The Amazon

Increased efforts to protect Indigenous peoples from gold miners in Brazil

Conflict between Indigenous peoples and gold miners has increased as the Brazilian government has fought illegal mining in Indigenous territories. Now, a new large-scale effort to protect the indigenous Yanomami offers hope.

POLLUTION: An illegal gold mine in Yanomami territory. Illegal miners pollute the rivers and soil, and they spread diseases and confict. Photo: Bruno Kelly

By Kristin Rødland Buick.

In early January, the indigenous Urihi Yanomami Association (UYA) reported the death of two Yanomami men. They were killed in the Alto Catrimani region of Roraima, Brazil, on Yanomami land. After consulting with indigenous people in the area, the UYA announced that the men had lost their lives after an attack by gold miners.

Alto Catrimani is one of the regions hardest hit by illegal mining. A report released in 2022 by Rainforest Foundation Norway's partner organisation, Hutukara, showed that this area had the largest concentrations of camps and support structures for mining, such as bars, grocery stores and brothels.

Increased level of conflict between Indigenous peoples and gold miners

The deaths and violence are part of a decade-long conflict between Indigenous peoples and gold miners in the Yanomami indigenous area, which is Brazil's largest. The situation deteriorated dramatically under Brazil's previous president Jair Bolsonaro's leadership.

One of the first measures the new Lula-administration took was to crack down on illegal mining activities in the Yanomami territory. The crackdown on illegal activity has initially led to increased levels of conflict, with many of the invaders eventually returning to the territory.

"These deaths are a tragic result of the increased level of conflict we have seen in the Brazilian rainforest over the past year. Unfortunately, the operations against the gold miners often result in the gold miners only temporarily relocating and returning after attention has died down - or finding new areas in which to carry out their destructive activities. More long-term and structured efforts and changes in legislation are needed to solve the problem," says Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro, head of the Brazil program at Rainforest Foundation Norway.

REPORTED: Yanomami leader Dario Kopenawa Yanomami reported the murders of two indigenous people on X (formerly Twitter) on January 7, 2024. Screenshot: Rainforest Foundation Norway

New efforts for permanent protection of the Yanomami

This week, the Brazilian government announced a new permanent effort to protect the Yanomami from gold miners. The initiative has a price tag of over 1 billion Brazilian real (BRL), equivalent to 204 million US dollars. Ministers Marina Silva, Sonia Guajajara and Silvio Almeida were received on Wednesday by Davi Yanomami and other leaders of the Yanomami and Yekwana people when the proposal was presented.

"This is a major and important initiative that we hope will make a significant and immediate difference for the Yanomami. The attacks have been going on for so long, and it is very good to see that Brazil is now fulfilling its human rights obligations and taking measures to protect its own population from systematic violent attacks", says Ribeiro.

Rainforest Foundation Norway has supported the Yanomami people for over 30 years. See the facts box below for more details.

At the end of December 2023, the Environmental Committee in the Brazilian Senate passed a bill banning gold mining in indigenous territories and protected areas.

"It is urgent to put in place a stronger legal framework that protects people and territories and establishes transparency in the gold value chain in Brazil. We hope that the government also succeeds in getting the opposition to adopt these proposals, proposals that can lead to lasting positive change," says Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro, head of the Brazil program at Rainforest Foundation Norway.

PATROLS: The Yanomami regularly patrol their lands looking for illegal mining activities. Photo: Thomas Nilsson/VG/Regnskogfondet

Rainforest Foundation Norway's work with the Yanomami and gold mining

Rainforest Foundation Norway supports:

  • Self-organization
    Rainforest Foundation Norway supports the Yanomami people's ability to organize themselves and mobilize allies. We support joint meetings across villages, formal forums for discussions and follow-up of their organization, Hutukara. We also support special initiatives aimed at women.
  • Visibility of gold mining
    Rainforest Foundation Norway supports initiatives that provide visibility to the problems associated with gold mining - both in the Yanomami territory and in other areas with similar issues. One example is the training of Yanomami youth in documenting and communicating what is happening on the ground and providing the opportunity to promote the issue in regional, national and international forums. Raising the profile of this issue is important in order to make this a priority for police and prosecutors.
  • Documentation of gold mining
    Rainforest Foundation Norway also supports more comprehensive documentation on the issue. One example is the report "Yanomami under attack: illegal mining on Yanomami Indigenous Land and proposals to combat it", produced by our Brazilian partner organization ISA. The report received considerable attention in several international forums.
  • Security measures
    Rainforest Foundation Norway also supports measures in areas where illegal gold mining creates conflicts with villages, including support in connection with villages having to or wanting to move due to threatening situations.
  • Sustainable income
    The Rainforest Foundation also supports measures to promote alternative sustainable sources of income for villages in the Yanomami territory. One of the goals of these measures is to reduce the risk of indigenous youth being recruited into illegal gold mining.
  • Emergency support for health issues:
    Due to the health crisis in the Yanomami Territory, we have also supported some health initiatives.
  • Political advocacy
    Our Brazilian partner organisation, ISA, is also one of several actors working to influence national policy and legislation in Brazil and to reduce illegal mining activity. Important progress has been made this year.
  • Traceability of the value chain of gold
    We collaborate with the investigative journalist network Reporter Brasil to document the traceability of the gold value chain. This will strengthen our political work by providing concrete input for policy changes. Rainforest Foundation Norway has also raised awareness of the risks associated with investing in gold to relevant investors.

Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro

Team Leader, Brazil Program
(+47) 402 81 386