Brazil: illegal miners murder Amazon indigenous leader

Illegal gold-miners shot dead a Yekuana indigenous leader and injured his son Jan. 21 in the Brazilian state of Roraima. Yekuana man Vicente Carton and his son Ronildo had refused to take the miners up the dangerous rapids of the Uraricoera River into the Yanomami indigenous reserve. The miners shot them, and Vicente died immediately while Ronildo escaped by jumping into the river. He hid in the forest and eventually made his way back to his village.

The Yekuana live in Uaicás, a large community in the north of Yanomami territory, and in several communities just outside the reserve. They are expert river navigators, famed for their large wooden canoes.

The Yanomami have been publicly denouncing the presence of illegal miners in their land for at least a year, but the authorities have done nothing to remove them. Ronildo’s brother warns, “Miners are dangerous and they are armed.”

The Yanomami and Yekuana are only now recovering from the massive gold rush of the 1980s which decimated their population through violence and disease. After many years of pressure from the indigenous people and their supporters, the governments of Brazil and Venezuela finally recognized Yanomami land in 1992. This latest tragic incident is a clear sign that invasions are on the increase and that illegal mining activity is gaining pace once again.

Violence against indigenous people is not limited to the north of Brazil. Valmireide Zoromará, a Paresi leader, was assassinated earlier this month in the state of Mato Grosso. She was shot by ranch hands when fishing with her family. Land conflict is believed to have been the motive for her murder. CIMI, a Brazilian indigenous rights organization, reports that at least 53 Indians were killed in nine Brazilian states during 2008. (Survival International, Jan. 27)

See our last posts on Brazil and the struggle for the Amazon.

  1. Brazil to open indigenous lands to mining?
    It seems the mineral cartel is using the violence of the outlaw gold miners as a justification for opening indigenous Amazon lands to corporate exploitation. From the website, Aug. 22, 2008:

    Brazil may allow mining on indigenous lands in the Amazon
    Lawmakers in Brazil are debating whether to allow mining companies to partner with indigenous groups to exploit mineral deposits deep in the Amazon rainforest, reports Bloomberg.

    While mining in the Brazilian Amazon has often been associated with pollution, overhunting, deforestation, road-building, the spread of disease and violence against indigenous groups, it has great wealth to some tribes, notably the Kayapo in the Xingu River basin. The Kayapo have used the proceeds from a mining tax levied on developers to fund opposition to other forest-destroying activities.

    With prices for precious metals and minerals near all-time highs there is substantial pressure on indigenous groups to cash in on the potential riches beneath their feet, while avoiding past problems, many of which were associated with illegal wildcat miners known in Brazil as garimpeiros. Still some indigenous rights groups are opposed to measures that would open up their territories to more development.

    “Indian lands have special characteristics,” Paye Pereira, a Tiriyo Indian who has been lobbying on behalf of her 1,100-member tribe against the proposed law that would allow prospecting on indigenous lands, told Bloomberg. “The preservation of natural resources, which allow hunting, fishing and the gathering of fruit, forms a basic part of the survival of tribes.”

    Pereira believes the law would lead to further exploitation of indigenous territories and threaten traditional ways of life.

    “About 4 percent of Indian lands have been deforested, up from zero in 2003, and this could grow considerably,” Adalberto Verissimo, senior researcher at the Amazonia Institute for Man and the Environment (INPA) in Belem, in the state of Para, told Bloomberg. “The cultural threat to the Indians of mining activity is far greater than the environmental threat.”

    The mining industry disagrees, arguing that legalizing mining would reduce illegal incursions and bring operations under stricter environmental regulation. Miners say expanded production would help meet surging global demand for minerals.

    “Opening up these lands would be great for the industry,” Ailton Carlos Drummond de Oliveira, a board adviser to Mineracao Caraiba SA, A Brazilian mining firm which is developing a gold mine in Mato Grosso, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg. “Almost half of Mato Grosso and Para states, which are full of minerals, today are blocked off” as indigenous reserves.

    Bloomberg reports that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva supports industry on the measure, which still needs to win a series of approvals from Congress and Senate before it could become law.

    The proposed law would give Indians 4 percent royalties and allow them to negotiate for a bigger share of profits. Indigenous groups could refuse to allow mining or they could organize small-scale projects on 100-hectare (247-acre) plots, according to the bill’s sponsor, Federal Deputy Eduardo Valverde.

  2. Brazil: Kayapo blockade heads into second month
    May 22 marked exactly one month since a group of Kayapo indigenous residents of the Brazilian state of Pará set up a ferry blockade across the Xingu River in an ongoing protest against the controversial Belo Monte hydro dam. The blockade was launched the same day Brazil’s government granted rights to build the dam. The effort has received little media coverage since then, even with a constant reference to celebrity activists Sting and James Cameron. (Intercontinental Cry, May 23)