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No new mining operations on Yanomami land after raids and deaths

IBAMA officers watch a camp on fire.

Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, reported that it had destroyed 327 miners’ camps, 18 planes, two helicopters, and dozens of ferries, boats and tractors in the Yanomami Territory since the operation to remove miners began in February. Image © IBAMA.

  • The alerts of illegal mining in the Yanomami Indigenous Land have zeroed for the first time since 2020, according to satellite monitoring by the Brazilian Federal Police.
  • Military operations continue in the region to drive out the last of the illegal miners and federal operations are also underway to remove criminal activity in the Karipuna and Munduruku Indigenous Territories.
  • At least 15 people have been killed in the Yanomami land since April and evidence suggests one of South America’s most powerful mafias is operating in the region, putting the safety of federal agents and Indigenous people at risk.
  • On June 14, the Brazilian Senate unanimously approved a set of solutions to tackle the Yanomami health disaster, which critics said focuses more on legalizing development in the region than on addressing the humanitarian crisis.

In February, Brazil’s authorities descended on the Yanomami Territory in the Brazilian state of Roraima, driving out tens of thousands of miners and clamping down on the illegal activity that was contributing to an unprecedented health crisis among the region’s Indigenous people.

The results are rolling in: Alerts of illegal mining in the territory have zeroed for the first time since 2020, according to satellite monitoring by the Brazilian Federal Police. In May and April of last year, the region had 538 alerts of illegal mining operations, observed from satellite images. In the same period of 2023, the number fell to 33, a reduction of 93%. Now, these alerts are zeroed according to the report released on June 20.

The good news came after a wave of violence in the Yanomami Territory. At least 15 people have been killed since April and conflicts with cartel members have become a growing threat.

Among the dead include two Indigenous people — a woman whose body was found in May, yet the cause of death remains unknown, and a man who was shot by heavily armed men on April 29, according to a report from the Hutukara Yanomami Association, an organization that campaigns for Indigenous rights. They claimed that “from the weapons used, it may mean that a criminal faction has settled in the region.” Two days later, eight miners were found dead, which Brazil’s main news outlet Globo reported could be linked to the previous attack on the Indigenous community.

Illegal mining within the Yanomami Territory.
Illegal mining within the Yanomami Territory. Although the law forbids outsiders to enter the demarcated Indigenous land, the territory was flooded with tens of thousands of prospectors who contributed to a devastating health crisis among the Yanomami people. Image © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

Further evidence of the presence of organized crime mounted when four criminals “armed with high-caliber weapons” were shot dead by Federal Highway Police (PRF) in a counterattack, according to a PRF statement. The mine where the confrontation took place is suspected to be controlled by criminal factions, reported the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. One of the victims was later identified as a member of the First Capital Command (PCC), one of South America’s most powerful cartels.

The news portal UOL reports that there are between 40 and 50 drug gang fugitives in the territory, according to estimates from public security sources in Roraima.

The rise of violence and deaths underline the complexities that the government has been facing in ridding the Yanomami Territory of criminal activity, which appears to be mixed with traditional miners and organized crime. In response to the growing tension, Minister of Justice and Public Security Flávio Dino ordered “the last phase” of Operation Yanomami on May 10 to remove remaining criminals with a reinforced group of military and police officers.

Between 75% and 80% of the miners have left since February, equating to around 30,000 people. Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, reported that 327 mining camps, 18 planes, two helicopters and equipment such as ferries, boats and tractors had been destroyed. The Brazilian Air Force stated that it has “intensified night missions” using night vision goggles and heat detectors to navigate the territory’s complex terrains and help remove the last of the criminals.

Yet the perils in the territory persist. Environmental news outlet Sumaúma reported that the PCC issued death threats to federal agents in retaliation for the death of one of its members. Attacks against federal efforts in Yanomami aren’t new — according to a tweet from Wallace Lopes, an IBAMA environmental agent, the IBAMA posts in the Yanomami Territory have been attacked five times since the operation began.

IBAMA officers watch a camp on fire.
On May 4, the Federal Police and IBAMA destroyed three aircraft belonging to criminals within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Taking the equipment out of the territory puts federal agents at risk of being ambushed by criminal organizations, which is why destroying onsite is permitted by law. Image © Federal Police.

Further challenges

Following the crisis, Brazil’s Upper House created a temporary commission in mid-February designed to monitor and document the unprecedented health and mining calamity within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Now, after 120 days of investigation, the Senate unanimously approved the Commission’s concluding proposal, which critics claimed focuses more on solutions to legalize mining than addressing the critical threats the Indigenous community faces.

Hiran Gonçalves, one of the senators in the Temporary Commission, said during the report’s presentation on June 13 that “we need to find ways to legally exploit the natural resources of Roraima” as a way of preventing the humanitarian crisis from repeating itself, according to a statement. He added that allowing free investments and business in the region “will be a great help for everyone, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.” Indigenous leaders in Yanomami have previously accused the senators in the Commission of being in favor of mining and the legalization of activity on Indigenous land, according to Brazilian news outlet G1.

Experts warn that miners who have leftRoraima may set up mining operations in other parts of the Amazon, especially as most prospectors are originally from other states such as Rondônia, Piauí and Pará, Aiala Colares Couto, a geographer and researcher at the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, told Mongabay by phone. “The miner tends to migrate to other regions,” he said. “So when the miners are forced out, they will leave and go to new areas.”

IBAMA told Mongabay in an email that “the migration of prospectors to other locations is a scenario that may occur,” and underscored the importance of the cooperation between federal entities such as the Federal Police, Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai and the Ministry of Defense to thwart attempts of miners setting up new operations elsewhere.

Couto said that monitoring and surveillance must be coupled with developing alternative economic models for those who depend on mining as a source of income and may not have other livelihood options. “[The state] needs to provide employability conditions for the population and to generate revenue for the state of Roraima,” he said.

The success of removing organized crime depends on cross-border collaborations. “These groups have connections that go beyond borders,” Couto said, adding that Brazil will need to tackle the problem of mafia groups by cooperating with other Amazonian countries such as Colombia, Peru and, in the case of the state of Roraima, neighboring Venezuela. “The problem that Brazil faces, Venezuela also faces,” he added.

An excavator at the mine.
Miners use heavy equipment such as excavators in illegal mining operations in the Munduruku and Kayapó Indigenous Territories in Pará. The photo was taken in March 2023. Image © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

Widespread invasions

Spanning an area the size of Portugal, the Yanomami region has been affected by mining for decades. However, in fewer than 10 years, invasions have reached record levels. From 2016-20, mining activity grew by 3,500% according to a report from the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA – Socioenvironmental Institute) and Hutukara Yanomami Association.

Other Indigenous territories across the Amazon have also been impacted by illegal mining and logging, sparking a recent series of federal efforts to crack down on criminal activity. On May 11, a police operation began in the Karipuna Territory in the state of Rondônia, targeting 12 large deforestation areas as well as 20 logging companies and sawmills in the vicinity of the territory where timber is illegally traded, reported the Federal Police in a statement. So far, one person has been arrested, 12 companies fined, more than 7,000 cubic meters (247,200 cubic feet) of wood seized and fines totalling $1.5 million reais ($304,000) have been applied. There is no indication that the loggers in the Karipuna Territory are linked to the PCC.

The Federal Police in Rondônia told Mongabay by phone that the operations there are confidential but involve “the total removal of invaders from the Indigenous territory.” IBAMA confirmed to Mongabay that the operation is still underway but cannot disclose more information “so as not to disrupt progress and compromise the safety of environmental inspectors and even the community itself.”

Illegal mining in the Kayapó Territory.
Illegal mining in the Kayapó Territory. For two days in March 2023, Greenpeace flew over the Kayapó Territory in the state of Pará and registered 98 hydraulic excavators being used in the region. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

The Karipuna Territory sprawls over 150,100 hectares (370,905 acres) of land and is one of the most deforested areas in Brazil. The Indigenous territories of Kayapó and Munduruku, both in the state of Pará, are also being devastated by mining, which has led to wide-scale mercury contamination and environmental destruction.

Federal efforts against criminal activity in Munduruku Territory have recently ramped up. IBAMA reported in a statement that its team seized three pickup trucks and five aircraft, four of which had been modified to transport cargo and put at risk “the environment and the communities that already live cornered by the miners in the region.”

Indigenous leaders in Munduruku Territory have pleaded for protection against prospectors after at least 18 leaders have received death threats, they report. “The recent demobilization of mining in Yanomami lands, in Roraima, increases the fear of the Munduruku that the problem will worsen further,” according to a government statement. “Indigenous leaders point out that retaliation usually occurs after the withdrawal of miners.”

Banner image: Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, reported that it had destroyed 327 miners’ camps, 18 planes, two helicopters, and dozens of ferries, boats and tractors in the Yanomami Territory since the operation to remove miners began in February. Image © IBAMA.

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A frontline view of the fight against illegal mining in Yanomami territory

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