Goldmining and Genocide
Discussions of genocide often hinge on intent, but the extermination of a people can result as an unintended consequence of the violent pursuit of trade, private property, profit and state sovereignty: the fever for gold in Hispaniola after 1492, for example, or California after 1848.
In Brazil as elsewhere in the Western hemisphere, conquest and genocide in pursuit of El Dorado continue. In 1993, when Jair Bolsonaro was a recently elected member of the Chamber of Deputies, he tried to reverse legislation that recognised Yanomami territory north and west of the Rio Branco in Roraima, and along the Venezuelan border in Amazonas. In the 1980s he had called it a ‘crime against the motherland’. Their destruction, in other words, was one of his longest-held aims as a politician, and he returned to it year after year.
Bolsonaro’s intentions may matter less than facts on the ground: illegal gold mining operations (o garimpo), connected to organised crime, logging and agribusiness, are fast converting the Amazon jungle into savannah to a degree that may already be irreversible. (O garimpo refers at once to the precarious workers’ encampment and the practice of illegal mining itself. The work done by garimpeiros is dirty, dangerous and carried out under threat and coercion.) Under Bolsonaro’s presidency, illegal logging and deforestation, like mining, proliferated as never before; global condemnation did nothing to halt them. According to one Yanomami elder, it will take a hundred years to repair the damage.
In the mid-1990s, the army published a book arguing that the Yanomami were not really a people so much as a front for radical environmentalist NGOs run by rich brancos – outside agitators. According to the attorney general, corruption in the army during Bolsonaro’s presidency left ten thousand Yanomami children without medicine. Some of the funds went instead to an evangelical NGO; some – ostensibly for the purchase of anti-malarial drugs – ended up in the hands of air transport businesses selling to garimpeiros.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked Bolsonaro in 2020 to take emergency measures to avoid ‘irreparable damage’ to the Yanomami. He did nothing, lied about it, and got caught lying. He recently claimed on Telegram that he had overseen twenty health missions in Indigenous territories but provided no evidence. Meanwhile, a Yanomami leader who during Bolsonaro’s presidency received more than a hundred death threats and reported them to the Health Ministry, FUNAI (Fundação Nacional dos Povos Indígenas) and Federal Prosecution Office, never received a response.
Brazil has been scandalised in recent weeks by images circulating on social media of sick and starving Yanomami children, and for the moment people are taking the issue seriously. On 21 January Lula’s government declared a public health emergency.
Bolsonaro was expected to return to Brazil to undergo intestinal surgery, having been released from hospital in Orlando, but he has instead requested a six-month tourist visa to remain in the US. (His wife, Michelle, came back without him last month.) His followers, meanwhile, have protested against the air force and army taking part in relief efforts.
According to the federal prosecutor in Roraima, starving women and girls trade sex for food. Last April a twelve-year-old girl was raped and murdered. Young men are vulnerable to entrapment in the world of guns, alcohol, tobacco, drugs and money.
The Bolsonaro-supporting governor of Roraima, Antonio Denarum, said hunger was common throughout Brazil and recommended that the Yanomami assimilate. To deflect attention from her own responsibility, Senator Damares Alves, Bolsonaro’s minister of family, women and human rights, claimed (falsely) she had been a lifelong fighter for Indigenous rights. Regina Duarte, an actress who was briefly Bolsonaro’s special secretary of culture, joked on social media about Yanomami children going hungry.
The demographic dynamics recall those of earlier waves of frontier settler colonialism, with garimpeiros now at least twenty thousand strong, while there are perhaps thirty thousand Yanomami. They live in 371 communities, of which 273 have been invaded by o garimpo, and 110 have seen deforestation, soil contamination, and habitat and river destruction. There has been a sharp uptick in negative social and environmental indicators since 2016. Other peoples, including the Munduruku and the Kayapós, are also in harm’s way.
As well as poisoning people and fish, o garimpo scars the landscape, leaving devastation in its wake. Mercury leaches into everything. Trees are cut down, plant life is extinguished. Very little grows back. The depleted soil is pockmarked by contaminated pools of snot-green water. Patches of jungle become toxic wasteland, and rivers are dammed up.
Along with humanitarian relief efforts, Lula’s government has closed the airspace – garimpeiros operated more than six hundred clandestine air strips – and stopped river transport in Yanomami territory, though miners are being allowed to leave. After visiting the region and calling an emergency cabinet meeting, Lula issued a decree on 30 January authorising the defence and health ministries to end illegal mining. A moratorium has been placed on exploration permits by the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The defence minister, José Múcio, visited last week to oversee relief efforts.
The FUNAI, which will receive increased funding after being gutted by Bolsonaro, is run by Joênia Wapichana. She grew up in Boa Vista and was Brazil’s first Indigenous lawyer before becoming the first Indigenous woman elected to Congress. The FUNAI will be complemented by the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, led by Sônia Guajajara, as well as the Human Rights and Citizenship Ministry, now run by Silvio Almeida, an anti-racist philosopher of law.
For the first time, relevant ministries are run by Indigenous women; Almeida is Afro-Brazilian. Guajajara, who grew up in the Araribóia rainforest in Maranhão, visited Yanomami territory along the Venezuelan border, noting that the situation is far worse than people imagine. There is no water to drink.
Under the justice minister, Flávio Dino, the Federal Police (PF) have begun moving into the camps, arresting garimpeiros, seizing their weapons and destroying their equipment. On the nightly news, Brazilians have seen helicopters, light aircraft, dredging machines and encampments burned, while garimpeiros have fled by land, air and water. Money launderers and gold smugglers have also been arrested.
This is not a politics of spectacle, scapegoating or photo op. Along with complicit public officials, the PF will investigate the garimpos’ financial backers to determine if charges of genocide, environmental crimes or refusal to aid and assist are warranted. The investigation will not be limited to people in Roraima but, according to Dino, will go to the top of the food chain. Bolsonaro now says he will return in March, and admits the possibility that jail awaits.