MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Illegal Miners Threaten Brazil Indians

Published by MAC on 2005-07-21

Illegal Miners Threaten Brazil Indians

Thursday, July 21, 2005

By Michael Astor, Associated Press Writer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Wildcat miners who have entered the Yanomami Indians' Amazon reservation have brought guns and diseases that threaten the stone-age tribe, an Indian rights group warned Thursday.

Prospectors have opened five clandestine landing strips and were illegally mining for gold in at least eight spots in the rainforest reservation that straddles the border between Brazil and Venezuela, according to the Special Indigenous District Council for the Yanomami and Ye'Kuana.

"It's not hard to foresee that we are returning to a situation of social and sanitary chaos like the one we experienced at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, when at least a fifth of the Yanomami population died from diseases brought by the prospectors," the council said in a letter to Brazil's government.

Anthropologists consider the Yanomami one of the most isolated indigenous groups remaining in the modern times and the best remaining example of Stone Age human society. About 15,000 Yanomami Indians live on the 24 million acre reservation.

A Yanomami leader said the growing influx of miners had caused outbreaks of malaria, flu and sexually transmitted diseases among the Indians.

"The situation is worsening, the miners are coming back, and with them comes the malaria," Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa said by telephone from Boa Vista, near the reservation and 2,100 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

"The number of miners is rising because the Federal Indian Bureau and the federal police aren't doing anything to remove them," he said.

The Indian Bureau said it was ready to start an operation to remove the miners but needed the cooperation of federal police. An estimated 500 prospectors have invaded the reservation, which is rich in gold, magnesium and niobium.

Mining is illegal on Indian reservations, but the ban is not always enforced.

In 1987, news of gold deposits on the reservation drew up to 40,000 prospectors before federal authorities were able to remove most of them in 1990.

One of the consequences of the influx of prospectors is the distribution of guns. According to anthropologists, gunshot wounds have become one of the leading causes of death among the Indians.

Kopenawa said guns have replaced bows and arrows as the weapon of choice among members of the warlike tribe, long known for its fierce intertribal conflicts.

"They use the guns to kill their relatives - never for hunting," Kopenawa said.

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