Venezuela and Brazil: Violence and destruction escalate in the Yanomami territory

April 21, 2022

Illegal mining in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Brazil, 2022. © Bruno Kelly/HAY

Four Yanomami people in Venezuela – three men and one woman – were shot dead in cold blood last month by Venezuelan soldiers who opened fire on a group of Yanomami during an argument over access to the internet. The tragedy occurred in Parima B, a large Yanomami community where the military have a base.

A 16-year-old Yanomami boy, and the brother of one of those killed, were wounded and evacuated to hospital in the state capital, Puerto Ayacucho.

The killings happened at a time of rising tension in the territory. Despite repeated demands from the Yanomami over the last decade, the Venezuelan authorities have done little to stop the thousands of illegal miners working there. The military, far from protecting the Yanomami and their territory from the invasions, stand accused of benefiting from the illegal gold trade.

The humanitarian catastrophe is engulfing many communities. There are reports of miners forcing Yanomami women into prostitution and men to work in the mining operations. Malaria is rife and due to the economic and political crisis in Venezuela and government negligence, health teams are barely operating in the territory.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the attack and called on the government to set up an independent investigation into the killings and to bring the culprits to justice.

Yanomami & Ye’kwana protests in Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil. They’re aiming their arrows at a statue of an illegal goldminer in the center of the town. © Mauricio Ye’kwana

The situation in the Yanomami territory in Brazil is also catastrophic, and now resembles a war zone. Hutukara and Wanasseduume, Indigenous organizations representing the Yanomami and Ye’kwana in the Yanomami territory, launched a shocking report this month: “Yanomami under Attack” which documents violence, sexual abuse and high rates of malaria and mercury poisoning among the Yanomami as a result of the illegal mining.

It found that between 2016 and 2020, illegal goldmining grew by 3,350%, and now directly affects 273 Yanomami communities totalling 16,000 people or 56% of the population. In 2021 mining increased by 46% in comparison to 2020.

Illegal mining in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Brazil, 2022. © Bruno Kelly/HAY

Sexual violence against Yanomami women is on the rise as miners offer drugs and alcohol in exchange for sex, and the report refers to several cases of rape of Yanomami women and harassment of girls.

The Yanomami’s health is plummeting and the reports says: “The illegal extraction of gold has caused an explosion in cases of malaria and other infectious and contagious diseases, with serious consequences for the families’ health and economy.”

Armed and violent criminal gangs operate with impunity in the region and many communities in the illegal mining zones are living in a permanent state of siege as miners constantly intimidate and fire on them. In 2020 two Yanomami were killed by goldminers and in 2021 at least two uncontacted Yanomami were reportedly murdered by goldminers. Two Yanomami children drowned when they were sucked under a goldmining dredge in 2021.

A Yanomami child wearing decorative body paint, 2008. The Yanomami’s health is now at risk as malaria and other diseases are now spreading. © Fiona Watson/Survival

Much of the invasion is fomented by President Bolsonaro’s racist rhetoric and attempts to subvert the constitution and legalize all forms of mining in Indigenous territories. The high price of gold, and powerful economic and political interests in the region, exacerbate the problem. However, in a blow to Bolsonaro and his allies, a draft mining bill to open up mining in Indigenous territories has been put on hold in Congress.

A Yanomami leader from Palimiu, a community which has suffered repeated violent attacks, sent this appeal: “You non-Indians, you who live in distant lands…. see that we Yanomami are really suffering!… We want the whole world’s leaders to look at us! … We have been suffering along with the forest! … Now the forest is dead. . They destroyed all the trees we used to eat fruit from! They cut down all the big trees! And who did that? The miners did! … Our land is completely dead! … Just as the forest is devastated, so are we! Why are we damaged? We’ve been devastated by mining. We want to open your eyes. They have wiped us all out!”

Survival has protested to the Venezuelan authorities about the murder of the four Yanomami; called for the military to be tried and sentenced for the killings; and recently demonstrated outside the Brazilian embassy with other NGOs against illegal mining, logging and landgrabs on Indigenous lands.