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Weekly Report - 12 May 2022 (WR-22-19)

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BRAZIL: Anger over accounts of “disappearing” Yanomami

Allegations that a 12-year-old Yanomami indigenous girl was raped and murdered in an isolated part of the Amazon by illegal gold miners (known as garimpeiros) have set off various conflicting accounts and highlighted ongoing clashes between indigenous communities and small-scale miners.

Globo TV and other media covered reports that the girl had been raped and killed by garimpeiros in Aracaçá, a small village on one of Brazil’s largest indigenous reserves close to the Uraricoera river in Roraima state, near the border with Venezuela. Various agencies and reporters set out to investigate. The government’s indigenous affairs agency (Funai) said it was monitoring the case. The Yanomami health council (Condisi) said it had informed federal police in Roraima. Dario Kopemawa, a tribal leader, said the Yanomami have been suffering repeated attacks. “Funai is lying,” he said, adding “they do nothing to protect us. They are supporting the illegal mining here.”

At this point the story took a turn. Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, another indigenous leader affiliated to Condisi who had originally reported the rape and murder allegations, said he and a group of federal police had reached the settlement only to find that it had been burnt to the ground. They found an illegal mining camp only 500 metres distant from the charred remains of the village. They also found some Yanomami nearby who appeared to have been threatened, and who eventually admitted they had been given five grammes of gold by the garimpeiros to “keep quiet”.

Some said the community had simply “disappeared” into the jungle. They also suggested that it is a Yanomami tribal custom, when a community member dies, to cremate the body and abandon the settlement to move to a new area. But according to Júnior Hekurari “they’d been trained on what to say - I noticed that”. Despite a promised senate investigation and intense coverage on Brazilian social media (with the hash tag ‘#Where are the Yanomami?’ trending) it is probable that the perpetrators will enjoy impunity and never be found or punished. There are claims that there have been at least three other unsolved rapes and murders of Yanomami women since 2020. 

A series of factors have come together to trigger increased encroachment of Yanomami lands. President Jair Bolsonaro (whose father worked for a time as a garimpeiro) has consistently championed extractive industries in the Amazon such as mining and logging, and effectively looked the other way when settlers have broken laws intended to protect indigenous communities. Bolsonaro continues to sponsor a congressional bill that would make it legal to mine on indigenous land.

Gold prices are high, and Brazil still has significant unemployment rates, persuading many unemployed young men from the cities to consider trying their luck in the illicit mining business. ‘Laundering’ illegally mined gold is relatively easy - all it requires is a declaration that the gold comes from an authorised mine - there are no meaningful checks on its real provenance. According to a report last month there was a 30% increase in wildcat mining on Yanomami lands in 2020, rising by a further 46% in 2021.   

A strategically located Funai outpost on the Uraricoera river which discouraged entry into the reserve by the garimpeiros was closed during a round of budget cuts a decade ago and has not been re-opened. As a result, illegal mining camps have flourished in various parts of the tropical forest, complete with lodgings, local stores, prostitution, and broadband internet.

Garimpeiros

The government says there are an estimated 3,500 garimpeiros in the reserve, which is home to 27,000 indigenous people. NGOs contest these figures, saying there could be as many as 20,000 garimpeiros on the reserve.