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Brazilian Blood Gold 

Morro do Ouro Gold Mine, Paracatu, Brazil
Morro do Ouro Gold Mine, Paracatu, Brazil. SkyTruth/Flickr

The images of malnourished, sick or dead Yanomami children that spread across the world’s media in early 2023 are some of the most striking ‘monuments’ to Jair Bolanaro’s time as Brazil’s president.

Bolsonaro’s government did little to stop illegal miners bringing malaria, contamination by mercury – used to clean gold – and violence to the country’s largest Indigenous territory, located in the state of Roraima. In fact, Bolsonaro demobilized law enforcement and made speeches that encouraged mining companies.

At the same time, his government did not provide much needed healthcare, vaccination, medicine or food, while repeatedly stymieing any progress in land rights for Indigenous or Quilombola people, descended from escaped enslaved Africans.

The result was an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Data released by the Sumaúma journalism platform indicate that 570 Yanomami children under the age of five died of preventable causes in the last four years. 100 more died this January alone.

To try and halt this catastrophe, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration is planning to remove between 20,000 and 40,000 miners – the exact number is unknown – and fight those who profit from the exploitation of illegal gold.

This began by closing the airspace over Indigenous land and threatening to shoot down aircraft transporting miners, food, beverages, fuel, equipment and gold. On the ground, the government has launched a kind of siege, blocking the sale of fuel, food and equipment to miners.

Meanwhile the Lula administration is trying to undermine profits from illegal mining, taking action against funders, intermediaries and processors, and combatting ‘laundering’ of illegal gold. As with illegal timber, this can be done by using fake invoices to fabricate a legal origin.

Investigations conducted by Repórter Brasil have shown that gold illegally taken from Yanomami and Munduruku Indigenous territory is sold in cities such as Boa Vista, Manaus and Itaituba, in Pará state, and then enters the domestic and foreign markets. The supply chain ends in jewellery stores and the electronics industry.

The final piece of the new government’s plan to combat illegal mining practices is to forcibly remove miners who refuse to leave. But in order for this process of ‘disintrusion’ from Yanomami Indigenous land, and elsewhere, to be effective, alternative sources of income and employment opportunities will need to be created.

If that workforce is not absorbed, they will migrate elsewhere – potentially to other Indigenous lands, or eventually returning. Identifying communities that depend on illegal mining and public policies to ensure a decent quality of life is essential to stop the cycle of plunder. Without this, the Yanomami will keep seeing their way of life threatened, as under Bolsonaro.

His administration systematically denied food to the starving Yanomami, as documents recently revealed by Brazil’s largest online news portal, UOL, show. Requests were sent to the Ministry of Justice between June 2021 and March 2022, requesting food and warning about famine. There was no proper response.

In other words: if the former president had been successful in his bid for re-election, the Yanomami could now be on their way to extinction.

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