Brazil’s environmental and indigenous agencies have launched an enforcement operation in the Amazon rainforest to expel thousands of illegal gold miners blamed for causing a humanitarian crisis among the Yanomami people, officials said on Wednesday.
Armed agents of the government’s environmental protection agency Ibama, deployed by helicopter and motor boat since Monday, have arrested and removed dozens of miners in Brazil’s largest indigenous reservation on the northern border with Venezuela.
They set fire to wooden shacks and a hangar housing a plane at a clandestine airstrip used by miners to fly in supplies, according to images supplied by Ibama.
By Tuesday, the agency said it had destroyed a helicopter, a plane and a bulldozer, and seized weapons, 12-meter (40-ft) boats and drums with 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of fuel, besides generators, internet antennas, freezers and a tonne of food,
The operation was backed by the government’s indigenous affairs agency Funai and supported by military personnel who manned blockades on the rivers to cut off the flow of supplies to the miners, Ibama said in a statement.
“Not a moment too soon. Get the miners out – and keep them out!” said Survival International. The indigenous rights NGO said the miners devastated the territory and caused a catastrophic health crisis that has killed hundreds of Yanomami, especially children, from preventable diseases and malnutrition,
More than 20,000 miners invaded the reservation, bringing disease, sexual abuse and armed violence that has terrified the Yanomamis, estimated to be about 28,000 in number, and led to severe malnutrition and deaths.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government declared a medical emergency for the Yanomamis and said it would have zero tolerance for mining on indigenous reservation land protected by Brazil’s Constitution.
The Yanomami have long lived in isolation on a vast reservation the size of Portugal on the border with Venezuela. Their mineral-rich lands have attracted wildcat miners for decades, especially after a military government built a road through the Amazon rainforest in the 1970s.
Lula’s right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, advocated mining on protected indigenous lands, and his government turned a blind eye to a renewed surge in invasions of reservations by wildcat miners and illegal loggers.
“The advance of mining, encouraged by the last government, resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the indigenous land,” the Ibama statement said. “The federal police are investigating the crime of genocide against the Yanomami,” it added.
The agency said distributors and resellers responsible for the irregular trade in aviation fuel for planes supplying the miners would be investigated.
Some of the miners that are beginning to leave the Yanomami reservation are expected to move to other illegal mining areas in the Amazon or head across the border into neighboring French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.
A miner who had walked for 20 days through the forest to get to the Uraricoera river said the Yanomami were dying of hunger and were desperate for food parcels dropped from Air Force planes.
“The day the parcels arrived, they were gone,” a ragged Joao Batista Costa, 65, told Reuters, holding up a food parcel, as he left the reservation after two days going down river by canoe.