Gold Miners Kill Indigenous Leader To Access Amazon Reserve

The Waiãpi were nearly wiped out by miners' invasions of their land in the 1970s. However, the Waiãpi have pulled themselves back from the brink of annihilation over the last 30 years and their population is growing. Now, they are facing a renewed threat from miners, and at least one leader has been murdered. ©Fiona Watson/Survival

The Amazon's crisis has reached a new stage with gold miners seizing an indigenous village and apparently killing the local leader. The action is part of a campaign to begin mining the Waiãpi indigenous reserve in the coastal Amazon rainforest. The victims are blaming Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, whose slurs against indigenous people and calls for the exploitation of reserves have been interpreted as encouragement for actions like these.

Since 1988 the 600,000-hectare (1.4 million-acre) Waiãpi reserve has been designated traditionally occupied indigenous lands. Besides protecting the Waiãpi people, after whom the reserve is named, this decision helped preserve the rainforest’s incredible richness.

Unfortunately, the presence of precious minerals has attracted the attention of gold miners, known as garimpeiros. Across Brazil, the miners use mercury to separate gold from surrounding ore, poisoning rivers in the process.

Even small-scale gold-mining, such as that pictured above in neighboring Guyana, can have a devastating impact on rainforest ecosystems when the cyanide is allowed to escape into waterways. Kakteen/Shutterstock

On Wednesday last week, the body of community leader Emyra Waiãpi was found stabbed to death near the village of Mariry. The rest of the villagers have fled to the larger village of Aramirã, and claim around 50 garimpeiros are using Mariry as a base to launch attacks, including firing shots at Aramirã.

The Waiãpi people and local politicians are pleading for support. “The garimpeiros invaded the indigenous village and are there until today. They are heavily armed, they have machine guns. That is why we are asking for help from the federal police,” The Guardian quoted tribal member Kureni Waiãpi as saying. “If nothing is done they will start to fight.”

Federal and state police have reached the area, but efforts to protect the Waiãpi and the forests they guard have to get around the problem of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has claimed inhabitants of native reservations live “in the stone age” and expressed an intent to open them to prospecting. He may struggle to gain the congressional approval he needs to do this legally, but the presidential statements appear to have emboldened the garimpeiros. Bodies responsible for protecting native lands have suffered savage cutbacks.

The atrocity comes a week after a film was released of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe, in an effort to draw attention to the threats to Brazil’s indigenous people and Bolsonaro denied satellite evidence for a quadrupling of deforestation.

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