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Deadly Gold Rush in the Amazon

The Yanomami people are living through an unprecedented crisis due to the invasion of some 20,000 illegal gold miners who have descended on their lands which straddle the border between Brazil and Venezuela. Their predicament has been made worse by the neglect they experienced under the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's previous president.

Over the four years of Bolsonaro's government, 570 Yanomami children under the age of 5 are recorded as having died 'avoidable deaths'. According to the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, 99 children between one and four years old died in 2022 alone from causes such as malnutrition, pneumonia, and diarrhoea.

The land invasion by illegal miners in search of gold and cassiterite, a component part of tin, is a slow process that was accelerated under the Bolsonaro administration which vocally backed mining interests in total disregard for indigenous rights and turned a blind eye to criminal elements embedded in the extractive industries. Indigenous agencies such as FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, and IBAMA, the national Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, had their funding cut and their activities undermined by government indifference. Illegal mining is thought to have more than doubled in the Yanomami lands, a territory of 9.6 million hectares, during Bolsonaro's tenure.

The miners are well equipped for these inaccessible parts of the country. They descended with hundreds of pieces of machinery, planes and helicopters, often belonging to criminal organisations. They excavate huge craters and dig up riverbeds with dredgers. Mercury, gasoline and diesel are dumped in rivers and waterways, causing irreparable damage. A survey by the MapBiomas initiative identified 75 illegal landing strips inside Yanomami lands. These strips are mainly used to remove illegally extracted metal from the area, to bring in supplies and to transport miners. The local currency is the gram of gold. The only access routes are by air and river, making enforcement extraordinarily difficult.

As ever with populations that have lived relatively isolated lives common diseases, in this case malaria, have spread rapidly and ravaged Yanomami communities. Between 2020 and 2021, over 40,000 cases of malaria were recorded according to the Ministry of Health. This coincided with the large scale arrival of miners in the region. The health emergency led to the collapse of several villages where insufficient access to medical assistance and medication caused the elderly and children to die from malnutrition or treatable diseases such as worms, pneumonia and diarrhoea. The encroachment of miners has also brought armed conflict and insecurity, causing numerous health centres to close, fearing for the safety of their staff. Miners have been known to occupy health centres, expelling the staff and turning them into fuel depots.

The spread of disease has led to hunger and malnutrition. The traditional way of life of the Yanomami involves spending much of the day in the fields, collecting fruits, fishing and hunting. With many community members ill or incapacitated the fields are left fallow. Water contaminated with mercury and other toxic substances has reduced the amount of fish in rivers and waterways Previously untouched hunting grounds have been disturbed by mining camps, further reducing available sources of food. The incursions have created a vicious cycle of illness, declining food sources and the complete disruption of traditional life. A study released by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a scientific research institute based in Rio de Janeiro, in August 2023 estimates that 45% of the mercury used in illegal mining is dumped into the rivers and streams of the Amazon without any treatment or care. In early 2021, researchers collected fish samples from the Uraricoera River, which runs through Yanomami territory and is one of the most affected by illegal mining. They found that, out of ten fish, six had mercury levels above the limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Even though the Bolsonaro years had a particularly severe impact on the lives of Yanomami people, their history since the first contact with non-indigenous people has been one of struggle and repeated tragedy. In 1973, when Brazil was under a military dictatorship, the opening of the Perimetral Norte Road that cuts through Yanomami lands led to increased contact between outsiders and indigenous people. The 1980s brought the first gold rush of some 40,000 miners looking for precious metals on indigenous lands. They brought viruses, bacteria and firearms in their wake, causing the Yanomami population to decrease by some 14%. It was not until 1992 and the return to democracy that the Yanomami lands were properly demarcated, giving the people a slight measure of protection.

Now, however, the Yanomami are once again experiencing tragedy in their history. To try to reverse this situation, the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared a state of public health emergency on 20 January 2023, citing the explosion of malaria cases and the spread of severe malnutrition and respiratory infections associated with hunger as a cause for alarm.

In addition to the health campaign, the new government has launched an operation to remove the illegal miners. The government crackdown has caused those running the mines to abandon their operations - mostly by small planes from secret landing strips. The vast majority, however - the labourers, the service providers and other hangers-on - have moved on by whatever means available; by boat or simply on foot. Many of workers come from poorer parts of Brazil, especially the state of Maranhao, and Venezuela.

As part of his ongoing coverage of indigenous communities across Brazil, Lalo de Almeida travelled to the Brazil-Venezuela border to meet locals and hear their stories.
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