'Miners out, Covid out': threats to indigenous reserve in Brazil grow

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A petition with 439,000 signatures demanding “miners out, Covid out” of the Yanomami reserve in Roraima state was handed to Brazil’s congress this month as shamanic images were projected on to the building’s exterior. With Covid-19 ravaging the Yanomami population since the first death from the disease was reported in April, the existence of the “garimpeiros”, or goldminers, has brought even greater threats to the reserve.

The estimated 20,000 miners were already blamed for bringing alcohol and prostitution into the Yanomami reserve, where they have worked illegally for decades, clearing forests and polluting rivers with mercury used in separating out the gold. The destruction wreaked by their work has increased since far-right president Jair Bolsonaro took office – and they have kept working during the pandemic.

“The garimpeiros are the principal vector. They enter with light Covid symptoms and bring it to the Yanomami indigenous reserve,” says Dário Kopenawa, vice-president of the Yanomami association Hutukara and son of its director, Davi Kopenawa.

Illegal mining takes place on Yanomami indigenous land.
Illegal mining taking place on Yanomami indigenous land. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

Last month, a report produced by indigenous associations and campaigners claimed a rise of more than 250% in Covid-19 cases in Yanomami territory from August through October. It counted 1,202 cases and 23 suspected Covid-19 deaths among the reserve’s 27,000 people.

But instead of removing the garimpeiros, the government closed an army camp on the Uraricoera River, leaving nearby mining pits that the Guardian visited in 2019 to work undisturbed. In June, it staged an expensive ministerial visit with 18 journalists. Yanomami women were made up, had their nails painted and were given clothes. Chloroquine – a malaria drug touted as an unproved treatment for Covid-19 – was handed out.

“This was just a chloroquine campaign,” says Kopenawa. “The main garimpeiro sites are still working.”

An indigenous Yanomami woman has her makeup done at the 5th Special Frontier Platoon in Auari, Roraima state, Brazil, on 30 June 2020.
An indigenous Yanomami woman has her makeup done ahead of a visit by government ministers. Photograph: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

After federal prosecutors began investigating the visit, a second health expedition took place without the media in attendance. “Doctors and other health professionals were taken to the Yanomami indigenous reserve … the missions took equipment, tests and medicine,” the health ministry said. On December 21, the ministry said there had been 1,142 coronavirus cases in the reserve and that there had been ten deaths.

While the Bolsonaro government would like to silence the international chorus of outrage over rising deforestation and fires in the Amazon because it is bad for farming exports, deforestation has surged to a 12-year high. Bolsonaro has promised to legalise garimpeiro work in indigenous reserves – some of the best protected Amazon areas. In February his government sent a bill to congress, and garimpeiro leaders have met government officials in recent weeks, as pressure ramps up to approve the bill.

In a bid to quell rising international approbation, Brazil’s vice-president, Gen Hamilton Mourão, who heads its Amazon council, flew foreign diplomats to some of the Amazon’s most protected areas in November – a trip environmentalists called a “sham”. Despite being flown to a military base in Maturacá in the Yanomami reserve, the diplomats were not shown any garimpo sites.

“The living forest is our life. It gives hunting, fishing and traditional medicines,” says José Mario Goes, president of the local indigenous association, Ayrca. “We want the forest protected from land-grabbers, garimpeiros, farmers.”

Ye’kwanas from Waikás indigenous village plant cacao in the middle of the forest.
Ye’kwanas from Waikás indigenous village are growing cacao beans to make chocolate. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

Yanomami leaders are creating alternatives to the lure of gold. On the eastern side of the reserve, villagers planted thousands more cacao seedlings this year in an ongoing project with Brazilian non-profit group Instituto Socioambiental to produce organic chocolate and eventually provide a sustainable income. A first run of 1,000 bars of Yanomami chocolate sold out. A second harvest of 20kg of cacao has been delivered to chocolate maker César de Mendes, who plans to make another 400 bars with it.

But with no sign of the garimpeiros leaving, indigenous leaders continue to fear for their people.

“The authorities should help indigenous people take care of nature, not destroy it,” says Júlio Ye’kwana, president of the Ye’kwana tribe’s Wanasseduume association. “The garimpeiros are increasing, Covid is increasing, where is the government help? There is none.”

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