In a letter denouncing the invasion of their land by illegal garimpeiros (gold miners) two Yanomami Indian communities in Brazil have talked about their plight to the Brazilian government.
According to the Yanomami, over a thousand gold miners are working illegally on Yanomami land, transmitting deadly diseases like malaria and polluting the rivers and forest with mercury. Illegal mining has recently boomed due to the rise in the price of gold.
The letters, from the Alto Catrimani and Paapiú communities in the Amazon state of Roraima, are addressed to the government's Indian affairs department, FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do índio – Indian National Foundation). They report that the communities are starting to suffer from malnutrition, as fish are scarce and the river water cannot be drunk due to pollution from the mining.
The Yanomami are one of the largest relatively isolated tribes in South America. Although their territory has been recognized and signed into Brazilian law, the Yanomami's survival is being threatened. Cattle ranchers are invading and deforesting the eastern fringe of their land and critical medical care is not reaching them because of corruption and incompetence in Brazil's National Health Foundation (FUNASA).
The letters have been circulated by the Yanomami association, Hutukara. They end with an urgent appeal to the authorities to remove all the miners immediately.
The Yanomami live in the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. Like most tribes on the continent, they probably migrated across the Bering Straits between Asia and America some 40,000 years ago, making their way slowly down to South America. Today their total population stands at around 32,000.
At over 9.6 million hectares, the Yanomami territory in Brazil is twice the size of Switzerland. In Venezuela, the Yanomami live in the 8.2 million hectare Alto Orinoco – Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve. Together, these areas form the largest forested indigenous territory in the world.
The Brazilian congress is currently debating a bill which, if approved, will permit large-scale mining in indigenous territories. This will be extremely harmful to the Yanomami and other remote tribes in Brazil.
The Yanomami have not been properly consulted about their views and have little access to independent information about the impacts of mining.
Davi Kopenawa, a leading Yanomami spokesman and President of Hutukara Yanomami Association, warns of the dangers, "Mining will only destroy nature. It will only destroy the streams and the rivers and kill the fish and kill the environment – and kill us. And bring in diseases which never existed in our land," he says.