Deep in the Amazon rainforest, the Yanomami people are battling an old and elusive enemy – one they haven’t seen since the 1980s.
Dressed in traditional headdress, faces decorated with paint, this indigenous community prepares its bows and spears to defend their land against garimpeiros – illegal gold miners looking for glimmers of gold in this vast and rich territory.
Fernando, one of the Yanomami leaders, told CNN on a recent reporting trip to the riverside Palimiu settlement what the community has been enduring for months now.
“The problem is the armed garimpeiros pass here at night,” he told CNN in May. “There’s always lots of them. As many as seven canoes,” with five to seven people in each.
The miners, who have set up camps throughout the nearly 24-million acres of the Yanomami reserve – roughly the size of Portugal – use the waterways as their thoroughfare, transporting petrol and people, as well as goods to their bases.
But it’s rarely done quietly, says Fernando, who accuses the miners of encroaching on Yanomami land, intimidating and firing at them.
Between May and June the village suffered five attacks. One of them, a half-hour shootout on May 10, was caught on camera.
The video shows women and children running for cover as a boat passes the riverbanks of their village.
The incident left four dead, including two Yanomami children, according to the Brazilian federal police.
Nerves are high.
“These people are ruining our land, are killing our children, they’re making us suffer,” Adneia, a Yanomami elder, told CNN.
With the violence on the rise, the government in late May called on the federal police and the army to investigate.
It was a welcome arrival for the Yanomami who have been on high alert, taking turns to patrol at night.
The entire community has been put to work, turning paddles into weapons, bamboo into spears.
During CNN’s May visit to the Amazon, Fernando showed the police the weapons that have been their means of defense for years.
“This one is a spear. It pierces quickly and you will die fast,” he says. “It goes through everything and it has venom. Lots of venom.”
According to the Yanomami, illegal mining on their land has expanded by 30% in the last year, devastating the equivalent of 500 hectares.
Disturbing aerial photos by photographer Christian Braga, taken from a Greenpeace helicopter this year, show the unchecked expansion of this mining on their territory, with deep craters shifting the very ground and dense forest completely obliterated.
After years of drilling and digging, the earth looks barren. The impact of this is felt daily by this community.
“We are threatened by these bandits. This land is being destroyed, our trees, our fish,” Ricardo, the leader of the Yanomami settlement, told CNN.
Neila, a younger member of the community, goes further.
“When they search for gold in our land, they damage our river, our water. They are pushing away our beasts of prey,” she says.
All they want, the Yanomami say, is to protect their children and their already fragile way of life – their very existence as the guardians of the Amazon.
The fight for land in the Brazilian Amazon is not new. Ever since gold deposits were first discovered, illegal gold mining has thrived, and with it, a desire to strike it rich.
There are currently an estimated 20,000 illegal miners cutting swaths through the rainforest, digging several meters deep into that rich earth and polluting the river with mercury, according to the government.
The Yanomami point the finger of blame at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who since taking office in 2019, has supported legislation to open indigenous protected areas to mining, defunded agencies responsible for preventing illegal mining, logging and ranching, undermined Indigenous rights, and repeatedly claimed that indigenous territories are “too big.”
The Yanomami tribe, especially the matriarchs, told CNN that these policies have contributed directly to the destruction they see every day and the threats and intimidation that have become daily occurrences.
“They threaten us, and we can’t sleep. Bolsonaro thinks this land belongs to the garimpeiros (illegal miners) but this land belongs to us. This land does not belong to Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is sending the garimpeiros to us,” Adneia says.
Neila doesn’t hold back, adding: “Bolsonaro, you’re ignorant. And because you’re ignorant, you let these people come into our land. You need to get them out now. This is our land. This is our water, it’s not your water.”
The Brazilian Government told CNN that it is committed to promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous people. It also said that alleged violations by illegal miners in the Yanomami’s indigenous land are being investigated by federal authorities in multiple operations.
Bolsonaro made a trip to the area recently where he told a Yanomami community he would respect their wishes for no mining. But critics say his words don’t mean he will tackle mining, and could serve instead to divide the indigenous community as he pushes to legalize mining and other commercial enterprises in indigenous territories. Bolsonaro has pushed a bill to Congress that had been on hold since 2007 and would eliminate illegal mining by simply legalizing it among other changes in indigenous land rights. Congress is expected to vote on this bill soon.
The Brazilian federal police and army have been listening to their complaints, according to the Yanomami.
“We hope the soldiers will help us. They are warriors. We are protecting them as they are protecting us,” Fernando said.
But while the police want to protect them, they don’t want to overpromise.
“We’re not looking for a fight. We’re here to observe and see what’s happening and to accompany you. Whatever you need, we are here,” one police officer told the community.
The reality is they can’t stay here forever – the territory is simply too vast for them to patrol. So, the federal police and army board their helicopter and begin their search for illegal miners.
From up above, the challenge for them is made clearer. The Yanomami reserve sits deep in the vast and dense Amazon rainforest, and finding illegal miners becomes a game of cat and mouse.
The helicopter eventually spots an opening and the police run to stop the miners in their tracks.
“Federal police. Come here. Sit down here,” they demand.
The miners lift their T-shirts to show they’re not armed, and the questioning begins. This is as much about catching the criminals as it is understanding how they work, who pays them and funds the devastation.
One of the illegal miners tells the police: “Life is hard. We are here because there are no jobs. If [I] am not here, I would be on the streets. I have been working as a miner for 1.5 years and I’m not here because I like it. I am here to survive.”
The miner told CNN that he’s been in this mine for three months but so far he hasn’t seen any gold gains from it yet, adding: “Miners are treated worse than bandits. 95% of the people here have families.”
The police also questioned a group of three women who said they work as cooks for the miners.
One cook says she arrived by canoe three days before the police arrived and had paid four grams of gold (worth about $200) for her journey. But with work currently at a standstill, she worried she would struggle to earn even that amount. This isn’t the gold rush that many had dreamed of, yet, in the midst of a pandemic, with surging unemployment and skyrocketing gold prices, this has become Brazil’s wild west.
Despite the evidence of illegal gold mining all around them, the federal police and army don’t make any arrests and simply burn the miners’ equipment. One officer told CNN: “I gave him a headache. It delays them. It can stop them for a bit – one or two days.”
In a statement to CNN, the federal police say the operation doesn’t arrest illegal gold mine workers, because “the operation is just the first step in a series of actions, focusing on dismantling the gold miner logistics and gathering information on the real owners of the gold mines, in addition to identifying the structures of possible criminal organizations involved.”
This isn’t the solution the Yanomami had been pleading for. But until Bolsonaro changes his environmental policies, their cries will continue to fall on deaf ears, environmentalists say; and this burden of riches – the lungs of the world – risks falling with it.
Gabriel Chaim reported from Palimiu, Brazil for CNN, while CNN’s Isa Soares and Barbara Arvanitidis wrote and also reported.