Yanomami indigenous leaders in the Brazilian Amazon blame illegal gold miners for the health crisis and the rise in violence.
Brazil has launched raids against illegal gold miners blamed for a humanitarian crisis in the country’s largest indigenous reserve, as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva vowed to defend the Yanomami people after years of neglect and rising violence.
Brazil’s environment and indigenous agencies said Wednesday that government agents were carrying out an operation that began earlier this week.
Brazil’s Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) said in a statement that agents destroyed a helicopter, plane, bulldozer and support structures for miners on Yanomami land in Brazil’s northernmost state of Roraima.
Two weapons and three boats with about 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of fuel were also seized.
For years, indigenous Yanomami leaders have said the expansion of illegal mining in their territories is causing widespread environmental degradation, as well as increased threats, violence and disease.
Last year, the Hutukara Yanomami Association reported that the area damaged by “garimpo” — or feral cat gold mining — on the Yanomami reserve had increased by 46 percent in 2021, to 3,272 hectares (8,085 acres).
“This is the worst moment of invasion since the reserve was established 30 years ago,” the indigenous rights group said in an April 2022 report, based on satellite images and interviews with local residents.
More than 20,000 miners are believed to have occupied the vast reserve, which is the size of Portugal and stretches across the states of Roraima and Amazonas in the northwestern corner of the Brazilian Amazon.
The country’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has promoted increased development in the Amazon, while his administration has weakened Brazil’s environmental and indigenous rights agencies.
The Yanomami, who number an estimated 28,000 people, have said Bolsonaro’s policies have helped fuel increased threats against them.
On Wednesday, IBAMA said a checkpoint was set up next to a Yanomami village on the Uraricoera River to cut off the miners’ supply chain.
Agents seized the 12-meter (39-foot) boats, loaded with tons of food, freezers, generators and Internet antennas, which will now supply federal agents. Ships with fuel and equipment will no longer be allowed to pass through the blockade.
Some of the miners are believed to have fled the Yanomami reserve before the operation began and crossed the border into neighboring French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.
The federal government has declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people, who suffer from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria as a result of illegal mining. Game for hunting became scarce, and river water was polluted with mercury used by miners
A report released Tuesday by the Ministry of Health found that four clinics within Yanomami territory were raided by gold miners, leaving them out of business.
In the town of Boa Vista, where starving and sick members of the indigenous community have been airlifted to a temporary medical facility, there are 700 Yanomami people, more than three times the facility’s capacity.
“The malnutrition crisis is still extremely serious. We believe that the re-opening of the medical units can only be done when all the miners are removed,” Indigenous Health Minister Ricardo Weibe Tapeba said at a press conference.
Later on Tuesday, President Lula said on Twitter that his government would not allow illegal mining on indigenous lands, putting the Yanomami in a “humiliating” situation. “We also need to find out who is responsible for what happened,” he said.