Thousands of illegal gold-miners (garimpeiros) have invaded Yanomami Park, one of Brazil's largest indigenous reserves, demarcated in 1992, and covering 96,650 square kilometers of rainforest in the states of Roraima and Amazonas, near the border with Venezuela. An incursion of this scale has not occurred for a generation, bringing back memories among Yanomami elders of the terrible period in the late 1980s, when some 40,000 garimpeiros moved onto their lands and about a fifth of the indigenous population died in just seven years due to violence, malaria, malnutrition, mercury poisoning and other causes.
On his first day in office Jan. 2, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure (Medida Provisório 870) taking away responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from the indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, and handing it over to the Agriculture Ministry. In the same decree, Bolsonaro shifted authority over regularization of quilombos (lands titled to runaway slave descendants) from the agrarian reform institute, INCRA, to the Agriculture Ministry. The measure greatly weakens FUNAI, taking away its most important function. In practice, key areas of indigenous and quilombo policy will now be in the hands of agribusiness advocates—a long-time demand of the Bancada Ruralista (agribusiness bloc) in Congress.
Members of the Pemón indigenous people on June 1 blocked the landing strip of Venezuela's Canaima National Park in southern Bolívar state, in protest of illegal miners operating on their lands. The action was undertaken to mark the 20th anniversary of Canaima being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Leaders announced via Twitter that the Pemón will maintain a state of "rebellion" until there is action on the issue. Over the last decade, illegal mining for gold, diamonds and other minerals has spread rapidly through the Venezuelan Amazon, affecting peoples including the Pemón, Yanomami, Hoti, Eñepa, Yekuana and Arekuna. Some operations run by armed gangs said to be linked to Colombia's FARC guerillas. Rivers are being contaminated with poisonous mercury used in gold mining, devastating the health of indigenous communities. In some communities, the infiltration of gangs has led to prostitution and alcoholism.
Davi Kopenawa, traditional shaman and internationally renowned spokesman for the Yanomami people in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, has demanded urgent police protection following a series of death threats by armed thugs reportedly hired by gold-miners operating illegally on Yanomami land in Roraima state. In June, armed men on motorbikes raided the Boa Vista office of Brazil's non-governmental Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), which works closely with the Yanomami, asking for Davi. The men threatened ISA staff with guns and stole computers and other equipment. After the assault, one of the men was arrested, and reportedly told police that he had been hired by gold-miners. In May, Yanomami Association Hutukara, headed by Davi, received a message from gold-miners saying that Davi would not be alive by the end of the year.
Meeting June 2 in Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas state, Venezuela's Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of Amazonas (COIAM) issued a statement protesting President Nicolás Maduro's Decree No. 841 of March 20, which creates a commission to oversee bringing illegal gold-miners in the rainforest region under government control. The program falls under the Second Socialist Plan for the Nation, charting development objectives from 2013 through 2019, with an emphasis on the "Orinico Mineral Arc." But the mining has caused grave ecological, cultural and health impacts on the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples of the area. COIAM is demanding a moratorium on all mineral activity in the Guayana administraive region, which covers the southern Orinoco basin in Amazonas and the adjacent states of Bolívar and Delta Amacuro. (See map.) (Sociedad Homo et Natura, June 9; COIAM, June 2; Survival International, Nov. 7, 2013)
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, or CIDH in Spanish), a body of the Organization of American States (OAS), issued a statement Sept. 5 urging Venezuelan authorities "to conduct a thorough investigation" into assertions made by representatives of the Horonami Yanomami organization that an isolated Yanomami community in southern Amazonas state was massacred by outlaw gold-miners who came across the Brazilian border. The statement came days after Venezuela's Minister for Indigenous People Nicia Maldonado and Justice Minister Tareck el Aissami both said that teams sent to the region had found no evidence of a massacre. The IACHR called on both Venezuela and Brazil to pursue a deeper investigation, and report back their findings to the international body.
Venezuelan officials investigating a reported mass killing of Yanomami indigenous people say the have found no evidence of the attack. Minister of Indigenous Peoples Nicia Maldonado said a team travelled to the area by helicopter and failed to locate the bodies witnesses had described finding. "No evidence of any death was found," Maldonado said on state TV. "There is no evidence of murder or fire in either houses or shabonos [communal dwellings] in the communities where the alleged crime took place." Gen. José Eliecer Pinto of the National Guard told Ultimas Noticias newspaper that he had visited four indigenous communities along with other officials and that "everything is fine there." Officials expressed skepticism at claims that outlaw gold miners came across the border from Brazil to attack the settlemet from the air by helicopter. "It would be extremely hard to do," said Gen. Rafael Zambrano, commander of the Venezuelan army unit responsible for the region.
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.