Rand disturbing aerial photographs have laid bare the devastation inflicted on Brazil’s largest reserve for indigenous peoples by thousands of savage gold diggers whose illegal activities have escalated under the country’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro.
Activists believe that up to 20,000 gold digger prospectors operate in the Yanomami reserve in northern Brazil using speedboats and light planes to penetrate the vast expanse of jungle near the border with Venezuela.
Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly lamented the size of Yanomami territory and has been accused of emboldening environmental criminals with his pro-development rhetoric, was scheduled to make a provocative trip to a village on the southwestern tip of the reserve on Thursday. – his first to an indigenous community since he became president in January 2019. Yanomami leaders denounced the visit as an unwanted attempt to promote illegal mining on their ancestral lands.
The footage, captured during overflights early last month, leaves no doubt about the impact the intruders have on the 9.6 million hectare (24m acre) Amazonian enclave – nor the impunity with which they are. authorized to act in a supposedly protected reserve.
Several photographs show areas where miners, whose trade Bolsonaro has sworn to legalize, have cleared the dense, pine-green forest and replaced it with huge bronze-colored gashes littered with downed trees and puddles of water stagnant. Others represent lively encampments along the river where the prospectors live and work, with bars, restaurants, shops, homes and even a pool table. On some images, it is possible to distinguish single-engine airplanes and helicopters – used to smuggle workers, supplies and equipment into the reserve – placed next to clandestine airstrips near the Venezuelan border.
Along the Uraricoera River, an area the Guardian visited last year, the surveillance team spotted huge man-made craters reminiscent of the Serra Pelada gold mine made famous in the 1980s by footage from the Brazil’s most famous photographer, Sebastião Salgado.
“What shocked me was the enormity of the situation,” said Christian Braga, the Amazon-based photographer who took recent images of a Greenpeace turboprop plane.
“We knew these mines existed. All of Brazil knows that there are gold mines in Yanomami land. But we have not understood the real scale of it and the economic value of these mines. These mines are prosperous. These mines are worth millions … It’s really scary. They are just huge.
Braga said the miners he saw at work in the Yanomami reserve, which is the same size as Portugal, had no connection with those who once used steel pans to hunt for gold in remote Amazon rivers.
“It’s history; nowadays the mines are crazy. These guys are organized. They have planes. They have antennas. They have satellite TV, motorcycles, quad bikes, planes, helicopters, air conditioning, generators. These guys built a city, ”the photographer said.
“When I looked down [at their camps] I just thought, we’ve lost control of gold mining… just look at the point it’s reached. Over 20,000 prospectors. What are we going to do now? “
The photos of Braga were published as part of a report by the Yanomami Hutukara association exposing the dramatic expansion of mining in their territory. The report, which also used satellite imagery, claimed last year that there had been a 30% increase in deforestation in the reserve compared to 2019, with around 500 hectares of forest cleared – the equivalent of around 500 football fields. Another 200 hectares were destroyed in the first three months of this year.
Estêvão Senra, one of the report’s authors, said an “environmental and human tragedy” was unfolding in the reserve where approximately 27,000 Yanomami live, largely isolated from the rest of Brazil.
“The destruction caused by illegal mining this year could break last year’s record, which was already very dramatic,” said Senra, a geographer who tracks the advance of miners through Yanomami territory. “Business is booming and this is extremely worrying.”
Indigenous activists describe the crisis as the most troubling moment in the territory since the late 1980s and 1990s, when tens of thousands of wild miners poured into the reserve, bringing with them violence and diseases that many Yanomami lacked. ‘immunity. In the most infamous episode, in 1993, gold miners murdered 16 Yanomami in what has come to be known as the Haximu Massacre. “It was terrible,” Carlo Zacquini, an Italian missionary who has worked with the Yanomami since the 1960s, told The New York Times following the murders. “One of the miners stabbed a child and then cut off his head.
Dário Kopenawa Yanomami, an indigenous leader born during this catastrophic gold rush, said he feared history would repeat itself. “I grew up in the midst of an invasion of 40,000 wild miners, who killed almost 20% of my people… we suffered so much. Our relatives have been massacred. the prospectors killed a lot, “said the 37-year-old, adding:” It feels like we are facing the same crisis today. “
The sense of urgency has intensified in recent weeks after deadly clashes between miners and Yanomami and a shootout between federal police officers and heavily armed gunmen apparently linked to mines. “There are signs that the situation could get even more complicated [than in the 1980s]”Senra said.
In a recent interview, anthropologist Ana Maria Machado, who works with the Yanomami, called the region a “pressure cooker on the verge of explosion” and claimed that the Brazilian president was partly responsible because he had encouraged the invading miners. “Bolsonaro gives the green light to all types of illegality on reserves,” Machado said.