Illegal miners in Yanomami reservation seek Brazil government help to leave

Police officers check a car and people during an operation on highway RR-205 as access to Yanomami indigenous land is monitored, near Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil, February 6, 2023. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Illegal gold miners blamed for causing a humanitarian crisis on Brazil’s largest indigenous reservation are asking authorities to help them leave, one of their leaders and a Brazilian senator said on Monday.

Aware of an imminent military enforcement operation to evict them, Jailson Mesquita, head of the Garimpo¬†e¬†Legal movement (Wildcat Mining Is Legal) called on the government to airlift miners from Yanomami territory or lift a no-fly zone to allow them to fly out on small planes from clandestine airstrips inside the reservation where mining is banned under Brazil’s Constitution.

In a video he posted on social media, Mesquita asked the government to unblock rivers for 10-15 days for the miners to leave the reservation in the northern state of Roraima.

“It is important to protect indigenous people, but we cannot criminalize the miners who are looking for a living to survive,” Roraima Senator Chico Rodrigues told Reuters. “What matters is that the miners leave peacefully and protected,” he said.

Mesquita is organizing a demonstration on Thursday in the main square of Roraima’s capital Boa Vista which has a large monument of a wildcat miner.

More than 20,000 miners have occupied 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 a malnutrition and deaths.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared a medical emergency for the Yanomamis and his recently installed government is planning to expel the miners with a task force involving the military, police and agencies that protect the environment and Brazil’s indigenous peoples.

Some of the miners that are beginning to leave the Yanomami reservation are expected to head across the border into neighboring French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.

Later on Monday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Sonia Guajajara said illegal miners were “escaping” to larger mines on the reserve, where they could get together and have more protection.

“The territory is completely taken over by mining. It is not possible to differentiate between an indigenous community and a mining area. There is not even water to drink,” she said following a visit to the Yanomami territory.

Guajajara said it was difficult to deliver even basic food packages to indigenous communities.

The Yanomami have 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.

When the reservation was marked out and recognized by the government in 1992, authorities mounted an operations to evict thousands of gold miners.

The miners started to come back in numbers that surged under Lula’s right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, who advocated mining on protected indigenous lands and whose government turned a blind eye to invasions of indigenous reservations by wildcat miners and illegal loggers.

More Stories