force has not enforced a no-fly zone, despite being ordered to do so by Lula in April, while the Navy is not doing enough to blockade rivers that are the miners’ main access route for machinery and supplies, three Ibama officials said.

The ineffective no-fly zone has led to growing numbers of unregistered pilots flying miners into Yanomami land, and then crossing the border to safety in Venezuela when intercepted by Ibama helicopters, said Ibama pilot Carlos Alberto Hoffmann.

“The state is not effectively present today in Yanomami territory, and we are seeing the return of illegal mining,” said Hugo Loss, Ibama’s head of enforcement operations. Without more military support, he added, “We will lose all this year’s work.”

A Reuters photographer spent a week on Yanomami land, embedding with an elite Ibama unit as they swooped down by helicopter into mining camps to destroy dredging pumps, airplanes and other mining supplies. Miners fled at the sound of approaching helicopters, and the armed Ibama officers chased stragglers into the jungle to arrest them.

The photographer also visited the Auaris medical station near the Venezuelan border, where naked Yanomami children, their bellies swollen by malnutrition, were nursed back to health.

“Most of the miners had gone, but they are coming back,” Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa, whose activism helped create the government-protected Yanomami territory in 1992, told Reuters. “Illegal mining is so bad for us.”

Along with poisoning rivers and spreading disease, the return of the gold miners boosts criminal groups that traffic drugs and timber across the Amazon, undermining Lula’s pledge to restore law and order there and end deforestation by 2030.

Miners arrested and handcuffed by Ibama special forces said they were poor and needed an income from gold prospecting to feed their families. Most were removed from the reservation and freed, and police said they are now seeking the backers who financed the gold digs.

The destruction of the rainforest was evident from gaping pits some five meters deep in mining sites cleared of trees, along with dozens of ponds where dredged sludge was pumped into rivers, turning pristine waters a bright orange from the mud.

“This is war because people are dying. Hundreds of Yanomami have died in the humanitarian crisis, and they are Brazilians too,” said Felipe Finger, head of the Ibama special forces unit.

According to the 2022 census, there are 30,000 people from the Yanomami and related Ye’kwana people on the reservation, including groups with little or no contact with outsiders.

Ibama chief Rodrigo Agostinho said in a statement to Reuters that the environmental agency will not give up fighting the illegal mining on Yanomami land despite the challenges.

“We are aware of the existing adversities and we recognize the persistent presence of illegal miners in the area,” he said.

Lula held a Dec. 22 cabinet meeting that included commanders of the armed forces, where he emphasized that removing illegal miners was a government priority, according to the head of the Indigenous protection agency Funai, Joenia Wapichana.

Lula’s government pledged 1.2 billion reais ($245 million) on security and assistance efforts for the Yanomami this month, and Federal Police Director General Andrei Rodrigues said Brazil’s government must throw its full weight into defending the Indigenous people.

On Jan. 17, Federal Police announced the start of a new operation against illegal mining in Yanomami territory and said in a statement they will have the support of the armed forces.

Sydney Possuelo, Brazil’s top expert on isolated Indigenous tribes, helped create the Yanomami reservation and expel some 40,000 gold miners in 1992 when he headed Funai. The government must do more, he said in an interview.

“Ibama and the police simply do not have enough personnel there to get rid of the miners. The government is just saying this to show that it is doing something.

“The Air Force is not enforcing the no-fly zone. The Army and the Navy are doing nothing.”