ALTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) — Armed government officials with Brazil’s justice, Indigenous and environment agencies Wednesday began to press thousands of illegal gold miners out of Yanomami Indigenous territory citing widespread river contamination, famine and disease they have brought to one of the most isolated groups in the world.
People involved in illegal gold dredging streamed away from the territory on foot. The operation could take months. There are believed to be some 20,000 people engaged in the activity, often using toxic mercurty to separate the gold.
The authorities — the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama, with support from the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples and the National Public Security Force, found a helicopter, an airplane, a bulldozer, and makeshift lodges and hangars and destroyed them. Two guns and three boats with 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of fuel were also seized. They also discovered a helicopter hidden in the forest and set it ablaze.
Ibama established a checkpoint next to a Yanomami village on the Uraricoera river to interrupt the miners’ supply chain there. Agents seized the 12-meter (39 foot) boats, loaded with a ton of food, freezers, generators, and internet antennas. The cargo will now supply the federal agents. No more boats carrying fuel and equipment will be allowed to proceed past the blockade.
The large amount of supplies going upriver could indicate some of the gold miners are ignoring President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s promise to expel them after years of neglect under his predecessor, Bolsonaro, who tried to legalize the activity.
Other miners, however, sensed it was better to return to the city. On Tuesday, The Associated Press visited a miners’ camp alongside the Uraricoera river, accessible only via a three-hour drive on dirt road. Dozens of gold miners arrived over the course of the day, some of them after walking for days through the forest.
One of them, João Batista Costa, told reporters the Yanomami are dying of hunger and that the recent emergency shipment of food has not been enough.
The gold miners, who come from poor regions, such as Maranhao state, in Brazil’s Northeast, usually cross the forest wearing flip-flops, carrying only food and personal belongings in their backpacks. They sleep in hammocks in makeshift campsites.
The federal government has declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people, who are suffering from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria as a consequence of illegal mining.
A report published yesterday by the Ministry of Health found that gold miners have invaded four clinics inside Yanomami territory, leaving them inoperational. In the city of Boa Vista, where starving and sick Indigenous people have been medevaced to a temporary medical facility, there are 700 Yanomami, more than three times the facility’s capacity.
An estimated 30,000 Yanomami people live in Brazil’s largest indigenous territory, which covers an area roughly the size of Portugal and stretches across Roraima and Amazonas states in the northwest corner of Brazil’s Amazon.
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