Politicians, military and traffickers: who delays the expulsion of illegal miners from Yanomami land?

Unprecedented report makes half-yearly assessment of operation against illegal mining and points out ways to overcome it
Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real

By Murilo Pajolla
Translated by Lucas Peresin
From Brasil de Fato

“I don’t know how it would be like today if Bolsonaro had been re-elected. I think that the Yanomami land and the Yanomami people would have been exterminated”, evaluates Maurício Ye’kwana, member of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, the territory’s main representative entity. The leadership considers that the end of the Jair Bolsonaro administration was fundamental to stop the indigenous genocide caused by illegal mining. Deforestation has dropped, health care has been expanded and a significant number of invaders have already left the indigenous land. The cracks and craters opened in the forest to extract ore no longer advance.

But an unprecedented report released by Yanomami and Ye’kwana associations this Wednesday, August 2, states that invaders still persist in the territory, causing instability and insecurity. The document is signed by Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY), Wanasseduume Ye’kwana Association (SEDUUME) and Urihi Yanomami Association. Indigenous organizations explain how politicians, the military and criminal factions contribute to disrupting and further delaying the process of expelling the illegal miners, which has been dragging on since February of this year. And they point out ways to improve and expand health actions, humanitarian aid and restoration of food security, without which it will be impossible to rebuild the way of life of the inhabitants who have occupied the region for a thousand years. 

“Maybe you could consider 70% positive evolution after 6 months. But it still needs to be looked deeper into the Yanomami land. [Federal management] needs to have this dialogue with indigenous organizations. Because the government just going in there and trying to do something is not going to be effective. Not without the presence of the indigenous organizations that are there”, defends Maurício Ye’kwana.

In a note, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples (MPI) recognized that there are still issues to be resolved involving the Yanomami Indigenous Land, but stated that the reconstruction of the damage that was done over years of neglect takes some time. “Even so, we can say that the treatment given not only to the Yanomami, but to all indigenous peoples, has already changed for the better”, MPI emphasized.

“Uncooperative” Armed Forces

Entitled “We are still suffering: an assessment of the first months of the Yanomami emergency”, the report recalls that the government began distributing basic food baskets to the Yanomami communities at the beginning of the year, which suffered from severe malnutrition. In February, the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (Funai) prepared a technical note in which it forecast the delivery of more than 50,000 baskets in the first half of 2023. 

The delivery of the baskets was the responsibility of the Armed Forces, using military aircraft. However, only 50% of that number was given to the indigenous people, as revealed by a report by Agência Pública

“This situation prevented, for example, some more remote regions from receiving this support. In this case, the participation of the Army hindered more than it helped in terms of humanitarian aid”, assesses Estevão Senra, a geologist and researcher at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), who has been working with the Yanomami for a decade and provided technical support for the production of the report. He considers the posture of the Armed Forces “insufficiently collaborative”. 

As provided for in the presidential decree that inaugurated operations in the territory, the role of the Armed Forces was restricted to logistical support. With violent reactions from armed illegal miners, repression measures were therefore the responsibility of Ibama (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), Funai and the National Force. Even the Federal Highway Police (PRF) was called to act within the indigenous land, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest federal highway. 

Without military aircraft to transport agents, it became more difficult to repress illegal mining throughout the entire length of the Yanomami indigenous land, which is the size of Portugal. The Armed Forces were authorized by the federal government to locate and arrest the invaders only in June. 

“They [the military] also didn’t help with the maintenance of the airstrips [inside the indigenous land]. They presented a very expensive bill to Funai to maintain these tracks. On the runway they serviced, in the Surucucu region, it took months to complete repairs. This delayed the construction of the health reference center”, adds the geologist.

Another critical point pointed out by the report was the lack of coordination between government agencies, especially the Civil Office, responsible for calling on different sectors – including the Armed Forces – for integrated actions. The lack of a coordinated approach made it difficult, according to the indigenous organizations’ report, to carry out joint actions, prioritize targets and guarantee adequate assistance to vulnerable communities.

“Narcogarimpo”, the “greatest fear”

Without being able to specify the exact proportion, Maurício Ye’kwana, from the Hutukara Yanomami Association, says that most of the invaders have already left the territory. “The ones who are resisting now are those simple prospectors. What really worries us are the criminal factions”, says the indigenous leader. 

“Narco-garimpo” in the Yanomami indigenous land is already a reality known to Ibama and Federal Police (PF) agents operating in the state of Roraima. Relations between illegal miners and factions tightened during the Bolsonaro government, as a result of the almost complete dismantling of environmental inspections. Mining ores has become a way to make an easy profit and to launder money for organized crime. 

“As it grows and expands into new areas, illegal mining resorts to heavily armed militias associated with criminal factions to be able to impose itself and guarantee territorial control. As a result, the Yanomami and Ye’kwana are prevented from moving freely through the Indigenous Land at the risk of being murdered. In this context, death threats and humiliation are frequent”, narrates the report produced by the indigenous organizations.

“What could happen is that they [factions] could entice young Yanomami in the future, that they could use indigenous people as drug users, offer them heavy weapons. Illegal mining and organized crime influence young people. This is our greatest fear”, reports Maurício.

Interference by politicians linked to illegal mining

The half-yearly balance sheet on helping the Yanomami recalls that parliamentarians from the state of Roraima who represent the interests of illegal miners tried to interfere in the logistics of the expulsion. Pressure from politicians managed to undermine a strategy that, according to indigenous organizations, was working: the closure of airspace. With the ban on aircraft circulation, illegal mining activities would be quickly strangled by the lack of inputs. 

“Operation ‘Yanomami Shield’, however, only managed to maintain the total restriction of flights related to illegal mining for six days, after pressure from parliamentarians from the state of Roraima associated with the movement of illegal miners”, says the document. One of the politicians is Senator Chico Rodrigues (Brazilian Socialist Party – state of Roraima), a notorious defender of illegal miners in the National Congress. He advocated and got private aircraft allowed in to evacuate the invaders. The Brazilian air force opened three “air corridors” for three months, so that illegal miners could leave spontaneously.

“If, on the one hand, this option reduced the costs of actions to combat illegal activity by the State, on the other hand, it allowed many financiers to remove their equipment from the Indigenous Land, without major damage (see the total number of seized and destroyed aircraft) and constraints (with repercussions, including, for investigations into the actions of these criminal groups)”, states the document prepared by the indigenous organizations.

“There are rumors that some of the main mine ‘owners’ suffered timid losses with the actions and that they moved their operation to Guyana, waiting for the efforts to protect Indigenous Lands to fade before returning”, continues the report.

Other side

Brasil de Fato contacted the Armed Forces, but received no response.

See the full position of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples:

“The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples (MPI) recognizes that there are still issues to be resolved involving the Yanomami Indigenous Land, but the reconstruction of the damage that was done over years of neglect takes some time. Even so, we can say that the treatment given not only to the Yanomami, but to all indigenous peoples, has already changed for the better.

The participation of a government delegation to the Yanomami and Ye’kwana Indigenous Land Leadership Forum, in July, an unprecedented event until then, is a clear sign of this change in treatment. For the first time in history, the Brazilian Federal Government went to an indigenous territory to hear from the leaders their demands for the elaboration of territorial and environmental management plans, among other requests related to access to health, education and other rights.  

One way to quantify this change is to look at some data referring to Operation Yanomami, which began in February, and which involves 18 Federal Government agencies in 233 emergency and structural actions that will run until 2026. Since the start of the action, more than 8,200 medical consultations have been carried out, involving 765 health professionals, who were responsible for distributing more than 3 million medicines, tests and other health supplies. More than 12 tons of food were distributed.  

The action also resulted in the expulsion of illegal miners from the region and removal of the mining infrastructure, with the destruction of 76 rafts, demobilization of 362 camps and more than 50 arrests. Another indication of improvement in the situation was given by the Federal Police, which, in June, reported that there were no more alerts of illegal mining in the region, something not registered since the beginning of satellite monitoring in 2020.  

The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples remains committed to restoring the dignity and guaranteeing the integrity of the Yanomami and their territory.”

Edited by Rodrigo Chagas e Nadini Lopes