Brazil’s battle to reclaim Yanomami lands from illegal miners turns deadly

Brazil’s fight to reclaim the largest Indigenous territory in its Amazon from tens and thousands of illegal miner has taken a violent turn. At least five people have been reported killed during 36-hours of violence on the sprawling Yanomami Territory.

Bloodshed allegedly began Saturday afternoon, when illegal miners wearing masks attacked a Yanomami community called Uxiu.

Junior Hekurari said that he received reports that 15 to 20 heavily armed miners had arrived on a boat and fired at locals. Three Yanomami men, aged 36 and 31, were also shot. Ilson Xiriana was the oldest of three Yanomami men. He died after being shot to death in the head.

The Brazilian human rights minister, Silvano Almeida tweeted: “This barbarism will not be ignored.” In response, the government sent an elite delegation of police chiefs and ministers to the area.


Sunday saw more violence as members of Ibama, the environmental protection group that leads the fight against illegal mining, and the Federal Highway Police (PRF), the groups leading the fight against illegal mining, raided a cassiterite and a gold mine called “Garimpo do Ouro Mil”, an illegal field. Gunmen, some of whom were wearing camouflage fatigues, engaged the government forces in a series gun battles upon their arrival.

In a press release, the PRF stated that its officers were attacked as they attempted to land their helicopters by heavily-armed gunmen. The statement said that the police returned fire, hitting the four gunmen who died from their injuries.

The Environment Ministry said that there was suspicions about the mine being run by a criminal group, believed to be First Capital Command (PCC), a Sao Paolo born prison gang which has grown into one of South America’s most powerful mafia organizations.

The deaths highlight the dangers and challenges involved in the government’s efforts to evict the thousands of illegal miner who have devasted the Yanomami Territory in recent years. Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva has described the destruction as “an attempted genocide”.

These operations began in early February after Lula assumed office, promising to take on the environmental criminals that activists had accused his far-right successor, Jair Bolsonaro of encouraging.

Bolsonaro’s government is said to have caused the deaths of hundreds of Yanomami kids, largely because mining gangs brought malaria with them. This made it difficult for health workers to work. Amazonian deforestation increased dramatically.

Humberto Freire said in a recent interview that he is “absolutely certain” that the anti-mining campaign will succeed. Freire stated in late March that he believed there were between 15 and 20,000 miners on the Yanomami land.

Ibama claims that 327 camps of mining, 18 planes, and two helicopters were destroyed. However, its agents claim that a number of miner continue to operate in protected Yanomami land, utilizing an illegal fleet to supply their mines, and smuggle valuable minerals out.

Freire stated that the complete closing of Yanomami’s airspace for such aircraft is not only “critical – it is vital”. The police chief said that the operation would not be successful unless the airspace (over the territory) is completely closed, and the Defense Ministry takes action to stop all unauthorised aircraft from flying over Indigenous lands.

Three members of Lula’s cabinet, including the Environment Minister, Marina Silva; the Indigenous Peoples Minister, Sonia Guajajara; and the Health minister, NisiaTrindade, traveled to Roraima on Monday. This is where a large part of the Yanomami Territory lies. Rodrigo Agostinho of Ibama, the president, flew to the region and told reporters that Lula had ordered the rapid expulsions of the miners following the attack on Saturday.

Hekurari said that “things are tense” and added that the body was returned to the Indigenous Territory so traditional rituals can take place.

The Guardian was with Ibama, PRF and Yanomami troops in February as they raided gold and cassiterite deposits deep within Yanomami territory.

After his team had torched a jungle camp, one of the commanders stated that they were fighting a “de facto war”. It’s a quiet war that the society does not see, but those of us who are fighting know it exists.