Illegal gold mining is at epidemic proportions in the Amazon and the heavily polluting activities of garimpeiros – as miners are called – devastate forests and poison rivers with mercury. About 50 garimpeiros were reported to have invaded the 600,000-hectare Waiãpi indigenous reserve in the state of Amapá on Saturday.
The men were spotted days after the murder of Emyra Waiãpi, a community leader, whose body was found near the village of Mariry early on Wednesday.
Indigenous people evacuated Mariry and fled to the bigger village of Aramirã – where shots were fired on Saturday. Indigenous leaders and local politicians have called for urgent police help, fearing a bloodbath.
“The garimpeiros invaded the indigenous village and are there until today. They are heavily armed, they have machine guns. That is why we asking for help from the federal police,” said Kureni Waiãpi, 26, a member of the tribe who lives in the nearest town of Pedra Branca do Amapari, two hours away and 189km from Amapá state capital Macapá. “If nothing is done they will start to fight.”
“We have a very tense situation,” said Beth Pelaes, mayor of Pedra Branca do Amapari, who said the tribe are very traditional and allow only authorised visitors.
The crisis was revealed on Saturday by Randolfe Rodrigues, a senator for Amapá state, who received desperate audio messages pleading for police and army help from Jawaruwa Waiãpi, a local councillor and leader. Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso was among those who shared the tribe’s appeal for help on Saturday.
“I ask the Brazilian authorities for help, in the name of the dignity of Brazil in the world, hear this cry,” Veloso said in a video recorded in Mexico City, where he is on tour.
Kureni Waiãpi said Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro had encouraged invasions like this. “It is because he, the president, is threatening the indigenous peoples of Brazil,” he said.
Senator Rodrigues blamed Bolsonaro’s repeated promises to allow mining on protected indigenous reserves, where it is currently prohibited, for the first invasion of Waiãpi land in decades. In the 1970s, the tribe was almost wiped out by disease after their land was invaded by gold prospectors. In 2017, the then-president Michel Temer moved to open the vast Renca reserve the tribe’s land falls within to mining but backed off after an international outcry.
“The Jair Bolsonaro government is encouraging this conflict, encouraging garimpeiros to enter. Their hands are dirty,” Senator Rodrigues said.
Recently Bolsonaro compared indigenous people living traditional lives on their reserves to “prehistoric men”. On Saturday he once again talked up the mineral riches in the Raposa Serra do Sol and Yanomami reserves – currently inundated with thousands of garimpeiros.
“I’m looking for the ‘first world’ to explore these areas in partnership and add value. That’s the reason for my approximation with the United States. That’s why I want a person of trust in the embassy in the USA,” Bolsonaro said on Saturday, according to the O Globo newspaper. His plans to appoint his congressman son, Eduardo, as Brazil’s US ambassador have caused an outcry in Brazil.
Kureni Waiãpi said the body of Emyra Waiãpa was found with stab wounds early on Wednesday morning in a river near his village of Mariry. On Friday, local man Arawyra Waiãpa and his wife spotted a group of men they believed to be garimpeiros at their plantation near the village. The community fled to the bigger village of Aramirã. Shots were fired near Aramirã around 6pm local time on Saturday but nobody was hurt. “I think the garimpeiros are shooting to scare the Waiãpi,” Kureni Waiãpi said.
Federal and Amapá police were heading to the area, a spokeswoman from Brazil’s indigenous agency FUNAI said. “For now there are no records of conflict, although a death has been confirmed, but no details of the circumstances. The place is difficult to access,” she said.
The state government of Amapá said it was “engaging all efforts to support federal police in the investigation” and had sent an elite troop of police to accompany officers sent to the area.
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