Albion Monitor /News

Amazon Tribe Fighting Off Gold Miners

by Pratap Chatterjee

on the impact of gold mining in this region and related article on the Macuxi
(IPS) BOA VISTA, Brazil -- Federal police last week heeded a week-long protest and went to the village of Caju in the northern Brazilian Amazon, where the Macuxi indigenous peoples are fighting off illegal gold miners.

One hundred Macuxi, including women and children, are blockading an access road to Caju to protest the invasion of their lands by small-scale miners who use highly toxic mercury to extract gold. At least 11 Macuxi have died in the last few years as a result of conflicts with these miners.

The blockade, which is led by Severino Brasil of Caju, is the culmination of many years of protests by the indigenous peoples of Raposa Serra do Sol in the state of Roraima, which is situated where the borders of Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela meet.

"It is virtually an invitation to other states to legislate Indian problems out of existence"
Gold miners have invaded the entire Amazon basin in the last few years. Although massive protests have occasionally galvanized the police into action, the response is rarely adequate. More than half-a-million miners are believed to be dredging the rivers and digging for gold at any given time. Much of the activity occurs on indigenous lands that are theoretically protected by the federal government.

The federal police met in late June with the Macuxi, members of FUNAI (the Brazilian federal indigenous agency), and IBAMA (the Brazilian environmental protection agency) to hash out an agreement to resolve the Caju dispute.

"We are very happy about the agreement with the federal police, but we want to see how effective this will be," says Anna Paulo Souto, a lawyer at Conselho Indigena de Roraima (the Indigenous Council of Roraima, or CIR) in Boa Vista, the state capital. The CIR says the federal police set off yesterday for Caju.

State and federal authorities have not been very helpful to the 12,000 indigenous Macuxi, Ingariko, Wapixana, Taurepang, and Patamona peoples who live in the reservation of Raposa Cerra do Sol.

The latest wave of miners and colonists moved there in 1990. The invaders have since received state government funds to establish five permanent settlements within the indigenous territories. Conflicts with these colonists have led to killings of at least 11 indigenous peoples in the last five years, according to data compiled by CIR.

The invaders have staked claims to 300,000 hectares of the 1.6 million hectares occupied by the indigenous peoples in Raposa Cerra do Sol. These claims were supported by Nelson Jobim, the previous federal minister of justice, in a bid to secure votes from local Congress members to support a constitutional amendment for the re-election of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Iris Resende, a former governor of the state of Goias, who was recently appointed minister of justice, will now have to decide whether the invaders should be allowed to continue to live on the five parcels of land.

This dispute is seen as a litmus test of the government's commitment to protect the indigenous peoples of Brazil, say international activists, including the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Oxfam, and Survival international, based in Britain.

If the invaders are allowed to stay, the decision will set "a sinister precedent for the approximately 190 (demarcated) indigenous lands covering 17 million hectares, virtually all in the Amazon," says an action alert put out by Oxfam Brazil recently.

"This means that any other state wishing to reduce the amount of Indian land could also resort to this legislative precedent. It is virtually an invitation to other states to legislate Indian problems out of existence," adds the alert.

housands of them have died from illnesses -- ranging from malaria to common colds -- introduced by the miners
The activists do agree that if the federal police evict the miners it will be a step forward for the indigenous peoples. But, warn the activists, these evictions are rarely permanent.

For example in the Yanomami indigenous territories, in the western part of Roraima, tens of thousands of illegal gold miners have been evicted in several major army offensives over the last few years.

The Yanomami suffered tremendously from the invasions. Thousands of them have died from illnesses -- ranging from malaria to common colds -- introduced by the miners. Yet clandestine flights can still be seen taking off from the Boa Vista airport, taking miners back into the Yanomami lands. Other miners have simply moved to new gold-mining towns that federal authorities have not resolved.

In the far south of the Brazilian Amazon, in the state of Mato Grosso, the Nambikwara peoples face similar problems caused by invasions of gold miners. Last November, miners ransacked the Sarare reserve and killed members of the community. Some 8,000 miners were evicted from the reserve by the federal police in January.

Just five months later, the miners are slowly returning and the only reaction from the state government has been to offer land to the miners on the border of the reserve.

Souto has other reasons to be skeptical about the government's about-face on the removal of small-scale miners in Raposa Cerra do Sol. She fears that the real reason the federal police have agreed to go to Caju is because the federal Congress approved a law last week that would allow corporate mining on indigenous lands.

The Brazilian constitution allows for mining developments on indigenous lands, but the legislation to implement this has been held up for several years. With the new law, national or foreign companies will be able to use cyanide leaching to extract gold on a scale far greater than that practiced by small miners.

Steve Schwartzman, an activist with EDF, says that a number of mining geologists have visited Roraima in the past few months, presumably waiting for the opportunity to take over from the small miners.

Like the small miners, Brazilian mining companies have not endeared themselves to indigenous peoples here because of their blatant disregard for local communities, critics say.

Unlike other countries in the region, communities in Brazil have had little experience with foreign mining companies
On the border of the state of Roraima and Amazonas, the Waimiri-Atroari peoples have spent 24 years battling the world's largest tin mine on their lands, which is operated by Paranapanema. The Waimiri blockaded a road to the mine last October to force the company to pay a toll for travelling through their territories and mining on their lands.

Unlike other countries in the region, communities in Brazil have had little experience with foreign mining companies. Across the border in Guyana, a joint venture between the Canadian company Cambior and the U.S. company Golden Star to use cyanide to extract gold resulted in one of the biggest mining disasters in history two years ago. And just two weeks ago, executives from the same companies told Maroon communities in Suriname that they would have to leave their traditional lands to make way for a cyanide-leach mine.

Souto says CIR is determined to make sure the same problems are not repeated in Brazil. "The constitution does not allow us to prevent these companies from coming. Instead, our job now is to make sure that they are properly regulated," she says.

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Albion Monitor July 6, 1997 (

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