- Reports of illegal mining in the Yanomami indigenous area have been zeroed for the first time since 2020, according to satellite monitoring by the Brazilian Federal Police.
- Military operations in the region continue to drive out the last of the illegal miners and federal operations are also underway to stop criminal activity in the Karipuna and Munduruku indigenous areas.
- At least 15 people have been killed in the Yanomami country since April and there are indications that one of South America’s most powerful mafia is operating in the region, endangering the safety of federal agents and the indigenous population.
- On June 14, Brazil’s senate unanimously approved a set of solutions to deal with the health disaster in Yanomami, which critics say is aimed more at legalizing development in the region than addressing the humanitarian crisis.
In February, Brazilian authorities descended on Yanomami territory in the Brazilian state of Roraima, where they expelled tens of thousands of miners and clamped down on illegal activities that contributed to an unprecedented health crisis among the region’s indigenous people.
The results are rolling in: Warnings of illegal mining in the area have been nullified for the first time since 2020, according to satellite monitoring by Brazil’s federal police. In May and April last year, the region had 538 warnings of illegal mining activity, seen on satellite imagery. In the same period of 2023, the number fell to 33, a decrease of 93%. Now these alerts are set to zero according to the report released on June 20.
The good news came after a wave of violence in the Yanomami area. At least 15 people have been killed since April and conflicts with cartel members are a growing threat.
The dead include two indigenous peoples – a woman whose body was found in May but the cause of death remains unknown, and a man who was shot by heavily armed men on April 29, according to a report by the Hutukara Yanomami Association, an organization that fights for indigenous rights. They claimed that “it can be inferred from the weapons used that a criminal faction has established itself in the region”. Two days later, eight miners were found dead, which Brazil’s main news outlet, Globo, said could be linked to the earlier attack on the indigenous community.
Further evidence of the organized crime presence mounted when four criminals “armed with high caliber weapons” were shot dead by the Federal Highway Police (PRF) in a counterattack, according to a PRF statement. The mine where the confrontation took place is believed to be controlled by criminal factions, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change reported. 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 area, according to estimates from public security sources in Roraima.
The increase in violence and deaths underscores the complexity the government faces in freeing criminal activity in the Yanomami area, which appears to be mixed with traditional miners and organized crime. On 10 May, in response to the growing tension, Justice and Public Security Minister Flávio Dino ordered “the final phase” of Operation Yanomami to remove the remaining criminals with a reinforced group of military and police officers.
Between 75% and 80% of the miners have left since February, amounting to about 30,000 people. Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, reported that 327 mining camps, 18 aircraft, two helicopters and equipment such as ferries, boats and tractors had been destroyed. The Brazilian Air Force stated that it has “intensified nighttime missions” using night vision goggles and heat detectors to navigate the complex terrains of the area and help remove the last of the criminals.
Nevertheless, the dangers in the area remain. Environmental journal 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 are not new – according to a tweet of Wallace Lopes, an IBAMA environmental agent, the IBAMA posts in the Yanomami area have been attacked five times since the operation began.
In the wake of the crisis, Brazil’s House of Lords set up a temporary commission in mid-February to monitor and document the unprecedented health and mining disaster in the Yanomami indigenous area. Now, after 120 days of scrutiny, the Senate unanimously approved the Commission’s final proposal, which critics have argued focuses more on solutions to legalize mining than on addressing the critical threats facing the Indigenous community.
Hiran Gonçalves, one of the senators on the Temporary Committee, said during the presentation of the report on June 13 that “we must find ways to legally exploit Roraima’s natural resources” to prevent the humanitarian crisis from repeating itself, according to a declaration. He added that allowing free investment and trade in the region “will be of great help to all, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike”. Indigenous leaders in Yanomami have previously accused the senators on the Commission of favoring mining and the legalization of activities on indigenous lands, according to Brazilian news outlet G1.
Experts warn that miners who have left Roraima could set up mining activities in other parts of the Amazon, especially since most of the prospectors are originally from other states, such as Rondônia, Piauí and Pará, Aiala Colares Couto, a geographer and researcher at Brazil’s Forum on Public Security, Mongabay told by phone. “The miner tends to migrate to other regions,” he said. “So if the miners are forced to leave, 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 could occur,” underlining the importance of cooperation between federal entities such as the Federal Police, Brazil’s Indigenous Agency Funai, and the Ministry of Defense to attempts by miners to set up new activities elsewhere.
Couto said monitoring and oversight should go hand in hand with developing alternative economic models for those who rely on mining as a source of income and may have no other means of livelihood. “[The state] must provide working conditions for the population and generate income for the state of Roraima,” he said.
The success of eradicating organized crime depends on cross-border cooperation. “These groups have connections that cross borders,” Couto said, adding that Brazil will have to address the problem of mafia groups by working with other Amazon countries such as Colombia, Peru and, in the case of Roraima state, neighboring Venezuela . . “The problem facing Brazil is also facing Venezuela,” he added.
The Yanomami region covers an area the size of Portugal and has been affected by mining for decades. In less than 10 years, however, invasions have reached record levels. According to a report by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA – Socioenvironmental Institute) and Hutukara Yanomami Association, mining activity grew by 3,500% between 2016 and 2020.
Other indigenous areas in the Amazon have also been affected by illegal mining and logging, prompting a recent flurry of federal efforts to crack down on criminal activity. On May 11, a police operation began in the Karipuna area of Rondônia state, targeting 12 major deforestation areas and 20 logging companies and sawmills near the area where illegal timber is traded, the federal police said in a statement. So far, one person has been arrested, 12 companies have been fined, more than 7,000 cubic meters (247,200 cu ft) of timber has been seized, and fines totaling $1.5 million reais ($304,000) have been imposed. There are no indications that the loggers in the Karipuna territory are linked to the PCC.
Federal police in Rondônia told Mongabay over the phone that operations there are confidential but involve “the total removal of invaders from the indigenous area”. IBAMA confirmed to Mongabay that the operation is still ongoing, but cannot release more information “so as not to disrupt progress and not to endanger the safety of environmental inspectors and even the community itself.”
The Karipuna Territory extends over 150,100 hectares (370,905 acres) of land and is one of the most deforested areas in Brazil. The indigenous areas of Kayapó and Munduruku, both in the state of Pará, are also being devastated by mining, leading to large-scale mercury contamination and environmental destruction.
Federal efforts against criminal activity in the Munduruku area have recently been stepped up. IBAMA said in a statement that the team had seized three pickup trucks and five aircraft, four of which had been modified to carry cargo and “damage the environment and communities already cornered by the region’s miners.” endangered.
Indigenous leaders in the Munduruku Territory have been calling for protection from prospectors after at least 18 leaders received death threats, they report. “The recent demobilization of mining in the Yanomami lands, in Roraima, increases the Munduruku’s fear that the problem will worsen,” a government statement said. “Indigenous leaders point out that retaliation usually occurs after miners withdraw.”
Banner Image: Brazil’s environmental agency IBAMA reported that it had destroyed 327 miner camps, 18 planes, two helicopters and dozens of ferries, boats and tractors in the Yanomami area since the operation to remove miners began in February. Image © IBAMA.
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A frontline of the fight against illegal mining in Yanomami territory