Illegal Gold Rush in the Amazon Raises Risk to Indigenous People
(Bloomberg) -- Illegal gold and diamond mining is proliferating in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest and threatening South America’s largest group of native people who still live in relative isolation, the Yanomami.
Criminal mining groups are encroaching on the indigenous territory that straddles Brazil and Venezuela, polluting rivers, bringing diseases like Covid-19 and malaria, and stirring fears of a repeat of the brutal slaughter of 16 Yanomami by illegal prospectors in the 1990s, according to a report published Thursday by Brazilian conservation group Instituto Socioambiental and the Hutukara Yanomami and Wanasseduume Ye’kwana associations.
“They are coming in like starved beasts, looking for the wealth of our land,” Davi Kopenawa, chairman of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, said in a statement. “They are advancing very fast. They are arriving in the middle of the Yanomami land. The prospectors are already reaching my home.”
The potential humanitarian disaster facing the Yanomami is just the latest red flag of deteriorating conditions in the world’s biggest rain forest under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who clashed with his counterpart Joe Biden during the U.S. presidential race last year over deforestation in the Amazon. The remote northern region some 2,000 miles away from the industrialized southeast has also been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with many people dying without any support from oxygen tanks or medication.
Just last year, illegal miners devastated an area the size of 500 soccer fields in Yanomami land as they got increasingly closer to indigenous communities, according to satellite images and anecdotal accounts gathered by the study. That represented a 30% surge in the territory’s deforestation.
“A very expensive and heavy type of machinery has been located, so it’s not artisan mining, it has a complex logistics, involving land, river and air transport,” said Marina Sousa, co-founder of the Pro-Yanomami and Ye’kwana Network. “These are characteristics that resemble medium-sized mining, requiring a business organization and a high financial investment.”
That’s possible because Brazil’s control of the gold trade doesn’t have enough checks and balances to prevent illegal bullion from reaching international markets, she said.
The Brazilian Mining Institute, a lobby group representing mining companies, said there are no legal and industrial mining activities in the country’s indigenous lands, and that law enforcement needs to combat the illegal activity.
The invasions have also heightened concerns about sexual violence in the communities that live there, Sousa said.
“This is our struggle and we will continue to report abuses” Kopenawa, said. “We will fight with no fear, we are defending our right, our Mother Earth.”
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