Fight against illegal Amazon gold mining intensifies

Tue Apr 26, 2016 9:16am EDT
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By Bruno Kelly

AMAJARI, Brazil (Reuters) - After trekking nearly two hours through dense jungle, Brazilian environmental special forces burst into a clearing where the trees had been sawn and a muddy crater dug: an illegal gold mine on indigenous land in the heart of the Amazon.

The miners and gold were already gone, scattered by the whir of helicopter blades, but armed troopers in camouflage burned tents and generators. When there was nothing left, they moved on to the next.

The five-day operation last week, led by Brazil's environmental agency Ibama and Indian foundation Funai, located 15 air strips and destroyed 20 barges used to transport equipment and supplies by the estimated 5,000 illegal miners in the vast remote region.

Images of the raid can be seen in a Reuters Wider Image photo essay here

At more than 23.5 million acres (9.5 million hectares), the Yanomami people's territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indigenous people.

The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but miners continue to exploit the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold.

The mercury has become a growing cause for concern. While miners once killed the Yanomami with guns or disease - nearly 20 percent of the population was wiped out in the 1980s - today the threat is the toxic liquid metal used to separate gold from grit.

A study published last month by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a public biomedical research group, found that in some Yanomami villages, 92 percent of residents suffered from mercury poisoning. The results shocked experts, who believe mercury is entering the food chain through fish in polluted rivers.   Continued...

A gold prospector is detained by agents of Brazil’s environmental agency on the Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016.  REUTERS/Bruno Kelly