An illegal gold rush is igniting attacks on Indigenous people in the Amazon

Indigenous communities and isolated tribes in Brazil are under threat as the government moves to legalize mining, logging, and industrial farming.

By Scott Wallace
Published 7 Jul 2021, 11:10 BST, Updated 13 Jul 2021, 11:09 BST
An Indigenous protester participates in street demonstrations in June outside the Congressional Palace in Brasilia. Tribes gathered from around Brazil to protest a bill, called PL490, that would legalize mining, logging, and other environmentally destructive industrial projects on Indigenous lands without requiring the informed consent of local communities.
Photograph by Mateus Bonomi, AGIF/AP

As tensions between illegal gold miners and Indigenous communities erupt into open violence in the Brazilian Amazon, legislators allied with right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro are aggressively pursuing measures aimed at curtailing protections of the territories and rights of Indigenous people.

Since mid-May, prospectors have launched a series of brazen attacks against Yanomami and Munduruku communities in the states of Roraima and Pará respectively.

Indigenous leaders believe their communities are facing the most perilous moment since Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s, after more than 20 years of military dictatorship. Death threats and intimidation are daily occurrences in some areas, and Munduruku leaders say their people are living in a “state of war.”

Miners and their Indigenous collaborators in the Munduruku Indigenous Territory set fire to the homes of several tribal leaders in late May, an apparent reprisal for a police raid on a gold strike.

Recently, at least eight separate attacks have been reported in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, including a running gun battle between gold miners and villagers, according to the Hutukara Yanomami Association. In one incident, two Indigenous children drowned in the panic that ensued as miners opened fire with automatic weapons from speedboats on the Uraricoera River. In another encounter, miners rammed a canoe with eight children aboard. All of them managed to reach shore safely and hide in the brush.

In both territories, Federal Police agents who arrived to defuse tensions also came under assault by the gold miners, popularly known as garimpeiros.

An aerial view of a garimpo, an informal gold mining camp, reveals a path of destruction through rain forest near the Menkragnoti Indigenous Territory, Pará state, Brazil. The practice involves the use of highly toxic mercury used to separate gold from the sandy soils of the Amazon, poisoning rivers and streams. Miners have recently attacked Indigenous communities in Pará and Rorarima states.
Photograph by Joao Laet, AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile in Brasilia, hardline conservatives in the lower chamber of Brazil’s Congress cleared a major hurdle last month in their quest to reshape Brazil’s 1988 constitution to allow commercial activity on Indigenous lands.

Law Project 490, known as PL490, would legalize mining, logging, industrial agriculture, and other projects deemed “in the national interest” on Indigenous lands without the consent of local communities. The controversial bill was approved on June 23 by the Constitution and Justice Committee and will now move to the lower house, called the Chamber of Deputies, before heading to the Senate. Conservatives allied with agribusiness—ruralistas—together with evangelical fundamentalists, form the core of the voting block that holds majorities in both houses.

The catchall measure would also open the way for legal challenges to the boundaries of Indigenous territories, threatening to reduce the size of some areas and eliminate others altogether. In Brazil, 441 Indigenous territories have been demarcated and officially recognised, 237 more are in intermediate stages of recognition. The largest of Brazil’s Indigenous territories are in the rainforest, and they cover one-quarter of the country’s Amazon region.

Perhaps most unsettling of all, critics say, the bill would make it possible for the government to review and scale back the boundaries of several territories set aside to protect isolated Indigenous groups, also known as “uncontacted tribes.” Field agents from the Indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, have confirmed the existence of 28 isolated Indigenous groups in Brazil, and there may be as many as 70 more. The controversial legislation would also clear the way to force contact on these highly vulnerable groups for any overriding national interest, even allowing third parties to participate in organised contact teams.

“And who would these third parties be?” says Fabricio Amorim, a 10-year veteran of FUNAI who now works for the Observatory of Human Rights for Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples, a Brazilian advocacy group. “Missionaries, of course. The PL490 is opening terrain not only for the ruralistas but also for evangelicals who have this extremist view to spread the word of Christ to the isolated tribes.”

Since 1987, Brazilian law has forbidden forced contact on isolated tribes, except as a measure of last resort to spare a group from devastating violence or disease. The prohibition is in keeping with the progressive values expressed in the constitution to respect the choice of Indigenous people to practice their traditional ways of life on their ancestral homelands without interference. But the appointment of missionaries to key posts in the Bolsonaro government, including FUNAI, has raised fears of an impending push to contact and evangelise the isolated tribes.

Whether the bill ultimately becomes law in whole or in part will likely depend on Brazil’s Supreme Court. The court is taking up a related case having to do with a move supported by the ruralistas that would require tribes to prove they occupied their territory at the time the country’s constitution was ratified, on October 5, 1988. This so-called “time-frame thesis” has been drafted into Law Project 490, drawing vehement criticism from Indigenous leaders and rights advocates.

Indigenous protesters dance outside the Congressional Palace in Brasilia last month to protest legislation that would roll back protections of Indigenous lands and rights enshrined in Brazil’s constitution. Indigenous leaders say their people are facing the most perilous moment since the country returned to democracy in the 1980s after two decades of military dictatorship.
Photograph by Eraldo Peres, Ap

“In the case of isolated tribes, it’s impossible to apply the time frame,” Amorim says. “You can’t prove they were in a given place at the time the constitution was ratified.” Many groups are nearly always on the move, Amorim points out, either following traditional migration routes or seeking to escape pressures from outsiders. 

Even if this measure stalls in Congress or the courts, Amorim is concerned that Bolsonaro will allow several Land Protection Orders to expire in the months ahead. The orders offer provisional relief from commercial exploitation to seven territories harbouring uncontacted tribes. Four of the protection orders will come due later this year or early next. A fifth order that protects isolated Kawahiva nomads in the state of Mato Grosso is in imminent danger of losing its legal status if the time-frame thesis become law. FUNAI agents confirmed the presence of these nomadic people as recently as 1996.

‘An incitement to violence’

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of PL 490, critics say that the Congressional debate over it has helped legitimise extreme positions that are popular on the frontiers abutting Indigenous lands, leading to more bloodshed and attempts to muscle in on protected territories.  

“It’s an incitement to violence,” says Jeremy Campbell, an anthropologist at George Mason University, in Virginia, who specialises in Indigenous land tenure in Brazil. “This gives the green light for more land invasions. It gives people a permission structure through which to disregard Indigenous rights.”

“They want to extinguish our memory, our existence,” Alessandra Korap Munduruku told National Geographic by phone from her village on the Tapajós River. She had just returned to strife-ridden Munduruku Indigenous Territory after a week in Brasilia, where she joined some 800 Indigenous demonstrators from around the country to protest Law Project 490. The protesters were greeted by riot police with rubber bullets and tear gas as they approached the Congressional Palace. “They want to erase our history and to erase the Indigenous peoples of Brazil to clear the way for the production of exports,” she said.

Citing what they believe to be the complicity of FUNAI in dismantling decades of laws and institutions that have protected their rights and lands, Indigenous protesters in Brasilia issued an open letter on June 16 calling for the removal of FUNAI’s Bolsonaro-appointed president, Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva. The letter called Xavier’s term the “worst” in the history of FUNAI and said the agency had failed in its duty to protect Indigenous rights in a favour of “shady and private interests from agribusiness, illegal mining and so many other threats that put our existence at risk.”

An illegal gold strike in the area of the Munduruku Indigenous Territory along the Tapajós River, in Pará state. The mining is wreaking environmental havoc and sowing strife among the 14,000 Munduruku living in the region. Nearly 30 tons of gold are extracted illegally in the state every year, according to official estimates. Critics say the illegal mining is a violent and capital-intensive criminal enterprise that is sowing terror in Indigenous communities.
Photograph by Lucas Dumphreys, Ap

In addition to heading FUNAI, Xavier is also a career Federal Police officer. Since April, he has ordered fellow police agents to investigate several Indigenous leaders and even nine FUNAI employees on accusations that range from “defaming” Brazil’s image abroad to seeking to impede construction of a powerline across the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Territory, in Roraima. Indigenous leaders allege that Xavier has shifted the agency’s mission from protecting tribal populations to persecuting them. 

In a written response to questions from National Geographic, FUNAI denied any wrongdoing and said it has been working to overcome “decades of failure” brought about by “hidden interests, lack of transparency and a strong presence of non-governmental organisations.” Calling itself the “new FUNAI,” the agency said its operations seek to “promote the autonomy of indigenous people, who must be, par excellence, the protagonists of their own history.” The statement also offered support for a “wide-ranging debate” in Congress over provisions that would alter the constitution and open Indigenous territories to mining, despite the methods used to extract gold in the Amazon that ravage forests and pollute waterways with highly toxic mercury.

In response to an order from the Supreme Court to restore security to the region, federal police officers and army troops, together with agents from FUNAI and the environmental protection institute IBAMA, began to arrive on June 28 in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, home to some 25,000 people. But observers say it will take a concerted effort with hundreds if not thousands of personnel to dislodge the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 prospectors operating illegally in the area since 2019. It’s not clear to anyone that the government has the will for such an undertaking.

“The combination of greed and sense of impunity are behind the new gold rush in the territory,” says French anthropologist Bruce Albert, who has worked with the Yanomami since 1975 and directs research at the Institu de Recherche pour le Développement in Paris. Far from being a cottage industry, Albert says, today’s mining operations are “mechanised and capitalised criminal enterprises capable of mobilising armed groups in an effort to break the resistance of the Yanomami people.” 

Scott Wallace is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.


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