Indigenous tribe launches campaign to expel goldminers exploiting chaos caused by Covid

The largest relatively isolated tribe in South America has launched a global campaign to expel 20,000 gold miners from their land amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Illegal gold mining activity has already risen sharply over the last five years in Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami reservation in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. But the numbers of miners have increased since the 2018 election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to develop the Amazon economically and tap its mineral riches.

Bolsonaro has actively encouraged land invasions in indigenous territories and has introduced a bill to sell off their lands for logging, mining, ranching and farming. More than 26,700 people live within the protected reservation the size of Portugal, near the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela

New research released as part of the campaign reveals that thousands of Yanomami people living near the illegal mining zones in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory could become infected, and that the territory is the most vulnerable in the entire Brazilian Amazon to the virus.

Several Yanomami people have already died from Covid-19 and many more more are infected. There are fears the disease could wipe out thousands of Yanomami people, and hit several Ye’kwana communities who also live in the territory.

Dario Yanomami of the Hutukara Yanomami Association said: “We are monitoring the Covid-19 disease spreading through our land and are very sad at the first Yanomami deaths. Our shamans are working non-stop to counter this xawara (epidemic). We will fight and resist. To do this, we need support from the Brazilian people and from the whole world.”

The “#MinersOutCovidOut” campaign has been launched by several Yanomami and Ye’kwana associations and many supporting organisations worldwide.

The Yanomami aim to get 100,000 people signing a petition calling on President Bolsonaro’s government to expel the miners from their territory – the largest indigenous territory in Brazil. It has been the target of illegal gold mining since the 1980s. Malaria epidemics introduced by the miners in the 1980s killed a fifth of the tribe’s population in Brazil, and many in Venezuela.

Miners have been operating close to one of several communities of uncontacted Yanomami, who are known as the Moxihatatea.

Uncontacted tribes are at particular risk of being wiped out by diseases to which they have no immunity. Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader known as “the Dalai Lama of the Rainforest” recently warned the UN that the uncontacted Yanomami could soon be exterminated if nothing is done to protect the territory.

Although the mining is small in scale, it is devastating to the environment. Trees and local habitats are destroyed and the mercury used to separate gold from grit leaks into the rivers, poisoning the water and entering the local food chain via fish.

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2018 found that in some Yanomami villages, 92% of residents suffered from mercury poisoning, which can harm the organs and cause developmental problems in children.

Survival’s Research and Advocacy Director Fiona Watson said today: “The Yanomami’s survival as a people depends on the miners being removed. At the moment their rivers are being polluted with toxic mercury, their forest destroyed, their children are dying of malaria and more miners are invading under cover of the coronavirus pandemic. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding.

 “If the government doesn’t act now we could witness the appalling scenario of the 1980s gold rush again, when one fifth of the Yanomami population died from diseases due to government inaction.”

Take Action

Indigenous peoples represent under a 5% of the world’s population yet they protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. They are the most underrepresented and disfranchised group on the planet but they hold many of the solutions to fighting the climate and ecological emergency.

They need protection, power and free, prior and informed consent. Governments are allowing industries to plunder their lands and get away with it. This cannot go on. We can help by pushing these issues up the agenda and shouting loudly about these injustices on our platforms and to our friends and family.

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