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Brazil court orders illegal miners booted from Yanomami Indigenous Reserve

An illegal mining camp along the Uraricoera River in the Waikás region, in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve, Roraima, Brazil. Image taken on December 2020. Photo courtesy of the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA).

  • A court has ordered Brazilian authorities to remove all illegal gold miners from the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in the Amazon, following five days of attacks and intimidation by the miners against an Indigenous village.
  • The federal government has still not complied with the May 17 ruling. Army officials say they are planning operations in the region, but have not provided dates. The Federal Police say a team will arrive May 21 to collect data for investigation.
  • The attacks that began May 10 saw the miners shoot at the village of Palimiú, throw tear gas canisters, and station several boats nearby in an apparent attempt at intimidation.
  • The violent conflict between miners and Indigenous groups follows a surge of land invasions and illegal mining in Indigenous reserves and other conservation areas, dubbed “The Bolsonaro Effect” by Brazilian researchers after its chief enabler.

A court in Brazil has ordered the federal government to remove all illegal gold miners from an Indigenous reserve in the Amazon, following at least five days of attacks and intimidation by miners on a local community. However, the government has still not complied with the May 17 ruling.

The Federal Police told Mongabay that a team of 10 agents will arrive at the village May 21 to collect data for further investigation, and may stay for several days. William Silva, the head of communications at the Army’s Jungle Infantry Brigade in Roraima, told Mongabay that an army aircraft is being prepared, but could not provide further details.

The court also imposed a daily fine of 1 million reais ($189,000) if Brazilian authorities do not present and execute a plan to protect the Indigenous communities and shut down the hundreds of illegal mining operations in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve within 20 days.

“The population of non-Indigenous miners has almost surpassed that of the Indigenous peoples,” Judge Felipe Flores Viana, of the federal court in Roraima state, where the reserve is located, said in his decision. “It is increasingly difficult to dispel the configuration of the crime of genocide, as only 26,780 Yanomami are alive among 8 billion human beings and are tending toward extinction.”

Fewer than 27,000 Yanomami live in some 250 villages in the Portugal-sized reserve, officially demarcated by the Brazilian government in 1992. The territory has been invaded by an estimated 20,000 wildcat miners in the last two years, coinciding with the start of the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, leading to a surge in conflict and infectious diseases such as malaria and COVID-19.

The violence has escalated since May 10, with the illegal gold miners, known as garimpeiros, opening fire with automatic weapons on the village of Palimiú in the reserve.

More than half of the environmental degradation caused by mining in the reserve is concentrated along the Uraricoera River, where Palimiú is located, according to a report published earlier this year by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that defends the rights of Indigenous and traditional people.

An illegal mining camp along the Uraricoera River in theYanomami Indigenous Reserve, Roraima state, Brazil. The photo was taken in December 2020. Image courtesy of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

Escalating violence

On the day of Viana’s decision, the Yanomami people’s Hutukara Association sent Brazilian authorities a letter requesting immediate help.

“We ask that authorities act with urgency … to prevent the spiraling violence and safeguard the Yanomami community of Palimiú before more serious conflicts occur,” says the document, signed by Hutukara Association vice president Dário Kopenawa.

Following three days of armed conflict beginning May 10 that left three gold miners dead and one Indigenous adult injured, the miners approached the village again on the night of May 16, hurling two tear gas canisters at the village, according to Junior Hekurari, the president of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana Indigenous Health Council, who heard the incident via radio.

“Smoke filled the eyes of women, children, men. It was tense,” Hekurari told Mongabay. “The Federal Police have not arrived yet. It is unacceptable. The government is guilty of omission.”

The next day, May 17, eight to 10 boats parked near the village through the night, flashing lights and intimidating the inhabitants of Palimiú, Hekurari said. While there were no altercations, he said families in the village felt afraid. “The Yanomami are not able to sleep. There is no more peace.”

Joênia Wapichana, Brazil’s only Indigenous congresswoman, accused President Bolsonaro of backing the illegal miners despite the violence. Since taking office at the start of 2019, Bolsonaro has espoused anti-Indigenous rhetoric and pushed to allow mining on Indigenous lands — a move that goes against Brazil’s Constitution.

“Indigenous people are asking to live but continue to be attacked by miners. Women and children are scared of another attack,” Joênia Wapichana said in Congress on May 17. “Wildcat mining is illegal, but unfortunately, it is being encouraged by the president to the detriment of Brazil.”

The federal government did not reply to requests for comment.

“Wildcat mining is illegal, but unfortunately, it is being encouraged by the president to the detriment of Brazil.” — Federal deputy Joênia Wapichana, the first Indigenous woman ever elected to the Brazilian Congress. Photo by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

The Bolsonaro Effect

Miners are intensifying their activities in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in anticipation of political promises to legalize mining and land grabbing, a phenomena dubbed “The Bolsonaro Effect” by researchers and Brazilian media.

Deforestation in Brazil has increased by nearly 50% in the two years since Bolsonaro took office, hitting its highest level in two decades. His administration has also undermined environmental regulators and loosened environmental legislation.

The Amazonian state of Roraima is one of the hardest hit by the land and gold rush in Indigenous reserves, according to a recent report by the ISA. It says non-Indigenous people are self-registering swaths of Indigenous land under the Rural Environmental Registry, known by its Portuguese acronym CAR, at record rates. While the registry was designed to help enforce environmental law, it is being misused as an informal substitute for land titling. According to the ISA’s research, these environmental registry claims also coincide with land degradation detected by satellite imagery.

The report shows the number of CAR claims on Indigenous land in Roraima state went from 34,000 hectares (84,000 acres) in 2018 to 138,000 hectares (341,000 acres) in 2020 — an increase of 301% in just three years.

“With the expectation of laws being passed that give land grabbers amnesty and legalize recently deforested land, the race for land in the Amazon intensifies,” ISA researcher Antonio Oviedo, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

Politicians in both the Senate and Congress are pushing three bills, PL 510/2021, PL 191/2020 and PL 2633/2020, that, if approved, could give land grabbers amnesty, create loopholes for mining on Indigenous land, and legalize thousands of claims to recently deforested land.

The violence against the Yanomami people and the government’s attempts to strip away protections have left Brazil’s Indigenous leaders at a loss.

“If the Brazilian government legalizes mining in our territories, how will we continue to combat it?” Sônia Guajajara, president of APIB, Brazil’s largest Indigenous organization, said at a press conference on May 19.

This is a developing story. Mongabay will report any updates as they become available.

Banner image: An illegal mining camp along the Uraricoera River in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve, Roraima state, Brazil. The photo was taken in December 2020. Image courtesy of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

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