Brazil must take action to protect Amazon’s Yanomami permanently, police chief says

By Ricardo Brito and Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Police action will not suffice to defend Yanomami territory in the Amazon from illegal gold miners, and Brazil’s government must throw its full weight into defending the Indigenous people, the head of the country’s federal police said in an interview.

Federal Police Director General Andrei Rodrigues’ comments to Reuters late on Tuesday came just hours after President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva launched a new plan to end a humanitarian crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous territory, where illegal mining and deforestation have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis of malnutrition, disease, hunger and sexual abuse.

At the emergency meeting on Tuesday, Lula’s government announced it will spend 1.2 billion reais ($245 million) on security and assistance efforts for the Yanomami people who live on Brazil’s largest indigenous reservation bordering Venezuela.

“Police action is not enough. It must be followed up with social services, health and education,” Rodrigues said in an interview in the federal police headquarters in Brasilia. “The whole of the state has to be present.”

He added that the armed forces must also play a key role – not just to protect some 30,000 Yanomami living on the reservation, but also to provide logistical support in an inaccessible jungle area where roads are inexistent.

Since Lula, a leftist, launched a task force to evict the gold miners early last year, police have seized more than 600 million reais in goods, mainly gold, made some 160 arrests and blown up dozens of dredging barges used by the miners on rivers, Rodrigues said.

He added that the task force had evicted 80% of the estimated 20,000 wildcat miners in the territory, but others were holding out in remote areas.

Yanomami leaders say the illegal miners are starting to return after the army withdrew from an advanced base on the reservation, and the humanitarian crisis has continued, with disease and malnutrition on the rise among their people.

Agents of environmental agency Ibama told Reuters they have been left alone to face the returning miners, and require greater support from the armed forces if they are to prevail in what is currently a one-sided battle.


Criticism of the government’s faltering response prompted Lula to summon ministers, environmental and Indigenous agencies, military commanders and police chiefs to redouble Brazil’s efforts against the gold miners.

“We discussed the next steps the state will take to reach a definitive solution so the Yanomami people can have their environment preserved and return to a normal life,” Rodrigues said. “It has to be a continuous and permanent action by the Brazilian state to oust the criminals and guarantee the survival of the Indigenous people.”

The government’s plan includes a local security headquarters to coordinate the action of different state forces, food distribution and a new health center.

The Yanomami territory, an area about the size of Portugal, has been invaded by gold miners for decades, but the destructive incursions multiplied in recent years when former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro dismantled environmental protections.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Ricardo Brito; Editing by Paul Simao)