February 27, 2024

Thousands of illegal miners are resisting government efforts to drive them out of Brazil’s largest indigenous territory, noted activist and shaman Davi Kopenawa said, nearly a year after operations to displace them began.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made the expulsion of an estimated 20,000 illegal gold and tin ore miners from the Yanomami indigenous territory one of his main tasks after taking power last January.

Lula visited the region to denounce what he called a premeditated “genocide” committed by the government of his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, and ordered an offensive to force miners out of the Portugal-sized Amazon enclave.

“Illegal mining on Yanomami land is finished,” a special forces commander for the environmental agency Ibama told the Guardian when it joined his air forces on the front line of that battle.

Those dangerous missions paid off. By July, Brazil’s top federal police chief for the Amazon claimed 90% of the miners were uprooted, leaving perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 behind. But Kopenawa, who have been fighting the destruction of Yanomami lands for four decades, believe many are returning after eviction operations are scaled back.

David Copenhagen
Davi Kopenawa visits Downing Street in February 2020. Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images

“I’m getting angry … and Mother Earth is angry,” Kopenawa said, estimating that 4,000 miners operate in an area where about 30,000 Yanomami and Ye’kwana people live, including groups with little or no contact with outsiders.

“I am a man of the rainforest, I am a traditional leader… and I feel these invaders are determined to destroy the Yanomami territory,” added Kopenawa, the president of the indigenous association Hutukara.

A government source familiar with the region said they suspect the situation is even worse than the Yanomami leader described. “There are a lot of people [working in the mines] at the moment. Much more than 4,000, I would guess,” said the source, who asked not to be named. “This is a very worrying and sad situation. My sense is that the struggle [against the miners] has returned to square one – and that in some areas the situation is even worse than before.”

Davi Kopenawa was born in a Yanomami village on the Toototobi River in the mid-1950s, at a time when missionaries roamed the remote border region – often with deadly consequences for indigenous communities. Copenhagen lost many family members to a measles epidemic started by the child of a pastor.

During the 1980s, Yanomami lives were upended by a gold rush in which 40,000 prospectors invaded their ancestral lands in search of a modern-day El Dorado.

“They are evil creatures. They are not afraid of rain, heat or disease,” Kopenawa wrote about the miners in his memoir, The Falling Sky. “In our language we call them neck carried’ri péthe ‘outsider peccary spirits’, for they relentlessly dig into the ground and dig in the mud like wild pigs searching for earthworms.”

Yanomami indigenous territory – map

Kopenawa’s tireless international activism paved the way for the creation of the Yanomami Protected Area in 1992. In a government crackdown, most of the miners were driven out.

But by the 2000s, rising gold prices and weak enforcement drove another incursion. Miners used boats, helicopters and planes to sneak into the sparsely populated area. Activists blame the anti-environmental rhetoric and policies of Bolsonaro’s 2019-22 administration for encouraging such gangs, which even a illegal road to smuggle excavators into the region.

Kopenawa expressed relief that Bolsonaro had lost power in the 2022 elections. “Bolsonaro is truly an evil spirit … a dirty, criminal president … who brought crime and death to Brazil,” he said.

The activist believes that Lula is genuinely committed to defending indigenous communities and praised Ibama’s efforts to liberate Yanomami lands. “He’s not a rich man – but he’s a man rich in good, positive ideas about our forest and about the Amazon where we live,” Kopenawa said of Lula, whose government has seen a major reduction in Amazon- deforestation in his first year in power.

“Lula cares about us,” Kopenawa said. “Bolsonaro only cared about our underground, about money, about gold.” However, the Yanomami leader believes that eviction efforts are “cooling down,” prompting miners who fled the initial crackdown to resume their multimillion-dollar operations.

Many prospectors – who were blamed for a boom in child mortality and diseases such as malaria – was digging up and reactivating mining equipment buried in the rainforest when last year’s offensive began. Heavily armed mining gangs linked to organized crime never left, Kopenawa said, urging Lula to step up operations.

In November, a TikTok video appears and shows illegal miners in a plane hovering over an isolated village in Yanomami territory, shouting insults at its inhabitants. “Just look at these cannibals, if you’ve never seen them!” one of the miners can be heard scoffing.

The government source said that Brazil’s failure to control the airspace over Yanomami lands is one of the biggest reasons why miners are returning. Despite a flight ban imposed last April, illegal planes “fly as normal”, they said. No permanent river blockades have been set up to cut off supply routes. The rapid spread of Starlink satellite dishes also hampered the crackdown by allowing miners to monitor security forces and receive advance warning of their operations.

Kopenawa said: “I’m asking Lula to keep fighting, to keep supporting efforts to protect and save my Yanomami people and the Ye’kwana. I am asking him to continue to get the intruders out because they are in my house and are polluting our communities and causing trouble.”

At the end of December, after state prosecutors claimed there has been a “drastic weakening” of anti-mining operations, the Brazilian presidency said Lula has ordered an intensification of eviction efforts and has made protecting the Yanomami a priority.

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