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Illegal gold miners threaten a fragile way of life, in the depths of the Amazon rainforest

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Dressed in traditional headdresses, faces decorated with paint, this indigenous community prepares its bows and spears to defend their land against the garimpeiros, illegal gold miners looking for gold glitters in this vast and rich territory.

Fernando, one of the Yanomami leaders, told CNN on a recent trip to the Palimiu settlement by the river, which has been supporting the community for months.

“The problem is that armed gold diggers spend the night here,” he told CNN in May. “There are always a lot of them. Up to seven canoes,” with five to seven people each.

The miners, who have set up camps along the nearly 24 million acres of the Yanomami reserve, roughly the size of Portugal, use the waterways as a gateway, transporting gasoline and people, as well as goods to the its bases.

But it is rarely done quietly, says Fernando, who accuses the miners of breaking into Yanomami lands, intimidating them and shooting them.

Between May and June the village suffered five attacks. One of them, a half-hour shootout on May 10, was captured on camera.

According to Yanomami, police have been listening to his complaints.

The video shows women and children running to cover themselves when a boat passes by the shores of their village.

The incident left four dead, including two Yanomami children, according to Brazilian federal police.

Nerves are high.

“These people are ruining our land, they are killing our children, they are making us suffer,” Adneia, an elderly woman from Yanomami, told CNN.

With violence on the rise, the government in late May called on federal police and the military to investigate.

It was a welcome arrival for the Yanomami who have been on high alert, taking turns to patrol at night.

The whole community has set to work, turning shovels into weapons and bamboo into spears.

During CNN’s visit to the Amazon in May, Fernando showed police the weapons that have been his means of defense for years.

“This is a spear. It pierces quickly and will die quickly,” he says. “He goes through it all and has poison. A lot of poison.”

According to the Yanomami, illegal mining on their land has expanded by 30% in the last year, devastating the equivalent of 500 hectares.

Disturbing aerial photos by photographer Christian Braga, taken from a Greenpeace helicopter this year, show the uncontrolled expansion of this mining into its territory, with deep craters changing the terrain and the dense forest completely obliterated.

After years of drilling and digging, the earth looks barren. This community feels the impact of this on a daily basis.

“We are threatened by these bandits. This land is being destroyed, our trees, our fish,” Ricardo, the leader of the Yanomami settlement, told CNN.

Neila, a younger member of the community, goes further.

“When they look for gold in our land, they damage our river, our water. They are driving away our raptors,” he says.

Miners have set up camps across the entire 24 million-acre reserve.

The Yanomami only want to protect their children and their already fragile way of life, their own existence as guardians of the Amazon.

The land struggle in the Brazilian Amazon is not new. Since the gold deposits were discovered, illegal gold mining has thrived and with it the desire to enrich it.

There are currently an estimated 20,000 illegal miners cutting strips through the rainforest, digging a few meters deep into this rich land and polluting the river with mercury, according to the government.

The Yanomami point the finger with guilt on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who since taking office in 2019 has supported legislation to open protected indigenous mining areas, has given funds to the agencies responsible for mine prevention , illegal logging and livestock farming, has undermined indigenous rights and has repeatedly claimed that indigenous territories are “too big”.

The Yanomami tribe, especially the matriarchs, told CNN that these policies have directly contributed to the destruction they see every day and the threats and intimidation that have become everyday events.

“They threaten us and we can’t sleep. Bolsonaro believes that this land belongs to the garimpeiros (illegal miners), but this belongs to us. This land does not belong to Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is sending us the garimpeiros,” says Adneia.

Neila doesn’t stop, and adds, “Bolsonaro, you’re ignorant. And since you’re ignorant, you let these people into our land. You have to get them out now. This is our land. This is our water, it’s not your water “.

The Brazilian government told CNN that it is committed to promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. He also said the alleged violations of illegal miners in the Yanomami indigenous land are being investigated by federal authorities in multiple operations.

“Bolsonaro, you’re ignorant. And because you’re ignorant, you let these people into our land.”

Neila

Bolsonaro made a trip to the area recently where he told a Yanomami community that he would respect their wishes not to mine. But critics say his words do not mean he will face mining, but could serve to divide the indigenous community as he pushes to legalize mining and other commercial enterprises in indigenous territories. Bolsonaro has presented to Congress a bill that has been pending since 2007 and would eliminate illegal mining simply by legalizing it, among other changes in indigenous land rights. Congress is expected to vote on this bill soon.

Brazilian federal police have been listening to his complaints, according to Yanomami.

“We hope the soldiers help us. They are warriors. We protect them as they protect us,” Fernando said.

But even though the police want to protect them, they don’t want to promise too much.

Federal police were called in with increasing violence.

“We’re not looking for a fight. We’re here to watch and see what’s going on and to accompany you. All you need, we’re here,” a police officer told the community.

The reality is that they cannot stay here forever; the territory is too vast for them to patrol. So the federal police and army get on their helicopter and start looking for illegal miners.

From above, the challenge for them becomes clearer. The Yanomami Reserve is located in the vast and dense Amazon rainforest and finding illegal miners becomes a cat and mouse game.

Eventually, the helicopter detects an opening and police rush to stop the miners on their runways.

“Federal police. Come here. Its here,” they demand.

The miners lift their T-shirts to prove they are unarmed and questioning begins. It’s about both catching criminals and understanding how they work, who pays for them and finances the devastation.

One of the illegal miners tells police, “Life is hard. We’re here because there are no jobs. Yes [I] I’m not here, I’d be on the street. I’ve been working as a miner for 1.5 years and I’m not there because I like it. I’m here to survive. ”

The miner told CNN that he has been at the mine for three months, but so far has not seen any gold gain, adding: “Miners are treated worse than bandits. 95% of the people here have families. “

Police also questioned a group of three women who said they worked as miners ’cooks.

A cook says she arrived in a canoe three days before police arrived and had paid four grams of gold (worth about $ 200) for her trip. But with the work currently stopped, he worried that he would struggle to earn even that amount. This is not the gold rush that many had dreamed of, but in the midst of a pandemic, with rising unemployment and soaring gold prices, it has become the wild west of Brazil.

Despite evidence of the illegal gold mining surrounding them, federal police and the military make no arrests and simply burn the miners ’equipment. An officer told CNN, “I gave him a headache. He slows them down. He can stop them for a while, a day or two.”

In a statement to CNN, federal police say the operation does not arrest illegal gold miners, because “the operation is just the first step in a series of actions, focused on dismantling the gold mine. logistics of gold miners and the collection of information on the actual owners of gold mines, as well as identifying the structures of potential criminal organizations involved. “

This is not the solution Yanomami had been advocating for. But until Bolsonaro changes his environmental policies, his cries will continue to fall on deaf ears, environmentalists say; and this burden of wealth, the lungs of the world, runs the risk of falling into it.

Gabriel Chaim reported from Palimiu, Brazil, for CNN, while Isa Soares and Barbara Arvanitidis of CNN wrote and also reported.

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