Brazil: Indigenous communities are mined from illegal gold mining Environmental News


Sao Paulo, Brazil – Armed attackers arrived in boats overnight.

Local leaders told authorities four men’s boats arrived last week and threw tear gas canisters at the village of Maikohipi, in the Palimiu region, Brazil’s largest and most well-known indigenous reserve, Yanomami. .

The area is home to seven tribal communities flanked by illegal gold mining operations, and the June 5 attack was just one episode of a recent escalation of violence.

“We have no peace,” he told Al Jazeera Junior Hekurari, head of Condisi-YY, a Yanomami health council, who explained that the wave of attacks began after a group of tribes set up a barrier to stop. of traveling down the river and confiscated diesel equipment from another illegal mining group.

In this remote region of the Amazon, on the banks of the Uraricoera River, gangs of illegal miners, armed with rifles and other high-caliber firearms, have fired at tribes and even federal agents over the past month. , terrorizing communities and driving calls to action. of leaders, residents, and advocacy groups.

In early June, United Nations human rights experts deplored violence against the Yanomami and another indigenous group in Brazil, the Munduruku, who also suffered an increase in violence related to illegal mining.

“Violence means we cannot hunt or care for our crops,” Hekurari said. “All we can think about is protecting the community, the kids.”

The Uraricoera River flows through the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in the Brazilian state of Roraima [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]

Region rich in minerals

The border with Venezuela and home to some 27,000 tribal inhabitants, including groups living voluntarily isolated, the 96,650-square-kilometer (37,317-square-kilometer) Yanomami reserve is larger than Portugal and straddles two Brazilian states. Roraima and Amazonas.

The mineral-rich region has long been the object of gold miners. During the 1980s, an estimated 40,000 miners (garimpeiros in Portuguese) invaded the reserve, bringing with them violence and disease that killed about 15 percent of the tribe, anthropologists said.

In 1992, the Brazilian government gave the Yanomami land protection status and many of the gold diggers left. But just a year later, 16 people from the tribe were killed by miners, who also burned a village, in an event known as the Haximu massacre.

One of the main perpetrators, Pedro Emiliano Garcia, the only living Brazilian convicted of genocide in connection with the massacre, was re-arrested last year in the state capital of Roraima, Boa Vista, with two kilograms of gold and accused of operating an aircraft logistics network to tranship illegal miners and supplies to and from Yanomami land.

Socio-Environmental Institute of Brazil (ISA) dear that currently about 20,000 illegal miners are looking for gold in the reserve. Brazil’s vice president Hamilton Mourão disputes that number and said last year it was 3,500.

However, experts have claimed that the most recent recovery from illegal mining and subsequent violence is due to the fall of state inspections and the proposed legislation that would legalize mining on Brazil’s indigenous reserves, both promises. of the campaign by far-right populist President Jair Bolsonaro, high gold prices, currently in excess of $ 60,000 per kilogram.

“The region is completely saturated with garimpeiros … There is a conflict over the territory,” said Alisson Marugal, Roraima’s federal prosecutor, who also said that the infiltration of organized crime groups and increased drug trafficking have contributed to the violence.

“Illegal mining was more violent and the relationship with indigenous communities was even more violent,” Marugal told Al Jazeera.

Attacks increase

About 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) south of Yanomami Territory, in the Amazon state of Pará, the Munduruku indigenous tribe reserve in the Tapajós River region, one of the richest areas in gold in Brazil, has also suffered. an increase in violent attacks over the past month.

In mid-May, a federal court accepted prosecutors’ charges against seven members of a family group known as the “Cow on the Grill” that controlled much of the illegal mining in the territory.

According to court documents, the group had access to large amounts of cash, buying dozens of powerful excavators to dig up earth, as well as planes, and moved large amounts of gold through open companies. The group will be tried for environmental crimes, postage and illegal gold mining.

Five indigenous men who, according to court documents, received payments from the group and terrorized members of the community opposed to illegal mining, will also be tried for the same crimes.

Last year, two of the natives were transferred by Brazilian Air Force planes to the capital Brasilia, where they had a closed-door meeting with Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, which sparked accusations from prosecutors that services were used to “transport criminals”.

On April 18, 2016 an indigenous Yanomami village is seen in Roraima state [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]

More recently, during a federal police operation that destroyed several expensive excavators on the Munduruku reserve, the home of community leader Maria Leusa Kaba was burned. Another indigenous man connected to the illegal mining group has been accused of being responsible, according to the local site Real Amazons.

“They arrived with petrol in soda bottles, armed and firing,” Leusa said in a video posted last week through the Munduruku association Ipereg Ayu, speaking for the first time since the attack. “We received audios saying that we had to kill ourselves because we were obstructing, that we were denouncing [the crimes to the authorities]”.

Meanwhile, a bus that was to be used to bring anti-illegal Mundurku leaders to Brasilia was attacked last week and the driver threatened the municipality of Jacareacanga, where the reserve is located. Prosecutors are trying to negotiate a safe escort for leaders.

“It’s a very hostile environment with certainty of impunity,” said Luisa Molina, an anthropologist at the University of Brasilia who studies Munduruku. “Indigenous people need protection.”

Illegal networks

For years, much of the illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon, especially in larger indigenous reserves such as the Yanomami or Munduruku, has been dominated by multi-layered criminal groups operating complex logistics networks, with money and highly profitable.

Planes, helicopters and powerful excavators imported to dig up the land, as well as fire companies for money laundering, including borders, are common in the growing fever of the 21st century Amazon in Brazil. technology and digital. report by the Igarapé Institute found.

Now, Roraima authorities are investigating reports that people related to Brazil’s most powerful drug cartel, the CCP, have infiltrated illegal mining operations in Yanomami territory.

The CCP – the Portuguese acronym for “First Capital Command” – was formed in Sao Paulo prisons in the 1990s and has since dominated Brazil’s drug trade, sending tons of cocaine to Europe each year. But the exact details of the group’s alleged involvement in illegal mining in Yanomami territory are unknown.

“It is not confirmed whether they offer protection, charge percentages on extracted gold or control mining pits or dredging platforms … This needs to be investigated,” Marugal, the prosecutor, said.

Environmental impact

In addition to violence, illegal gold mining is linked to serious environmental impacts such as deforestation, which has skyrocketed in both Yanomami and Munduruku reserves in recent years.

Mercury, a highly toxic substance related to congenital defects and neurological disorders, is used in the gold smelting process and contaminates the rivers and local food chains on which indigenous communities depend.

Last year, a to study published by the Brazilian health institute Fiocruz in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it was found that 58% of the Munduruku indigenous tribes tested in the Tapajós River region had higher mercury levels than consider safe.

Meanwhile, it appears that legislation to legalize mining in indigenous lands — advocated by Bolsonaro and pro-mining politicians but environmentalists as unconstitutional — seems to have stalled in Congress.

During last month’s violence on the Munduruku reserve, Wescley Tomaz, pro-mining vocal councilor of Itaituba, the epicenter of the Brazilian Brazilian gold trade, told local media that “the gold miner is marginalized.” .

“People confuse illegal gold mining with irregular gold mining … Gold is our economy,” Tomaz said, referring to Itaituba. “As for mining in indigenous lands, that’s what they decide.”

An agent of Brazil’s environmental agency shows ammunition found in a field used by gold miners during an operation against illegal gold mining in indigenous lands in 2016 [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]

“We are hostages”

Although Brazil’s illegal mining networks have access to high-tech equipment, the vast majority of gold sales in the country’s mining pits are still recorded with paper and pencil, according to experts who allow fraud .

“With beef, wood, soy … they are defective systems, but there is minimal control, unlike gold,” said Larissa Rodrigues of the Choices Institute, a Brazilian social-environmental NGO . Although there are no official statistics on which of Brazil’s gold exports are believed to be related to illegal activities, Rodrigues estimated that the figure could stand at about 16 percent.

Fabiano Contarato, senator of the party of the Network of Sustainability of Brazil, is the author of a bill that aims to create greater transparency in the supply of Brazilian gold. He said this will prevent money laundering through illegal gold mining and will help reduce violence against indigenous people.

Amid growing pressure, Brazil’s Supreme Court has begun a process that would force the government to remove illegal miners and loggers from both reserves, as well as five other indigenous territories.

But in the meantime, the attacks continue. “We are hostages,” Hekurari told Condisi-YY, the Yanomami health council. “All the time it intimidates us.”

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