Brazil: Illegal gold miners fatally shot in Indigenous territory

Government says four killed in exchange of gunfire after miners ambushed police, environmental agents on Yanomami lands.

A helicopter of of the Brazilian environmental Agency (IBAMA) is seen near Uraricoera river during an operation at illegal mining in the Yanomami indigenous territory
A helicopter of Brazil's Ministry of the Environment is seen near the Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal mining in Yanomami Indigenous territory in the Roraima state of Brazil on February 11, 2023 [File: Amanda Perobelli/Reuters]

Illegal gold miners ambushed Brazilian police and environmental protection agents on sprawling Indigenous territory in the Amazon rainforest, and four miners were shot dead in an exchange of gunfire, the government said.

The Ministry of the Environment said on Monday that its team was attacked a day earlier when they moved to dismantle a wildcat mining camp run by an organised crime gang on the Yanomami reservation.

The ministry said in a statement that Brazil’s federal police are investigating the incident, which took place after an attack on Saturday left one man dead and two others seriously injured in Yanomami territory.

The violence comes as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration earlier this year resumed raids to remove illegal miners who invaded the largest Indigenous reservation in the South American country.

For years, Indigenous leaders had called for more protection to defend their communities against the illegal miners, accusing them of sowing violence.

A report by the Hutukara Yanomami Association last year found that the area scarred by “garimpo”, or wildcat gold mining, on the Yanomami reservation increased by 46 percent in 2021, to 3,272 hectares (8,085 acres) — the largest annual increase since monitoring began in 2018.

“In addition to deforesting our lands and destroying our waters, illegal mining for gold and cassiterite [a key tin ingredient] on Yanomami territory has brought an explosion of malaria and other infectious diseases … and a frightening surge of violence against Indigenous people,” the group said.

More than 20,000 miners are believed to have occupied the vast Yanomami reservation, which is the size of Portugal and stretches across the Roraima and Amazonas states in the northwest corner of the Brazilian Amazon.

The country’s former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro promoted increased development in the Amazon while his administration weakened the Brazilian environmental protection and Indigenous rights agencies.

The Yanomami, estimated to number approximately 28,000 people, have said Bolsonaro’s policies helped spur the increased threats against them.

According to Minister of Indigenous People Sonia Guajajara, about 80 percent of the gold miners that invaded the reservation have since been evicted, and those that remain are resisting removal more violently.

In Monday’s statement, the Ministry of the Environment said 327 mining camps had been dismantled, while 18 planes, one helicopter and dozens of vessels had been destroyed in the operation to clear Yanomami territory.

President Lula has pledged zero tolerance for mining on Indigenous land protected by Brazil’s constitution.

The Ministry of the Environment, meanwhile, also is planning eviction operations on five other reservations where illegal logging and mining increased under Bolsonaro.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies