Latin America

Illegal gold-mining presents new threat for Brazil’s isolated tribes

Foundation estimates 3,000 prospectors are searching for minerals in Yanomami lands

A Yanomani woman from Brazil's protected reserve.
A Yanomani woman from Brazil's protected reserve.Alex Almeida

A single-prop plane carrying two officials from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) recently flew over a small village in the protected Yanomami Indian reserve in Brazil’s Amazon forest. The community is home to the Moxihatetea, a group of Yanomami families who live isolated from the rest of the world.

At one time, FUNAI officials counted up to 80 people living there. But on December 18 no one was to be seen. It marked the second time this month that FUNAI – which has been observing this community from a distance since the 1970s – had found the place abandoned.

The FUNAI team has no idea where they could be; the Moxihatetea have not even had contact with other Yanomami tribes in the region. But officials fear that they may have been massacred.

About 30 kilometers from the community, two men were seen using a high-pressure hose near a ravine

About 30 kilometers from the community, there is a forest clearing where two men were seen using a high-pressure hose near a ravine. They were mining for gold.

“It could be that the Indians who were living there for years have fled. But what really worries us is that the gold miners may have been responsible for their deaths,” said João Catalano, coordinator for the Protection for the Ethnic Environment of the Yanomami and Ye'kuana Front, which forms part of FUNAI.

Catalano fears that another tragedy has occurred due to illegal mining, which has returned to the Amazonia region in Brazil’s northeast Roraima state. During the 1990s, hundreds of natives were killed in violent attacks and died of diseases as a result of the miners’ activities.

FUNAI estimates that at least 3,000 gold prospectors are searching for minerals in Yanomami lands, which cover a 9.6-million-square-hectare area – slightly larger than Portugal. It is one of the biggest Indian reserves in Brazil, with 300 communities and 25,000 natives who speak five different languages.

A Yanomami family in Brazil's protected reserve.
A Yanomami family in Brazil's protected reserve.Alex Almeida

Crisnel Francisco Ramalho, president of the gold miners union in Roraima, describes Amazonia as one of the richest areas in minerals. Even though private prospecting is illegal – there are no license issuances for gold, according to the National Department of Mineral Production – it is a very important activity in Roraima. In the state’s capital, Boa Vista, near the Venezuelan border, there is a statue dedicated to the gold miner in the main square.

During a three-hour flight, Catalano found at least 10 indications – including eight containers used to extract gold from riverbeds and clandestine airstrips – to support the theory that prospectors are once again active in the region.

You can arrest 10 gold miners but 10 more will soon appear”

In early December, a massive 10-day police operation resulted in the arrests of 98 persons and the seizure of 38 containers. Each receptacle could yield as much as three kilos of gold in one month, according to police. With the price of gold listed on December 23 at $38 a gram, the 38 containers could bring in about $4.3 million in a month.

The biggest problem in protecting the area has been its vast wilderness, but government security has also been ineffective. The army has only carried out two operations this year.

“You can arrest 10 gold miners but 10 more will soon appear. We must make more use of intelligence operations as well as audit the state’s finances more closely,” said Fabio Brito, defense ombudsman at the Environment Ministry.

In 1987, when some 20,000 prospectors were found near the small community of Papiú, there was a severe outbreak of malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases among the population. When the government in 1991 decided to restrict the area and declare it a protected zone, the women of the villages burned the skirts that had been given to them by the miners. Many of them had received the clothes in exchange for sex.

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