‘Road to Chaos’: Brazil goldminers' way through the Amazon reserve
Aerial photographs from a reconnaissance mission show an attempt to smuggle excavators into Brazil's largest Indigenous territory.
A reconnaissance mission released aerial images that show an attempt to smuggle excavators into Brazil's largest Indigenous territory.
The surveillance plane rolled off the runway and banked west, heading for the epicenter of one of Brazil's most dramatic environmental and humanitarian crises.
A secret 120km (75-mile) road carved out of the jungles of Brazil's largest Indigenous territory in recent months by illegal mining mafias in an audacious attempt to smuggle excavators into those ostensibly protected lands.
“I call it the Road to Chaos,” said Danicley de Aguiar, the Greenpeace environmentalist leading the reconnaissance mission over the immense Indigenous sanctuary near the Brazilian border with Venezuela.
Such heavy machinery had never been discovered in the Yanomami territory, according to Aguiar, Portugal-sized swath of mountains, rivers, and forests in the far north of Brazil's Amazon.
“We believe there are at least four excavators in there – and that takes mining in Yanomami territory to the next level, to a colossal level of destruction,” the senior forest campaigner said, as his team prepared to take to the skies to confirm the road’s existence.
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An hour into the flight, the plane's cabin was filled with excited chatter as the first glimpses of the secret artery appeared. “We found it, people!” the navigator celebrated, while the pilot performed a series of stomach-churning maneuvers over the canopy to get a clearer view of the dirt track.
“That’s the Road to Chaos,” Aguiar announced through the plane’s internal communication system.
“And this is the chaos,” he added, pointing to a gaping hole in the rainforest where three yellow excavators had clawed a goldmine out of the banks of Catrimani River.
A fourth digger could be seen wrecking a territory home to about 27,000 Yanomami and Ye'kwana peoples, including several communities that have no contact with the outside world, in a nearby clearing. Worryingly, one of those isolated villages is only 10 miles from the illegal road, according to Aguiar.
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Sônia Guajajara, a prominent Indigenous leader on the plane, suspected the criminals had used the recent presidential election in Brazil to sneak their equipment deep into Yanomami territory. “Everyone was focused on other things, and they took advantage,” Guajajara said.
The arrival of excavators, which journalists from The Guardian and Brazilian broadcaster TV Globo witnessed for the first time, is the latest chapter in a half-century assault by powerful and politically connected mining gangs.
Huge fortunes were made and frequently lost. But it was a disaster for the Yanomami. Lives and traditions were turned upside down. Epidemics of influenza and measles decimated villages. According to the rights organization Survival International, roughly 20% of the tribe died in just seven years.
Following a worldwide outcry, tens of thousands of miners were evicted in the early 1990s as part of a security operation known as Selva Livre. Under international pressure, Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil's then-President, established a 9.6 million-hectare reserve.
“We have to guarantee the Yanomami a space so they don’t lose their cultural identity or their habitat,” Mello said.
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Those efforts were initially successful, but by the next decade, wildcat prospectors known as garimpeiros had returned due to soaring gold prices, lax enforcement, and grinding poverty, which provided mining bosses with an endless supply of exploitable workers.
The assault intensified after Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who wants Indigenous lands opened up to commercial development, was elected President in 2018, with an estimated 25,000 wildcat miners on Yanomami land.
“It was a government of blood,” said Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, a Yanomami leader who blamed Bolsonaro for emboldening the invaders with his anti-Indigenous rhetoric and for crippling Brazil’s environmental and Indigenous protection agencies.
Illegal gold mining increased to an all-time high on #Brazil's largest Indigenous reservation last year, according to a new report that included disturbing accounts of miners abusing women and girls, including extorting sex.#Indigenous pic.twitter.com/JgFUT2mpo5— Al Mayadeen English (@MayadeenEnglish) April 14, 2022
Yanomami also expects a large-scale federal intervention when the new government takes office in January but warns that defeating the garimpeiros will be difficult.
“These miners don’t just carry spades and axes … They have rifles and submachine guns … They are armed and all of [their] bases have heavily armed security guards with the same kind of weapons that the army, the federal police and the military police use,” he said.
Inaction would mean extinction for a people who lived in the rainforest for thousands of years.
“If nothing is done we’ll lose this Indigenous land,” Alisson Marugal, a federal prosecutor tasked with protecting Yanomami lands said. “For the Yanomami, the outlook is grim.”
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