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After gold miners shoot Yanomani people, Brazil cuts environmental regulation further

Soaring gold prices have resulted in a massive ongoing invasion of the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve by gold miners. Image by Chico Batata / Greenpeace

  • With 300 votes in favor and 122 against, Brazil’s Lower House passed the draft of a bill on May 12 that withdraws environmental impact assessments and licensing for development projects, ranging from construction of roads to agriculture.
  • The measure, which was submitted to the Senate for its appraisal, is backed by President Jair Bolsonaro and the powerful conservative agribusiness lobby — the ‘ruralistas’ — who champion it as a way of slashing red tape on environmental licensing, to facilitate “self-licensing” infrastructure projects.
  • Congressmen, experts and activists opposed to it are convinced the new legal framework will inevitably fast-track approval of high-risk projects, leading to deforestation and the escalation of violence against traditional communities.
  • As the Lower House moved to approve it, Yanomami people were under attack by illegal gold miners with automatic weapons for the third time this week in northern Roraima state. “They [illegal miners] are not shooting to try and scare us. They want us dead,” a Yanomami leader told Mongabay.

While Yanomami people were under attack by illegal gold miners with automatic weapons for the third time this week in northern Roraima state, Brazil’s Lower House approved a bill that exempts environmental impact assessments and licensing for development projects, further endangering the country’s ecosystems and traditional communities.

With 300 votes in favor and 122 against, Brazil’s Lower House passed the draft of a bill that withdraws environmental impact assessments and licensing for development projects, ranging from construction of roads to agriculture in the country.

Bill PL 3.729/2004 would allow highways to be paved in the Amazon rainforest, for example, without any kind of environmental risk assessment and mitigation analysis, but rather just requiring a “self-licensing” declaration instead.

The measure, which was submitted to the Senate for its appraisal, is backed by President Jair Bolsonaro and the powerful conservative agribusiness lobby — the so-called ‘ruralistas’ — who say it is a way to slash environmental licensing red tape and facilitate infrastructure projects.

Congressmen, experts and activists opposing it are convinced the new legal framework will inevitably fast-track approval of high-risk projects, leading to deforestation and the escalation of violence against traditional communities.

“The bill is a harsh attack on the environment and the image of our country abroad. A shameful setback,” said federal deputy Alessandro Molon on his Twitter account after the voting session, calling it “a disaster.”

One of the many illegal gold mining sites in the Yanomami reserve. Image courtesy of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency (Funai)

And they have good reasons for such criticism. According to Brazil’s Federal Court of Accounts (TCU), the government’s accountability office, of the thousands of infrastructure projects currently stalled, just 1% are for environmental reasons.  

Luiza Lima, a public policy advisor at Greenpeace Brasil, called the bill “an affront” to Brazilian society. “The country [is] in chaos and congressmen approve a bill that will generate legal uncertainty, increase the destruction of forests and threats to Indigenous peoples and quilombolas [descendants of Afro-Brazilian runaway slaves].”

Since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, deforestation has soared nearly 50% in two years, hitting its highest level since 2008. Invasions of Indigenous territories increased by 135% in 2019, according to the Catholic Church-affiliated Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), and at least 18 people were murdered in land conflicts last year.

Yanomami attacked three times in a week

The Yanomami people, in the northern state of Roraima, are part of this statistic. They have experienced increasing violence and repeated invasions of their reserve for years, which has been officially demarcated by the Brazilian government since 1992.

This week they faced attacks for three days in a row, starting on May 10, from illegal gold miners (garimpeiros) who opened fire with automatic weapons on the Palimiú village in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve, one of their leaders, Dário Kopenawa, told Mongabay in a phone interview.

The Yanomami responded with bows and arrows and shotguns, wounding four of the attackers during the 30-minute clash, he added.

“They are not shooting to try and scare us. They want us dead.”

Kopenawa, who is head of the Yanomami’s Hutukara Association, shared a video recorded by the Indigenous community on the morning of May 10. In the footage, it’s possible to see the moment when heavily armed men in boats randomly shoot at Indigenous people, including women and children, who run and flee.

The below video captured the moment on May 10 when illegal gold miners opened fire with automatic weapons on Palimiú village in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve. Video courtesy of Dário Kopenawa.

The day after, on May 11, the Federal Police visited the village to investigate the attack but the agents were also targeted by criminals, who, again, opened fire triggering intense crossfire for over five minutes, Kopenawa told Mongabay. This moment was also filmed by one of the members of the community.

In the video video below,  Federal Police sent on May 11 to investigate the Yanomami village attack of May 10 were also targeted by the miners, triggering a five-minute gun battle. Video courtesy of Dário Kopenawa.

Seeming to downplay the violence, the Federal Police told local news website G1 nobody was killed or injured. The police communications office did not reply to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency Funai said in a statement it is investigating the “alleged conflict” and criticized media reports for basing their reports on a one-sided account. Funai declined Mongabay’s request to comment further.

Kopenawa said that for the third consecutive day, on May 12, illegal miners shot at the community, leaving his people in a “constant state of fear now.”

“The situation is still very tense. Me, myself, I cannot be afraid because I have to fight for the rights of my people, for the lands of my ancestors,” he added.

The Indigenous leader also urged international authorities to pressure the Brazilian government act to remove invaders from Yanomami lands.

Yanomami leader Dário Kopenawa urges international authorities to pressure the Brazilian government to remove invaders from the Yanomami reserve. “The situation is still very tense. I cannot be afraid because I have to fight for the rights of my people, for the lands of my ancestors.” Image courtesy of Fiona Watson/Survival International.

‘Reject Brazil as an OECD member’

Greenpeace and 60 other civil society organizations on May 12 sent a letter to the Secretary-General-Select of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Mathias Cormann, raising concerns about Bolsonaro’s human rights, social and environmental agenda ahead of the country’s attempt to join as a member state.

The group called the current administration’s policies “incompatible” with the objectives of the multilateral body.

The Yanomami reserve is one of Brazil’s largest Indigenous reserves, covering 37,320 square miles of rainforest in the northern states of Roraima and Amazonas, near the border with Venezuela, and is inhabited by 27,000 Yanomami.

Soaring gold prices have resulted in a massive ongoing invasion of the Indigenous reserve by gold miners who are well supported with monetary backing, heavy equipment and aircraft, research by think tank Igarape Institute indicates.

Between 2017 and 2019 alone, 1,174 hectares (2,900 acres) of forest were lost due to gold mining in the Yanomami reserve; 2019 saw its highest deforestation rates of the last decade, at 418 hectares (1,033 acres), according to NGO World Resources Institute.

In addition to driving deforestation of the Yanomami’s home, the invasion of illegal miners has brought health hazards such as mercury poisoning, malaria, and since 2020, COVID-19.

Brazil’s Lower House voted on May 12 in favor of approving a bill which exempts development projects from environmental impact assessments and licensing rules. Image courtesy of Pablo Valadares/Brazil’s Lower House.

Last year, a federal judge issued an emergency ruling ordering the Bolsonaro administration to come up with an immediate plan to stop the spread of the pandemic to the Yanomami Reserve, a plan which must include the removal of all 20,000 invading miners within 10 days. But 10 months later, garimpeiros are still there.

Other Indigenous communities throughout Brazil are also under constant threat from wildcat gold miners. The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) warned in a document today that other Indigenous communities, such as the Munduruku in northern Pará state, may also be in danger. Federal prosecutors formally requested that authorities take action to protect Indigenous people from heavily-armed illegal miners who have also been trying to invade their territories.

Banner image: Soaring gold prices have resulted in a massive and ongoing invasion of the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve by illegal miners. Image courtesy of Chico Batata / Greenpeace.

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