Brazil launches a mega-operation against the last gold rush in Yanomami land | Climate and Environment | The USA Print

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Brazilian gold prospectors have undertaken a long journey on foot and by boat through the jungle to leave Yanomami indigenous land and avoid being arrested in the mega-operation undertaken by the new government to expel them. The 20,000 poaching miners who are estimated to have operated in this territory the size of Portugal located in the Amazon cause very serious damage to the 28,000 Yanomami natives who inhabit it. The pressure has triggered the price of fleeing. A place to escape by plane is around 15 grams of gold (equivalent to 800 dollars) these days because the military has assumed control of the airspace. Put an end to illegal mining, the call garimpoa trade deeply rooted in Brazil, was one of the campaign promises of now President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, determined that this country once again be a model, not an environmental villain.

What in its day was an activity of hustlers or desperate poor adventurers, portrayed like no other by Sebastião Salgado, today is an industrial activity that requires heavy machinery and in which organized crime even participates. The Yanomami land, extremely rich in minerals, one of the largest and most inaccessible in Brazil, is riddled with illegal mining. Located on the Venezuelan border, there are almost 400 villages spread over 100,000 square kilometers that have been protected by law since the 1980s.

Lula’s government has launched a mega-operation in recent days involving various public bodies to drive out the thousands of poachers, suffocate the lucrative business and address the health crisis caused by their presence among the Yanomami indigenous people. Dozens of children have died from treatable diseases and the photos of starving children have caused a strong impact on Brazilians.

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Illegal miners travel in a truck as they flee the Yanomami reserve, in February 2023, in Alto Alegre, Brazil. Raphael Alves (EFE)

The authorities have encouraged the exodus by cutting off the supply routes for food and fuel. Without the basics to live in the improvised villages created next to the deposits and without the gasoline to operate the machinery or come and go by plane, the garimperos They have fled in a every man for himself. Armed agents from Ibama, the environmental protection agency, confiscated and burned this week a helicopter, a small plane, a hangar, five thousand liters of fuel and a ton of food. The deployed agents do not arrest anyone, they file them. The transfer of clandestine flights, but tolerated, were constant, with about 400 daily, because you can only get there by the Uraricoera river or by air. Only military controlled air corridors can now be used.

The explicit support of the previous president, Jair Bolsonaro, for illegal mining, combined with the increase in the international price of gold and the economic crisis, unleashed a new gold rush in the Yanomami land and other lands also populated by aborigines. That cocktail triggered the attraction of an activity prohibited by the Brazilian Constitution to outsiders in all indigenous lands and nature reserves. The disembarkation of thousands of gold miners has multiplied its harmful effects both for health and for an ancient way of life.

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The damage is of all kinds, explains the anthropologist Luísa Molina, from the Socio-environmental Institute. From the most obvious, such as diseases or deforestation, to the noise of the dredgers, which drives away hunting, the mercury used to separate the gold that kills fishing and poisons the natives, the cooptation of indigenous people who, by stopping farming and fishing, lead to their families to depend on food from whites, rape of indigenous people, sexual exploitation, insecurity because weapons proliferate, more internal conflicts among the natives themselves.

A miner displays several gold nuggets in Alto Alegre.
A miner displays several gold nuggets in Alto Alegre.AMANDA PEROBELLI (REUTERS)

The Yanomami leaders have denounced the invasion of poachers for years without the authorities taking forceful measures to expel them. “In addition to urgent health care, what we most need is permanent protection of our territory, especially in the border areas where the Moxihateteas live. [yanomamis no contactados]. This must not happen again,” says Davi Kopenawa in a statement from the NGO Survival International.

The indigenous people estimate that, before this operation, the garimpeiros They totaled about 20,000 because they were “monitored via satellite and with overflights,” Molina explained by phone. “Cutting off their fuel supply is essential to boost their departure, but you also have to block the accesses, make the landing strips useless, control air traffic…”, details the specialist. And she considers it essential to introduce controls in the gold sales chain, which now depends on a declaration of good faith.

And that gives rise to scandalous situations. The state of Roraima, where the Yanomami land is located, exported gold in 2019 although it does not have a single legal mine. Mining in general, legal and illegal, has experienced a strong increase in Brazil. The surface from which minerals are extracted has multiplied by six in 35 years, three out of four exploitations are in the Amazon and an even more shocking figure, in 2020, illegal operations surpassed legal mining in territory, according to a detailed Mapbiomas report. Just one year after the far-right Bolsonaro came to power, a supporter of prioritizing the economic exploitation of the Amazon over ecological damage.

Lula’s Executive has focused on this corner of the country where the Yanomami live because it has led to a serious health crisis, but, Molina emphasizes, this is a problem that extends to other indigenous lands in States such as Pará and Mato Grosso.

Poached miners are detained during an operation by the environmental agencies, Ibama, and the indigenous defense agency, Funai.
Poached miners are detained during an operation by the environmental agencies, Ibama, and the indigenous defense agency, Funai.IBAMA (via REUTERS)

Illegal mining is no longer artisanal, but rather an industrial activity that requires labor —they are usually poor men— to operate the dredgers, but also boat captains, plane pilots, cooks… villages are formed with small shops, bars, cabarets , brothels… Payment in gold is the order of the day.

In the case of the Yanomami, the disembarkation of thousands of white men in search of gold and other precious minerals such as cassiterite (from which tin comes) together with the fact that the previous government left basic attention to the indigenous people to a minimum at that time. remote territory caused a very serious health crisis. A doctor who worked there for almost a year has told to the magazine piaui that he left “the Yanomami for fear of dying” in the face of the increase in violence and that, given the lack of the most basic, undesirable and expensive solutions had to be activated: “I had to request an air transfer for a patient with malaria because I had no medication”, he explains after reporting that “most of the health posts were out of supplies”. Without gloves, masks, stretchers, oxygen or intravenous drugs, patients who could have been treated on the spot for common and preventable illnesses had to be evacuated by helicopter.

While dozens of doctors and nurses have been deployed to care for the Yanomami, the most seriously ill have been transferred to the city and the military have dropped food from the air, a flood of poaching miners flee for fear of being arrested. The unknown is where they are going to go, if to Venezuela, if to other indigenous lands and natural reserves or if they will receive some kind of social assistance as proposed by the governor of Roraima, where one in ten inhabitants lives off the land. garimpo. The peons flee on foot. The business owners likely fled and will keep a low profile until the storm passes or as long as authorities let them.

A miner walks to leave the Yanomami indigenous territory of Alto Alegre.
A miner walks to leave the Yanomami indigenous territory of Alto Alegre. Edmar Barros (AP)

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