Following reports that five people were killed in two separate violent attacks in the area, the Brazilian government, led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has pledged to expedite the eviction of illegal miners from Yanomami, the nation’s largest indigenous territory, according to The Guardian on Monday (May 1).

On April 29, between 15 and 20 heavily armed miners opened fire on residents of the Yanomami settlement of Uxiu, killing one of the local healthcare providers in the process. Four illegal miners were killed in a gun battle in a different area of the territory during the second attack, which was carried out by the federal highway police (PRF) and special forces from the environmental protection organisation Ibama, two of the government forces responsible.

The Minister of Indigenous People, Sonia Guajajara, informed the reporters, “We will continue the operation to remove all the miners that are still there illegally.” Additionally, she said, “We will intensify the operation,” and said that the military might be called in to complete the task.

With the assistance of the military, environmental agencies, and police forces of the nation, Lula’s administration began a crackdown on illicit mines in the Yanomami region, an area roughly the size of Portugal, in January. The operation is driving away miners from the region. Approximately 80% of the more than 20,000 miners who invaded the area have reportedly been driven out thus far, according to Guajajara, according to Reuters.

Illegal gold miners have long been interested in the Yanomami region, which spans the states of Roraima and Amazonas in the northwest corner of Brazil’s Amazon. When they initially got there in the 1980s, they caused violence, the spread of diseases, and environmental devastation that resulted in the deaths of 20% of the 30,000 Yanomami people living there at the time. The majority of these miners, according to a CNN story, were forced out of their homes in 1992 when “the area was demarcated by the government of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello.”

However, under the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, the number of miners entering Yanomami territory significantly increased, leading to a humanitarian crisis.

As soon as Bolsonaro was elected president in 2019, he immediately signed laws that “opened indigenous protected areas (like Yanomami territory) to mining, reduced funding for or shut down organisations in charge of overseeing and enforcing environmental regulations, and repeatedly asserted that indigenous territories are “too big,” according to a CNN report.

For instance, the Mucaja and Uraricoera rivers in the Yanomami region, which are both exploited by miners as entryways, forced the Brazilian army to close two of its surveillance sites in 2019. The army claimed that it was forced to act in this way because the enormous number of Venezuelan refugees entering Brazil had put a strain on its resources.

Such actions gave miners the confidence to enter the restricted area, where gold mining has been outright forbidden. Based on satellite imagery, the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian NGO, reported that the number of mines on Yanomami territory increased from four in 2015 to 1,556 by the end of 2021.

Another report from Brazil’s Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship (MDHC), published in January of this year, claimed that Bolsonaro’s administration “disregarded numerous alerts made about the Yanomami’s deteriorating situation.,” according to CNN.

An increase in incidence of diseases like tuberculosis and malaria has been recorded as a result of the expansion of illicit mines and the presence of thousands of miners. Researchers reported that between 2016 and 2020, the number of malaria cases increased by 1,090% in Indigenous communities and by 75,576% in mining areas in a study that was published in the Malaria Journal of BioMed Central in 2022.

Additionally, according to Brazil’s health ministry, at least 570 Yanomami children have passed away from preventable causes since 2018. Malnutrition has been one of the leading causes of these deaths. The Yanomami’s native population has always relied on the forest, birds, and animals for food. But because large areas of the forest were destroyed by illegal gold mining, there is a food shortage.

The poisoning of mercury is another issue. According to DW, miners in the area “search for gold by mixing liquid mercury into excavated sediment of the Amazon’s rivers”, which has contaminated Yanomami places traditionally utilised for hunting, fishing, and gathering. This has also contributed to a rise in the number of cases of childhood malnutrition.

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