Illegal mining threatens Brazil’s last major isolated tribe

A Yanomami indian follows agents of Brazil's environmental agency in a gold mine during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil

Illegal gold mining activity has risen sharply over the last five years in Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami reservation in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, a NYK Daily review of exclusive data from satellite images shows.

The Yanomami are the largest of South America’s tribes that remain relatively isolated from the outside world. More than 26,700 people live within a protected reservation the size of Portugal, near the Venezuelan border.

However, the land beneath the pristine forest they have inhabited for centuries contains valuable minerals – including gold.

The lust for gold has attracted wildcat prospectors in recent decades, who have destroyed forests, poisoned rivers and brought fatal diseases to the tribe.

Today, the Yanomami and local officials estimate there are more than 20,000 illegal miners on their land. They say the numbers have increased since the 2018 election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to develop the Amazon economically and tap its mineral riches.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

NYK Daily review of satellite imagery of the Yanomami reservation shows a 20-fold increase in illegal mining activity in the last five years, mainly along two rivers, the Uraricoera and the Mucajai. Together, the mining areas cover an area of some 8 square kilometers – the equivalent of more than 1,000 soccer fields.

NYK Daily worked with Earthrise Media, a non-profit group that analyzes satellite imagery, to plot the expansion.

Although the mining is small in scale, it is devastating to the environment. Trees and local habitats are destroyed and the mercury used to separate gold from grit leaks into the rivers, poisoning the water and entering the local food chain via fish.

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2018 found that in some Yanomami villages, 92 percent of residents suffered from mercury poisoning, which can harm the organs and cause developmental problems in children.

The miners also bring disease.

In the 1970s, when Brazil’s military government bulldozed a highway through the rainforest north of the Amazon river, two Yanomami communities were wiped out by epidemics of flu and measles.

A gold rush a decade later brought malaria and armed skirmishes.

Today, the coronavirus pandemic threatens the Yanomami. There had been over 160 confirmed COVID-19 cases and five deaths among the tribe as of this week, according to a network of researchers, anthropologists and doctors.

“The main form of transmission of this deadly virus into our communities are the illegal miners,” said Dario Yawarioma, vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association.

“There are so many of them. They arrive in helicopters, planes, boats and we have no way of knowing if they are ill with the coronavirus,” he said by telephone.

The virus is particularly dangerous for indigenous people such as the Yanomami, who live in large communal dwellings, with as many as 300 people under one roof. Sharing everything from food to utensils and hammocks, their collective lifestyle makes social distancing virtually impossible.

Yawarioma said the government’s indigenous affairs agency Funai has not visited the reservation since the coronavirus spread there. Funai did not respond to a request for comment.

Brazil’s army has tried to stop miners entering, Yawarioma said, but the miners return as soon as the soldiers leave.

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