Video shows illegal gold miners attacking indigenous village in Brazil

Screengrab taken from a video showing illegal miners attacking an indigenous Yanomami village in northern Brazil on May 10, 2021.
Screengrab taken from a video showing illegal miners attacking an indigenous Yanomami village in northern Brazil on May 10, 2021. © Observers

A group of illegal gold miners fired shots at an indigenous village in Roraima state in northern Brazil on May 10. A video of the attack, filmed by members of the Yanomami community who live there, is proof of what the Yanomami have been saying for years, that there has been a sharp increase in violence across their territory since the arrival of close to 20,000 illegal gold miners. With clashes continuing throughout the week, local organisations are calling for an increase in security forces. 

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Locals filmed the video on May 10 in the village Palimiú, which is part of the Alto Alegre municipality, located in the northern part of Roraima state. The video shows a motor boat driving past a village located on the banks of the Uraricoera River. Several shots ring out and a number of people, including children, run to seek shelter. 

The next day, a team from the federal police were sent to Palimiú to investigate these clashes and the possible presence of criminal groups among the gold miners operating illegally in the Yanomami territory. During this intervention, there was an exchange of gunfire between police and miners, according to investigative media outlet Amazonia Real.

'There is a massive invasion of illegal miners into Yanomami territory'

Since 2019, nearly 20,000 gold miners have illegally entered and begun operating within Yanomami territory. Social media posts by local indigenous rights organisations denounce the invasion and highlight the environmental damage: Mining pollutes the soil and waterways with toxic compounds like mercury, which is used to separate gold from rock. In 2020, these groups launched a mass campaign calling for the miners to be removed from Yanomami territory.

But when the local communities show their resistance to illegal mining, the violence and intimidation they experience also increases. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, the president of the Council for Yanomami and Ye'kuanna Indigenous Health (Condisi-YY), who says the most recent attack by miners is the third that they have launched against Palimiú in less than a month.

He says that the miners lashed out at residents of this village which, in April, re-established a “health barrier” to stop people from entering the territory during the pandemic. These barriers also make it possible to control the entry of miners, and sometimes their equipment is seized. Júnior Hekurari Yanomami explains:

The miners are used to crossing through Palimiú to bring food and material to the major mining sites within Yanomami territory. However, the Palimiú community set up a health barrier in a strategic location, which the miners struggled to get past. On April 24, the Yanomami intercepted the miner’s boats and their fuel. That same day, there was an exchange of gunfire in Palimiú, which we reported to the authorities. A second attack took place on April 27. However, the most serious attack took place on Monday, May 10. 

The authorities know that there has been a mass invasion of illegal gold miners into Yanomami territory and that the numbers have been growing since 2019. The threats to the local population have also increased. Last year, miners killed two young people. In February, a group of illegal miners carried out an attack in the Uraricoera region and a Yanomami was seriously injured. 

In this video, Júnior Hekurari Yanomami and several other Palimiú residents explain that a group of miners drove up to their village in three different boats around 11am on May 10 and that an exchange of gunfire lasted about 10 minutes.
In this video, Júnior Hekurari Yanomami and several other Palimiú residents explain that a group of miners drove up to their village in three different boats around 11am on May 10 and that an exchange of gunfire lasted about 10 minutes. © Condisi-YY

The days after the attack remained tense. In a letter addressed to the United Nations that the FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to view, a local group, Hutukara Yanomami, explained that on May 12, they were informed that there were boats belonging to miners near the site where the attack had taken place two days earlier. On May 13, there was an exchange of fire between miners and the army. The organisation called for “the permanent presence of authorities in the region” to guarantee the security of communities that had been “left alone to defend themselves.” 

"We’re demanding an immediate intervention by the federal government and the dispatch of federal troops,” says Júnior Hekurari Yanomami. The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office also requested that security forces be deployed to Palimiú to protect the population from new attacks.

This screengrab is from a video posted on social media by miners in Palimiú.
This screengrab is from a video posted on social media by miners in Palimiú. © DR

On May 17, Hutukara Yanomami and another local organisation, Condisi-YY, reported new clashes in Palimiú. The evening before, 15 boats approached the village and men aboard the boats fired at villagers and released tear gas canisters.  

An uncertain toll

Júnior Hekurari Yanomami says that locals told him three miners died in the clashes on May 10, as villagers responded to the attack by firing arrows and shooting hunting rifles. Federal police have not confirmed this toll.

In a statement released on May 15, the Hutukara Yanomami group reported the death of two children, who presumably got lost and then drowned while fleeing the gunfire. 

On May 12, police in Roraima reported that a miner was killed after being shot in the head near an area where illegal mining is taking place in Yanomami, though they did not link this incident with the conflict in Palimiú.

'We’re running the risk of another massacre'

Several indigenous rights organisations in Brazil condemned the violence. 

"We are running the risk of another massacre", wrote an organisation called APIB, whose name roughly translates to the Expression of Brazil’s Indigenous People in a note published on May 13. The Roraima Indigenous Council called on institutions to act instead of “remaining inert”.

Though Brazilian law currently bans mining within indigenous territories, President Jair Bolsonaro is strongly in favour of changing that. In February 2020, Bolsonaro signed a bill that would open up indigenous territories to mining. It hasn’t yet been approved but, according to activists, this promise has increased the gold rush.

>> Read on the Observers: How illegal miners are invading Brazil’s indigenous territories

Despite a ruling by a judge calling for the removal of gold miners from Yanomami territory, the mining continues. Other indigenous territories in Roraima state have also been invaded in a similar fashion, including Raposa Serra do Sol, where aerial images documented the presence of illegal miners. 

>> Watch on FRANCE 24: Indigenous leaders in Brazil raise the alarm about widespread illegal mining

A group of indigenous leaders in Brazil are raising the alarm about the widespread illegal mining taking place in the country’s indigenous territory, as documented in aerial photos showing vast mining camps on their land.
A group of indigenous leaders in Brazil are raising the alarm about the widespread illegal mining taking place in the country’s indigenous territory, as documented in aerial photos showing vast mining camps on their land. © France 24