Conservation news

Illegal miners fire shots, burn homes in Munduruku Indigenous Reserve

Illegal gold mines in the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve, near the town of Jacareacanga, in the Pará state, Brazil. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/ Greenpeace.

  • Illegal gold miners set fire to homes of several Indigenous leaders in the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon this week, before attempting to destroy police equipment used to expel outsiders, authorities and activists say.
  • Indigenous groups say the attack was in retaliation to police operations aimed at expelling illegal gold miners from the Munduruku reserve, which is supposed to be under federal protection.
  • The Munduruku people have been battling invasions for decades but miners have grown bolder amid expectations that the federal government may legalize wildcat mining on Indigenous lands; police forces withdrew from the region following the attacks, leaving Indigenous people vulnerable to further violence, federal prosecutors say.
  • The attacks in the Munduruku reserve follow a wave of violence in the Yanomami reserve, where 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of land have been degradaded since January, according to a recent aerial survey, setting the stage for a new record for deforestation in the reserve.

Wildcat miners fired shots and set houses ablaze in an Indigenous village in the Brazilian Amazon this week, fueling worries among Indigenous rights groups of further violent attacks by gold prospectors seeking to illegally exploit the Munduruku and Yanomami reserves.

A group of invaders set fire to several houses in the village of Fazenda Tapajós, in the state of Pará, on May 26, according to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF). They then tried to storm a local police station and destroy vehicles and helicopters used in an ongoing operation against illegal mining in the reserve, the federal police reportedly told Indigenous groups and authorities. The federal police told Mongabay that the attacks are under investigation.

Wildcat miners attacked Indigenous people in the Munduruku reserve on May 26, setting fires to homes and attempting to storm a police post. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

One of the houses that was burned to the ground belonged to the village chief and another was the home of Maria Leusa Munduruku, an Indigenous leader and coordinator of the Wakoborum Women’s Association, according to Indigenous organizations and advocates working in the area.

“Come, please, it’s chaos, they’re going to burn my house … They are shooting, please help me,” Maria Leusa said in an audio message to APIB, Brazil’s largest Indigenous organization, just before communication with the village was cut on May 26.

Indigenous rights activists say they suspect the attacks on the Munduruku people were in retaliation to a federal police operation that kicked off this week to expel illegal miners, known as garimpeiros, from the reserve.

“The Munduruku people ask that the state security forces take responsibility to protect the people, our leaders, and our chiefs,” the Munduruku Ipereg Ayu Movement said in an emergency statement.

The Munduruku people, who number just over 14,000, have been fighting to keep invaders away for decades. Their reserve was demarcated in 2004, but tensions have escalated since 2018, with garimpeiros becoming bolder. In March, illegal miners attacked the offices of the Wakoborum Women’s Association, according to Indigenous activists.

Illegal gold mining in the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve has escalated since 2018, with invaders attacking Indigenous leaders in March and again this week. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

While there have been at least four police operations in the region since 2018, these measures have not succeeded in expelling the miners, says Danicley de Aguiar, forest campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil. “These police actions play an important role but they are not miracles,” Aguiar told Mongabay in an interview. “You can’t control invasions or deforestation while the government loosens the rules and sends out the message that the law doesn’t apply to everyone.”

Since taking office, President Jair Bolsonaro has opposed the demarcation of Indigenous reserves and supported a bill that would allow wildcat miners to freely exploit them — a violation of Brazil’s Constitution. In a livestream late last month, Bolsonaro said he plans to visit a wildcat mine and signaled his government will not penalize them.

“We are not going to arrest anyone,” Bolsonaro said. “This will not be an operation to punish irregular miners. I want to talk to people, [learn] how they live there, to start to get a sense of how much gold is produced.”

Key members of his government, including Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, have also peddled what advocates calls a “false narrative” that the Munduruku Indigenous people welcome wildcat mines as sources of development and wealth for their reserve.

“When an authority sends an invitation like this, it has huge repercussions,” said Luísa Pontes Molina, a researcher at the University of   who has been working closely with the Munduruku people.

Wildcat gold mining can have devastating health impacts on Indigenous communities. Toxins like mercury, used to separate gold from sediment, often seep into the soil and flow into water sources. Indigenous people are also especially vulnerable to diseases brought in by outsiders. In December 2020, authorities sounded the alarm over a malaria outbreak in the Munduruku reserve, pointing to illegal mining as the culprit.

Wildcat gold mining can have devastating health impacts on Indigenous communities. Toxins like mercury, used to separate gold from sediment, often seep into the soil and flow into water sources. Image courtesy of Rafael Dias Rios de Souza/Instituto Socioambiental.

Illegal mining has also fueled a surge in deforestation in the Munduruku reserve and the area around it. Satellite images show that some 1,250 hectares (3,090 acres) of forest was cleared in the nearby Tapajós Environmental Protection Area in the first two months of this year.

The attack on the Munduruku people echoes the violence ripping through the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve, in the Amazonian state of Roraima. Earlier this month, the reserve faced days of violent attacks, with illegal miners reportedly opening fire with automatic weapons on the village of Palimiú.

On May 25, a new report with an aerial survey by the Hutukara Yanomami Association unveiled the degradation of 700 hectares (1,730 acres) since January 2020 in the Yanomami reserve. Some 200 hectares (almost 500 acres) of forest were destroyed in the first quarter of 2021 alone in Roraima and Amazonas states. This rate paves the way for a new record for deforestation in the reserve, the report says.

This week, Federal Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso ruled that the federal government should immediately take “all necessary measures” to protect the Indigenous peoples of the Yanomami and Munduruku reserves.

However, police forces withdrew from the region on May 27 after the attacks the day before, the MPF said, sharply criticizing the move and calling for security measures to guarantee the safety of Indigenous leaders threatened by garimpeiros in the region.

On May 17, a court ordered the federal government to remove all illegal gold miners from the Yanomami reserve, imposing a daily fine of 1 million reais ($189,000) if Brazilian authorities do not present and execute a plan of action within 20 days. However, rights groups said on May 28 that the government has still not complied.

Wildcat miners have flooded the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve in the Brazilian state of Pará, raising concerns about deforestation, water pollution and disease. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

The federal government did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

On May 27, Bolsonaro inaugurated a bridge connecting the town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira to the Yanomami community in nearby Maturacá, inAmazonas state — a move that could facilitate access to Indigenous reserves. The trip, widely criticized by Indigenous people, is Bolsonaro’s first visit to an Indigenous territory since he took office at the start of 2019.

Banner image: Illegal gold mines in the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve, near the town of Jacareacanga, in Pará state, Brazil. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

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