- Indigenous Yanomami communities in Venezuela are suffering from increasing invasions by Brazilian gold miners, locally known as garimpeiros.
- One of the most impacted areas is the Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve, a nearly 8.5-million-hectare (21-million-acre) protected area that’s home to around 15,000 Indigenous people, numerous threatened mammals and reptiles, and more than 500 endemic plant species.
- Reports from conservation and human rights groups say the garimpeiros are working in conjunction with Venezuelan officials.
In southern Venezuela, the headwaters of some of the country’s largest rivers snake through remote parts of the Amazon rainforest near the Brazilian border, where Yanomami, Ye’kwana and other Indigenous communities have lived for hundreds of years. For most of their history, the Yanomami survived without much contact from the outside world, relying on traditional hunting, fishing and crop cultivation practices.
But in recent decades, they have suffered from a growing invasion by Brazilian miners, known locally as garimpeiros, who cross the border with heavy machinery to extract gold and other minerals. The result has been widespread deforestation, the pollution of major rivers, and human rights violations against the Indigenous communities. These problems appear to be getting worse, according to a report from SOS Orinoco, a Venezuelan environmental advocacy group.
“Illegal mining activity is increasing at an alarming rate, and the environmental impacts are becoming more apparent,” the report said. “The unjustifiable action of the garimpeiros represents a threat to the life and security of the Yanomami people.”
Due to the isolation of the area and the risk it poses to outsiders trying to research it, it’s almost impossible to know exactly how many miners have moved in or how bad the deforestation has gotten. But SOS Orinoco said it believes there could be thousands of garimpeiros working there.
One of the most impacted areas is the Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve, a nearly 8.5-million-hectare (21-million-acre) protected area located in the southern state of Amazonas. It’s home to around 15,000 Indigenous people, numerous threatened mammals and reptiles, and more than 500 endemic plant species.
“Previously, mining operations were very small,” the report said. “But right now, deforested areas, altered riverbeds and the formation of lagoons are visible in satellite images, as is evidence of the use of hydraulic monitors to remove soil.”
A history of violence
Yanomami communities occupy both sides of the Venezuela-Brazil border. On the Brazilian side, they’ve been fighting mining activity since at least the 1970s, when the construction of a major highway cutting through the territory brought outsiders and disease into the communities. Miners started crossing the border within the decade, clashing with Yanomami communities and law enforcement in Venezuela throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
When the Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve was founded in 1993, the Venezuelan government fought to protect the area from the miners, in some cases arresting them and destroying their camps.
However, they failed to implement more systematic surveillance of the area that might have prevented several mass killings. The year the reserve was founded, miners killed 16 Yanomami individuals in an attempt to exterminate a village. They burned down Yanomami homes, forcing them to relocate.
“As long as the whole situation continues, the impact is going to get worse, not just in terms of the environment but also for human rights,” said Olnar Ortiz, the national coordinator of Indigenous Peoples of the Penal Forum, an NGO that helps victims of wrongful persecution in Venezuela.
Under former president Hugo Chávez, and more recently his successor, Nicolás Maduro, the government largely turned a blind eye to deforestation and human rights violations by garimpeiros in Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare. In some cases, it appears to be encouraging it.
In 2016, the Maduro government announced that it was opening up extractive activities even in sensitive ecosystems that had received environmental protections. An area in central Venezuela, known as the “Orinoco Mining Arc,” has received the most attention from the international community due to the rapid ecological destruction taking place there at the hands of criminal groups and military personnel. The Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve, some 600 kilometers (375 miles) south of the mining arc, has received less attention despite suffering from a similar situation with the garimpeiros.
“In the mountains and along the Brazilian border, the garimpeiros occupying Yanomami territories have even flown over the area with drones for gold exploitation,” Ortiz said.
Today, many Yanomami working and living in the mines suffer from disease and cancer as a result of the mercury and other toxic chemicals that are used to extract gold, the report said. With increasing deforestation and polluted rivers, it’s becoming harder to carry out traditional hunting and cultivation practices.
Crime, corruption and weak environmental policies
Because Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare is so isolated and difficult to reach, Brazilian miners don’t have to compete with guerrilla groups and gangs like they might in the Orinoco Mining Arc. But they operate with similar impunity and, in some cases, with assistance from government officials, according to the SOS Orinoco report.
Many garimpeiros enter the area with helicopters and light aircraft, clearing the forest to make room for helipads, runways and a base of operations, the report said. In exchange for these services, the national guard allegedly receives a cut of the profits.
“It’s a very organized network,” Martin, a member of SOS Orinoco who wished to remain anonymous, told Mongabay. “These are not spontaneous miners. They aren’t ‘adventurers’ or anything like that. This is an industry that operates in a very, very efficient way — and with political support.”
The National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
Venezuelan gold is reportedly transported back to Brazil on foot or via helicopter. Once in Brazil, it’s laundered into the legal supply chain. Around 30% of gold exports from Brazil are mined illegally, according to a 2021 report from the Federal University of Minas Gerais. But it’s impossible to trace it.
Because the Venezuelan government isn’t pursuing garimpeiros, the burden falls entirely on Brazil. There are approximately 27,000 Yanomami living on the Brazilian side of the border, in a 9.7-million-hectare (24-million-acre) reserve. Thousands of miners continue to work in the area with little or no response from officials.
While the courts in Brazil have ordered the government to take some action against illegal gold mining, President Jair Bolsonaro has also loosened many environmental protections and issued decrees to increase mining in his country, suggesting there will be no additional oversight of gold entering from Venezuela any time soon.
“Once Venezuelan gold arrives in Brazil, it is almost impossible for Brazilian authorities to determine its real origin,” Martin said. “But what they should do is deter garimpeiros’ operation in Brazil to prevent them from entering into Venezuela.”
Banner image: Indigenous people in Amazonas, Venezuela. Photo courtesy of SOS Orinoco.
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