Government, Germs, And Gold: The Current State Of Brazil’s Yanomami Reserve


Illegal gold mining has increased severely in Brazil’s biggest remote indigenous reserve over the last five years. The Yanomami reserve is on the northern reaches of the Brazilian Amazon, near the Venezuelan border. A Reuters satellite image review of the protected Yanomami reservation shows a 20-fold expansion in illegal mining activity since the 2015 – 2016 period.

The Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental estimate that more than 20,000 illegal miners -or garimpeiros as referred locally – have invaded the reserve. Scientists say that the mercury used in the mining process to separate the gold from mud and silt is dumped into rivers (or sometimes burned off into air) and enter the food chain via the aquatic ecosystem. The World Wildlife Fund has found high levels of mercury in dangerously high amounts in Amazon river dolphins, jaguar furs, and fish as far as 150 km from the gold mining sites. A 2018 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found 92 percent of residents suffered from mercury poisoning in some Yanomami villages.

Aside from butchering the forest and poisoning the food chain, garimpeiros bring diseases, alcohol abuse, prostitution and violence, indigenous leaders argue.

But unfortunately, these invasions are nothing new. Since the 1970s, when the Brazilian government bulldozed a highway through the rainforest, two Yanomami communities were wiped out due to measles and flu. A decade later, illegal miners with gold rush brought malaria with them. Currently, the biggest pandemic threat to the Yanomami is the novel coronavirus.

There has already been five deaths and 160 confirmed cases among the Yanomami so far. The Yanomami live a collective lifestyle, in communal houses called yanos or shabonos, which make social distancing impossible.

As elderly people are most vulnerable to the virus, anthropologists worry that the loss of elders and tribe leaders might imply a loss of tribal knowledge of history, culture, and natural medicine, devastating the communities. Anthropologist Tiago Moreira dos Santos said “They (the elders) are the guardians of a culture. We’re talking not only about myths and stories but also about language, memory, and knowledge that are fundamental to the existence of a people.” He said the elders were “living encyclopedias retaining the worldview of these populations.”

Michael Mary Nolan, a lawyer for the Brazilian bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council, emphasized that the miners’ invasion “will be a cultural as well as physical genocide.”

Brazilian and international cultural rights groups have launched the global campaign #MinersOutCovidOut to demand the immediate eviction of illegal miners in Yanomami territory.

The garimpeiro invasion worsened since Jair Bolsonaro, a right wing former military officer, was elected president. Bolsonaro had said the Yanomami reserve, which is 24 million acres, is too big for its population of 26,000 indigenous people. He supported the idea that the protected reserve should be open for commercial activity, and that its mineral riches should be exploited. His ministers met with gold mining site leaders. He has promised to legalise the currently unauthorized work of garimpeiros and permit large scale mining in indigenous lands with a bill -which is currently a subject of debate in the Brazilian congress.

Indigenous leaders say the government of Bolsonaro is neglecting and failing to protect their people from both the spread of the coronavirus and the invasion of their land. Indigenous leader Raoni said that Bolsonaro was “taking advantage” of the virus to eliminate indigenous people.

Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environmental minister, also sparked controversy when a video of him was revealed on the internet last month. In the video he suggested the Brazilian government to take advantage of fact that media coverage is currently too focused on Covid-19 to further deregulate and simplify environmental standards.

Earlier this week, a group of mostly European investment firms wrote a joint letter to the Brazilian government, expressing concern over growing deforestation rates in Brazil and stating that investors might begin to divest from the country if Bolsonaro’s administration fails to restrain environmental destruction. The letter, signed by 29 companies managing over $3.75 trillion in assets combined, said “As financial institutions, who have a fiduciary duty to act in the best long-term interests of our beneficiaries, we recognise the crucial role that tropical forests play in tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity and ensuring ecosystem services.” Last month, more than 40 European companies warned the Brazilian government that they would boycott Brazilian products if deforestation is not urgently tackled.