ALTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) — Armed government officials with Brazil's justice, Indigenous and environment ministries pressed illegal gold miners out of Yanomami Indigenous territory Wednesday, citing widespread river contamination, famine and disease they have brought to one of the most isolated groups in the world.

People involved in illegal gold dredging streamed away from the territory on foot. The operation could take months. There are believed to be some 20,000 people engaged in the activity, often using toxic mercury to separate the gold. An estimated 30,000 Yanomami people live in Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory, which covers an area roughly the size of Portugal and stretches across Roraima and Amazonas states in the northwest corner of Brazil’s Amazon.

The authorities — the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama, with support from the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples and the National Guard — found an airplane, a bulldozer, and makeshift lodges and hangars, and destroyed them — as permitted by law. Two guns and three boats with 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of fuel were seized. They also discovered a helicopter hidden in the forest and set it ablaze.

Ibama established a checkpoint next to a Yanomami village on the Uraricoera River to interrupt the miners' supply chain there. Agents seized the 12-meter (39-foot) boats, loaded with a ton of food, freezers, generators, and internet antennas. The cargo will now supply the federal agents. No more boats carrying fuel and equipment will be allowed to proceed past the blockade.

The large amount of supplies bound upriver could indicate some of the gold miners were ignoring President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s promise to expel them after years of neglect under his predecessor, Bolsonaro, who tried to legalize the activity.

Other miners, however, sensed it was better to return to the city. On Tuesday, The Associated Press visited a makeshift port alongside the Uraricoera River, accessible only by three-hour drive on a dirt road. Dozens of gold miners arrived over the course of the day, some of them after walking for days through the forest, en route to state capital Boa Vista.

One of them, João Batista Costa, 61, told reporters the Yanomami are dying of hunger and that recent emergency food shipments have not been enough.

The federal government has declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people, who are suffering from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria as a consequence of illegal mining.

A report published yesterday by the Health Ministry found that gold miners have invaded four clinics inside Yanomami territory, leaving them inoperational. In the city of Boa Vista, where starving and sick Indigenous people have been medevaced to a temporary medical facility, there are 700 Yanomami, more than three times its capacity.

The gold miners, who come from poor regions, such as Maranhao state in Brazil's Northeast, usually cross the forest wearing flip-flops, carrying only food and personal belongings in their backpacks. They sleep in hammocks in campsites.

But their mining depends on sophisticated logistics to outfox authorities and is backed by investors outside the forest. Such tactics include: illicit fuel distribution on the outskirts of Indigenous land; airstrips carved from the jungle for transport of miners and supplies; light planes with modified tail numbers, registered to front companies; helicopters operating between mining sites on the reserves, and clandestine communication networks.

“This operation hasn’t come a moment too soon,” Sarah Shenker, the head of the non-profit Survival International in Brazil, said in a statement. "It’s absolutely vital that the authorities get the miners out, and keep them out. They’ve blighted the Yanomami’s lives for far too long, and have caused untold misery and destruction. Even if all of them are removed, and they can be kept out, it will take years for the Yanomami and their rainforest to recover.”


Maisonnave reported from Boa Vista.


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