Brazil readies task force to expel miners from Yanomami lands, officials say

FILE PHOTO: A village of indigenous Yanomami is seen during Brazil's environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly/File Photo

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil is preparing a task force of armed forces, police and government agencies to expel illegal gold miners who invaded the Yanomami indigenous reservation, officials said on Tuesday.

More than 20,000 wildcat miners are blamed for bringing disease, violence and hunger that have caused a humanitarian crisis for isolated Yanomami villages on Brazil’s largest indigenous reservation, on the border with Venezuela.

Defense Minister Jose Mucio said the military is needed to drive out the miners, who are well armed and have helicopters.

“We will soon confront them. We need to root out this evil,” Mucio said in an interview with Band TV.

With army troops on the ground, the navy will patrol rivers and confiscate miners’ boats and dredges while the air force will control the airspace and force suspicious planes to land, he said.

Joenia Wapichana, who in a few days will become the first indigenous person to head the government’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has pledged to end illegal mining on protected reservation lands.

Speaking to journalists on the Amazon-based journalism platform Suma├║ma, Wapichana said she could not give details of the imminent operation in order to not alert the miners who have invaded the Yanomami territory.

“We have to let the police forces organize the operation in secret; the message from President Lula is that it will happen soon and cannot delay long,” she said.

Wapichana said the task force, as in past offensives against illegal miners, will involve the Federal Police, environmental protection agency Ibama, Funai and several ministries, as well as the military.

The miners have polluted waters with mercury used to separate metal from ore and earth. They fly supply planes to clandestine airstrips in the jungle and use the rivers to take heavier machinery and fuel to their prospects, which are muddy ponds where they dredge for gold in forest clearings.

Medical studies show that the mercury used by the miners has killed the fish and contaminated the water that the Yanomami rely on.

The miners are increasingly associated with well-armed gangs that have terrorized indigenous communities that for the first time cannot feed themselves, resulting in widespread malnutrition and deaths among the 28,000 Yanomami.

Lula last week declared a medical emergency in the Yanomami territory. On Monday his government ordered a no-fly airspace over the reservation and steps to block river traffic heading to gold prospects.

Wapichana said the government will move against the organized crime and financial groups that supply and fund the illegal mining, and launder the gold.

Lula’s right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, advocated mining on protected indigenous lands, and his government turned a blind eye to invasions of indigenous reservations by wildcat miners and illegal loggers.

“We are in a new era,” Wapichana said. Those responsible for the humanitarian crisis the Yanomami are suffering will be punished for negligence, she said, and perhaps for committing genocide.

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