The violence of Brazil's 'wildcat' gold mining
Mauricio Ye’kuana is a Brazilian Indigenous leader and Treasurer of the Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY), working to protect Yanomami and Ye’kuana communities in the Brazilian Amazon.
Yanomami Indigenous Territory covers an area of 9.6 million hectares (slightly larger than Portugal) in Roraima state, northern Brazil. Illegal gold mining has been on the rise since the 1980s, with a rapid increase since 2000.
There has been a further explosion of activity under the cover of the global Covid-19 pandemic, especially ‘wildcat miners’: small-scale mining camps that are sometimes independent but increasingly are being funded and supported by wealthy business people and politicians.
As of 2021, the total cumulative forest area destroyed by illegal gold mining in Yanomami land exceeded 3,000 hectares.
What level of destruction is illegal gold mining causing on Yanomami land?
The president (Jair Bolsonaro) and authorities say illegal wildcat mining doesn’t lead to deforestation or cause environmental devastation. We’re seeing the opposite. There’s a lot of direct deforestation, a lot of cutting down trees and making huge holes in the land. It is also destroying the sources of our rivers and streams. We’re seeing rivers running down with mercury poisoning, so it’s passing into communities. One of the biggest impacts today is children being poisoned by mercury.
It’s also poisoning the fish, which we then eat. Mothers’ milk has been contaminated, and so there’s no more natural milk to give to their children. We’re seeing extreme malnutrition. Children are being born disabled at much higher rates.
What other impacts from illegal gold mining are Yanomami and Ye’kuana communities experiencing?
There’s been a huge increase in violence and sexual abuse of women by the illegal gold miners, by workers coming in from outside. The problem is these attacks aren’t being registered systematically. Family members are also being threatened by the miners if they say anything about these sexual attacks.
Are Yanomami and Ye’kuana people who oppose or protest against illegal gold mining being targeted with threats?
This is a huge problem for us. We’re suffering violent attacks [from the illegal miners]. I can’t sleep at night. I can’t go out to fish, to hunt. I have to stay at home. I’m not safe, so it’s having an impact on my family because they don’t have food. We are fearful.
The attacks are with guns – they can have automatic weapons and the Yanomami don’t have them.
We’ve also seen the co-opting of young Yanomami and Ye’kuana people who have entered into the illegal gold mining [sector]. The PCC – Primeiro Comando da Capital – is a criminal armed group offering weapons to young people who have gone onto the side of the illegal miners. Those young people come into contact with other young people who don’t want the mining, so there’s conflict. Young people are being killed among themselves.
Have you personally received threats?
I’ve received phone calls, and I’ve had people following me when I’m working. The miners know where I am, right now, today. I’ve also had businessmen offer me a lot of money to let them work in illegal gold mining in Yanomami land.
HAY’s recent report, Yanomami Under Attack, talks about environmental racism. What does that mean for your people?
The government doesn’t respect Indigenous lands. This is racism against all Indigenous peoples in Brazil – not just our people. The government doesn’t recognize us. Those who are Indigenous defend our own lands. We’re fighting for our rights, for our people.
Why is the violence and destruction being allowed to continue?
The government doesn’t even want to look at Indigenous people. There’s been a disaster in this government in the sector of environmental protections. The government is incentivizing illegal wildcat mining and official large-scale mining in Indigenous lands. That’s why we have this invasion.
Gold is causing so many problems. How do you feel about gold?
Gold, for us, is very sacred – it’s part of the richness of the Earth. We can’t extract it because it will weaken the land, and it will make the forest spirits, who protect our land, leave. If I wanted to extract gold, I would have to do a specific ritual dialogue with the spirits. But I don’t want to extract this gold, because keeping these minerals in the ground keeps the land balanced. That’s our cosmovision. If you don’t have the minerals in the land, the land becomes weak.
There’s been impunity for gold mining and other illegal activity, such as deforestation, under President Bolsonaro’s administration. What are your hopes for October’s election in Brazil?
My hope is that this government will leave office. We don’t know who will be in power but we hope it will be somebody else. We’re putting our hopes on Lula (former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva) winning. In the last ATL (Indigenous Land Camp) that unites Indigenous peoples together, Lula promised to create an Indigenous Ministry. He’s open to dialogue with Indigenous peoples. Other parties don’t have this.
What can people outside Brazil do to support your struggle?
People in Europe need to have an awareness about what they’re buying, because gold exported from Brazil to Europe comes with Indigenous blood on it.
We want people to read and share the Yanomami Under Attack report with their friends and networks, so people know about the impacts of illegal gold mining in our lands. We’re also asking people in the UK to email their MP to call on the UK government to introduce a new business, human rights and environment bill, to hold businesses to account when they fail to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harm.
Are you optimistic the situation can be improved?
Human beings have the ability to change their thinking. Three Indigenous peoples – the Munduruku, the Yanomami and Ye’kuana, and the Kaiapó – are being impacted by illegal gold mining, and we’re making an alliance. We want to make a more united action between us, to report this mining problem. We are uniting, so we can report these human rights violations internationally. Hopefully, this will lead to change and the protection of Indigenous people and Indigenous lands.