Indigenous People Launch Campaign To Kick Out 20,000 Gold Miners From Their Land

Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader and shaman surrounded by children in Demini, Brazil. © Fiona Watson/Survival

The Yanomami Indigenous people have launched a campaign to kick out thousands of gold miners from their land in the Brazilian Amazon. 

An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 illegal gold miners have set up shop in Yanomami Park, one of Brazil’s biggest indigenous reserves, near to the border of Venezuela. Gold mining has continued to disturb the indigenous land since the 1980s, but now the Yanomami fear the outsiders are increasing the spread of Covid-19 among some of their communities. 

In a statement given to IFLScience, Survival International has said that tribal leaders of the Yanomami and the National Human Rights Council have recently submitted a request to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to order the Brazilian government to expel the gold miners from Yanomami land. A tribunal has ruled that the Brazilian government’s indigenous agency FUNAI has to re-open its protection posts in the Yanomami territory. 

However, it remains uncertain whether these steps will actually lead to meaningful government action. 

“For many years we have spoken to all the authorities, who already know about our situation, we have even denounced it at the UN, but so far no one has given us any answers,” Dario Yanomami, of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, said in a statement provided to IFLScience.

“They [the miners] are contaminating our rivers with mercury, digging big holes in our land, killing our animals and our environment. Our health is very bad from drinking water contaminated by the mining.

“I am fighting for my grandparents, for the recognition of our people.”

The Yanomami live in large communal houses called yanos or shabonos, complete with a central area used for activities such as rituals, feasts, and games. © Dennison Berwick/Survival

The Yanomami are a group of approximately 35,000 indigenous people that live in the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. They live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that also utilizes shifting cultivation. Most Yanomami people are in contact with non-indigenous society, although they are still groups that remain isolated and uncontacted. 

In the past few decades, non-indigenous society has put increasing pressure on the Yanomami. A gold rush in the 1980s brought huge numbers of miners to the area, along with a tragic amount of conflict. In 1993, a group of miners entered the village of Haximú and massacred 16 Yanomami people, including a baby, eventually resulting in five miners being found guilty of genocide. 

“We have suffered a lot from the invasion of gold miners since the 1970s and 1980s. The miners have killed us, including our children, as if we were animals. Our population has decreased by approximately 22 percent,” added Dario Yanomami.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of gold miners, resulting in further destruction of land as well as mercury contamination of the rivers and local animals. Numerous reports on Yanomami communities in the mining regions have highlighted shocking rates of mercury poisoning.

A recent report also warned that thousands of Yanomami could also be at risk of contracting Covid-19 due to illegal mining activity in close proximity to their settlements. So far, at least three Yanomami people have died from Covid-19 and dozens have been infectedThe Brazilian government has also set up a military barracks in the Yanomami heartlands. According to Survival International, women from some tribes have been solicited for sex work by the soldiers and have been put at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. 

To apply further pressure on the authorities, the Yanomami have also helped to set up a petition asking President Jair Bolsonaro’s government to expel the miners from their territory. The petition already has 270,094 signatures, smashing their target of 100,000 signatures.

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