The Amazon’s largest isolated tribe is dying

An explosion of illegal mining in this vast swath of the Amazon has created a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami people

By Jack Nicas

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About two dozen Yanomami people, who emerged from the rainforest when members of Brazil’s environmental special forces team arrived to destroy illegal mining equipment in the Yanomami Indigenous territory of Brazil, on Feb. 24, 2023. An explosion of illegal mining in this vast swath of the Amazon has created a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami people, cutting their food supplies, spreading malaria and, in some cases, threatening the Yanomamis with violence, according to government scientists and officials. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)
About two dozen Yanomami people, who emerged from the rainforest when members of Brazil’s environmental special forces team arrived to destroy illegal mining equipment in the Yanomami Indigenous territory of Brazil, on Feb. 24, 2023. An explosion of illegal mining in this vast swath of the Amazon has created a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami people, cutting their food supplies, spreading malaria and, in some cases, threatening the Yanomamis with violence, according to government scientists and officials. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

Published: Wed 29 Mar 2023, 9:39 PM

The illegal tin mine was so remote that, for three years, the massive gash it cut into the Amazon rainforest had gone largely ignored.

So when three mysterious helicopters suddenly hovered overhead, unannounced, the miners living there scrambled into the forest.


By the time Brazil’s environmental special forces team piled out, the miners were out of sight, but the mine’s two large pumps were still vibrating in the mud. The federal agents began dousing the machines in diesel fuel.

As they were set to ignite them, about two dozen Indigenous people came jogging out of the forest, carrying bows and arrows taller than them. They were from the Yanomami tribe, and the miners had been destroying their land — and their tribe — for years.


But as the Yanomami arrived, they realised these new visitors were there to help. The agents were dismantling the mine and then promised to give the Yanomamis the miners’ supplies.

“Friends are not miners, no,” said the only Yanomami man who spoke basic Portuguese, with other men crowding around.

An explosion of illegal mining in this vast swath of the Amazon has created a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami people, cutting their food supplies, spreading malaria and, in some cases, threatening the Yanomamis with violence, according to government scientists and officials.

The miners use mercury to separate gold from mud, and recent analyses show that Yanomami rivers contain mercury levels 8,600 per cent higher than what is considered safe. Mercury poisoning can cause birth defects and neurological damage.

The infant mortality rate among the 31,000 Yanomamis in Brazil now exceeds those of war-torn and famine-stricken countries, with 1 in 10 infants dying, compared with about 1 in 100 in the rest of the country, according to government data. Many of those deaths are avoidable, caused by malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia and other illnesses.

“Lots of diarrhoea, vomiting,” said the Yanomami man at the mine, who would not give a name. “No health, no help, nothing.”

But now Brazil’s new leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has made saving the Yanomamis his top priority in his push to halt the Amazon’s destruction. The government declared a state of emergency in January and has airlifted severely malnourished people out of villages, set up a checkpoint at a major waterway into the territory and hunted and destroyed active mines.

While the miners began arriving in 2016, the crisis erupted under right-wing former President Jair Bolsonaro, who after being elected in 2018, cut staffing and funding for the agencies tasked with protecting the forest.

The area illegally mined in the lush Yanomami territory quadrupled during his tenure to nearly 20 square miles, or roughly the size of New York’s Manhattan borough, according to satellite data.

“On the one hand, you’re happy because you’re fighting environmental crimes again,” said Felipe Finger, the head of Brazil’s environmental special forces team, who led the operation at the tin mine. “On the other hand, it’s sad, because it’s been four years since the forest began bleeding — and it bled a lot.”

Felipe Finger, the head of Brazil’s environmental special forces team, burning a water pump at an illegal mine in the Yanomami Indigenous territory of Brazil, on Feb. 24, 2023. An explosion of illegal mining in this vast swath of the Amazon has created a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami people, cutting their food supplies, spreading malaria and, in some cases, threatening the Yanomamis with violence, according to government scientists and officials. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)
Felipe Finger, the head of Brazil’s environmental special forces team, burning a water pump at an illegal mine in the Yanomami Indigenous territory of Brazil, on Feb. 24, 2023. An explosion of illegal mining in this vast swath of the Amazon has created a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami people, cutting their food supplies, spreading malaria and, in some cases, threatening the Yanomamis with violence, according to government scientists and officials. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

The government is fighting a literal gold rush. Thousands of prospectors have invaded the land for gold and other precious metals, with a productive dig site yielding roughly 11 pounds of pure gold a week, or about $300,000 on the local black market. Researchers estimate that there are hundreds of active mines in Yanomami land.

For their part, the Yanomamis at the mine had never heard of Lula or Bolsonaro, but they were clear that the miners had brought hardship. “People is hungry,” the Yanomami man said, as Finger lit the rumbling pumps on fire.

Nearby, other agents were searching the miners’ shelter, a wood-plank cabin with a refrigerator, stove and two satellite internet dishes from Brazil’s state telecom company. (Agents had recently discovered other miners using devices from Starlink, a satellite internet service run by Elon Musk.)

At the cabin, they also discovered a miner who had lingered too long.

Edmilson Dias said he had been working at the mine for two months, originally arriving via helicopter, and made $1,000 a week. Now he was sitting on a stump, his hands behind his back, two camouflaged agents with long rifles at his side.

Yet he remained defiant.

“To tell you the truth, I’ll leave here and go to another mine,” he said, adding that the money was too good to stop.

‘Worse than it ever was’

Instead of months, the Yanomamis count moons, and instead of years, they track the harvests of the pupunha fruit. Evidence suggests that they have lived in the Amazon for thousands of harvests. And unlike many other Indigenous groups, their way of life still bears some resemblance to that of their ancestors.

Across 370 remote forest villages, multiple families share large domed huts but tend their own plots of cassava, bananas and papaya. The men hunt and the women farm. And they do not interact much with the outside world.

Their first sustained contact with white people, American missionaries, came in the 1960s. Shortly after, more Brazilians arrived, carried deeper into the Amazon by new roads and an appetite for gold. With contact came new diseases, and thousands of Yanomamis died.

Things got worse in the 1980s when a gold rush brought more illness and violence. In response, in 1992, the Brazilian government protected about 37,000 square miles of the forest along the border with Venezuela for the Yanomamis, creating Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory, an expanse larger than Portugal.

But by 2018, as Bolsonaro ran for president, prospectors were already rushing in again, driven by rising gold prices. Illegal mining soared — and Bolsonaro’s administration largely watched.

“In the last four years, we have seen apathy, perhaps intentional,” said Alisson Marugal, a federal prosecutor investigating the Bolsonaro administration’s handling of the Yanomami territory. “They failed to act, aware that they were allowing a humanitarian crisis to happen.”

Today, the plight of many Yanomami children is unmistakable: They are starving. Their skeletons are visible through their skin, their faces gaunt and their bellies swollen, a telltale sign of malnourishment. A recent government study found that 80 per cent of Yanomami children were below average height and half were underweight.

Dr. Paulo Basta, a government physician who has studied the Yanomamis for 25 years, said malnutrition among Yanomami children “is worse than it ever was.’’

Scientists and researchers say the health crisis has a clear cause. The mining clears trees, disrupts waterways and transforms the landscape, scaring away prey and hurting crops. The mines’ standing water breeds mosquitoes, which help spread malaria that the miners bring in from the cities. The disease had once been largely rooted out among the Yanomamis. In recent years, virtually every member of the tribe has had it. And then there is the mercury seeping into the ground and the rivers.

At a children’s hospital in Boa Vista, Brazil, a city outside the Yanomami territory, Yanomami families crowded into a room with 12 hammocks strung from the ceiling. Some children were being treated for severe malnourishment, others for malaria.

A young mother in a hammock breastfed her 8-month-old daughter, who weighed just 6 pounds. The girl was receiving a blood transfusion and had a feeding tube. Crops in the village were failing, her father said. “It’s difficult to get them to sprout,” a translator relayed. “He said he doesn’t know why.”

‘I sell it to whoever’

At a nearby restaurant, Eric Silva reached over a table with a nearly half-pound chunk of solid gold. Silva, a gold trader, had bought it that day for roughly $10,000. The government, he said, would never be able to stop the hunt for such wealth.

“It’s a cultural thing,” he said. “Since Brazil’s founding, ore has been extracted.”

Silva spent 22 years as a miner, until the government burned his machinery, costing him $115,000. But now he has reinvented himself, and buys and sells about 9 pounds of gold a month, or about $230,000 on the black market.

“I sell it to whoever comes and pays the best price,” he said. “I’ve sold gold to the Americans, to the French. I don’t know where they take it, but I know I sell it.”

Finger’s special forces team now leads the battle to run illegal miners off Indigenous land. On the recent trip into the forest, they found a recently abandoned gold mine and the active mine harvesting cassiterite, the main ore to make tin. At both, the main goal was to destroy the expensive machinery.

They also were looking for mercury, and at the miners’ cabin, Finger found it. He emerged angry, holding a small bottle of the shiny liquid. Dias, the miner who had lingered, was nonchalant. “That’s not much, sir,” he said.

The agents instructed the Yanomami people, who had been watching, to help clear the cabin. They piled bags of flour, rice and beans alongside clothes, pillows and cookware. Then they carried everything, including a large speaker, back to their huts.

The agents lit the cabin on fire, boarded the helicopters and took off. Dias was left behind, without supplies.

On the ride out, spirals of smoke rose from below. It then quickly became clear that the mine was part of a much longer string of destruction, open pit after open pit. On each side was thick forest — cleared in some spots to make room for a Yanomami shelter.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times



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