Venezuela: Yanomami massacred by outlaw miners

Authorities in Venezuela pledge to investigate breaking reports that illegal gold miners in southern Amazonas state carried out a “massacre” of an isolated Yanomami indigenous community. Witnesses of the aftermath described finding “burnt bodies and bones” at the community of Irotatheri, Alto Orinoco municipality, near the Brazilian border in the headwaters of the Río Ocamo, an Orinoco tributary. (See iTouch Map; Venezuela political map) Blame is being placed on illegal miners, known as garimpeiros, who cross the border from Brazil to prospect for gold and have attacked indigenous peoples before.

According to local testimonies, an armed group flew over the settlement in a helicopter, opening fire with guns and dropping explosives into Irotatheri settlement in the High Ocamo area. The settlement was home to about 80 people, and only three had been accounted for as survivors, according to residents from neighboring settlements and indigenous rights activists. The survivors were apparently out hunting on the day of the attack, which took place in early July. They had to walk six days through the jungle before they reached the closest settlement, Parima B, and word of the attack began to get out.

Eliseo, a Yanomami man who spoke to the survivors in Parima B, told investigators from the UK-based Survival International: “They reported seeing charred bodies and bones, and the burnt remains of the shabono,” or communal house. Luis Shatiwe Yanomami, a leader of the Yanomami organisation Horonami, protested that such an attack was anticipated and authorities had failed to act. “For three years we have been denouncing the situation,” he told Survival. “There are lots of goldminers working illegally in the forest.”

At an Aug. 27 meeting in Puerto Ayacucho, on the Orinoco, Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon (COIAM) met to issue a statement calling for an urgent investigation into the massacre, and for Venezuelan and Brazilian authorities to jointly “control and watch the movement” of illegal miners in the area. “We express our preoccupation that as of the year 2009 various entities of the Venezuelan State have been informed about the presence of garimpeiros in the Upper Ocamo and about the different aggressions that have perpetuated against the communities,” the statement read.

“All Amazonian governments must stop the rampant illegal mining, logging and settlement in indigenous territories,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, recalling a 1993 massacre when miners attacked the Yanomami community of Haximu on the Brazilian side of the border. Several miners were subsequently convicted of genocide in that attack.

“The Venezuelan authorities must now bring the killers to swift justice, and send a signal throughout the region that Indians can no longer be killed with impunity,” Corry added. “The mining and logging must be stopped.” (Intercontinental Cry, NYT, The Guardian via VenezuelAnalysis, Aug. 30; BBC News, Survival International, Aug. 29)