Clashes between illegal miners and Indigenous communities are not uncommon in northern Brazil but recent shootouts drive a new point home: The miners are convinced they’ll get away with it.
Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the Yanomami and Ye'kuana Indigenous Health Council (Conselho Distrital de Saúde Indígena Yanomami e Ye'kuana - Condisi-YY), told Globo that the attack sparked a chaotic half-hour shootout.
The incident set off a week-long string of attacks on the village, located inside the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in the northern Roraima state.
A day later, miners aboard a boat on the Uraricoera River attacked police officers sent to the village to investigate the case, according to an official police statement accessed by Globo. Another shootout ensued.
Prospectors then opened fire on members of the same community for a third consecutive day, Dário Kopenawa Yanomami, vice-president of the Yanomami's Hutukara Association (Hutukara Associação Yanomami - HAY) told Mongabay. Gas bombs and gunfire aimed at the community continued, Globo reported, citing Kopenawa Yanomami.
According to reports, five miners died in the initial clash, and three were wounded. One Yanomami adult male was also injured with a non-fatal gunshot wound to the head. Citing HAY, Globo reported two Yanomami children were found dead in the Uraricoera River two days after the clash.
The Amazonian village already faced a separate attack late last month. An open letter sent to officials in Roraima by the HAY in late April claimed miners had shot at a group of Yanomami people in Palimiú after locals confiscated 990 liters of fuel from a group of prospectors.
Close to 27,000 Yanomami people live on Brazil's largest reserve, which sits along the nation's border with Venezuela. The protected area covers some 9.6 million hectares, making it larger than Portugal.
In 2019, it was reported that an estimated 20,000 miners occupy the territory.
InSight Crime Analysis
While illegal gold miners have long ravaged Yanomami lands, their use of violence has become more brazen, as soaring gold prices bought them support and left local communities to defend their territories alone.
According to a briefing paper sent to InSight Crime by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian-based think tank focused on emerging development, security, and climate issues, federal authorities are providing support to illegal miners. The government of President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies in congress have promised to relax inspection rules and to legalize mining inside Indigenous lands, thereby creating an "enabling environment” for illegal mining to expand, the think tank explained.
These illegal miners are further boosted by their legal and criminal connections in the private sector, according to an April report by the Igarapé Institute. In that report, the think tank revealed how criminal gangs provide miners with tools and machinery required to extract gold and how legitimate entrepreneurs provide planes to send in supplies and take gold out of Yanomami territory.
The illegal mining gangs also receive financial or logistical support from networks of businesses, including jewelry companies, aviation companies, transport firms, and more.
And the impunity they enjoy is only becoming more apparent.
Two monitoring bases formerly used by the Brazilian army along the Mucajaí and Uraricoera rivers, both of which run through Yanomami Indigenous land, were closed down in 2018, as military resources were “overstretched.” Both rivers are used by miners as routes into the reserve.
Since then, President Bolsonaro appears to have encouraged incursions. In a live interview broadcast on Facebook in 2019, he announced large-scale mining and industrial agribusiness should be allowed on Indigenous territories, including that of the Yanomami.