At least three illegal gold miners have died inside the Yanomami reservation in northern Brazil, after opening fire with automatic weapons on an indigenous community opposed to their presence in the area.
The Yanomami group, the largest of South America’s tribes that remain relatively isolated from the outside world, said armed miners attacked one of their communities on Monday, leaving one member severely injured.
The indigenous group responded with bows, arrows and shotguns, wounding four of the attackers during the 30-minute clash, the government’s indigenous affairs (Funai) agency said in a statement.
A video circulating on social media captured the moment a boat passes by the community and gunshots are heard. About a dozen women and children who were gathered near the Uraricoera river are seen running for cover amid desperate shouts.
The river is used by illegal miners, known locally as garimpeiros, to transport petrol and other goods to their camps. According to Junior Hekurari Yanomami, from the Yanomami-Ye’kuanna group, the community had set up barricades to try to prevent the miners from entering their territory.
Officials noted the illegal miners were most likely trying to scare the Yanomami away from blocking their access to gold prospects.
The lust for gold has attracted wildcat prospectors in recent decades, who have destroyed forests, poisoned rivers and brought fatal diseases to the tribe.
According to non-profit group Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), there are about 20,000 illegal gold miners in the Yanomami area, Brazil’s largest protected Indigenous reserve.
In March, ISA said an area equivalent to 500 soccer fields had been destroyed by mining in the Yanomami territory last year alone, with most of the activity located around the Uraricoera river.
Work by garimpeiros intensified after President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, the report said. Mining camps, once located in areas deep in the jungle, were getting closer to indigenous villages, it added, increasing the risk of conflict.
The potential humanitarian disaster facing the Yanomami is just the latest red flag of deteriorating conditions in the world’s biggest rainforest under Bolsonaro. The president has promoted logging in the area, clashing with his counterpart Joe Biden during the US presidential race last year over deforestation in the Amazon.
Activists and indigenous groups have denounced Bolsonaro’s government’s lack of action against illegal logging and mining in protected areas, and say environmental enforcement remains underfunded.