Illegal gold miners threaten fragile way of life, deep in Amazon rainforest

Deep in the Amazon rainforest, the Yanomami people are battling an old and elusive enemy — one they haven’t seen since the 1980s.

Dressed in traditional headdress, faces decorated with paint, this indigenous community prepares its bows and spears to defend their land against garimpeiros — illegal gold miners looking for glimmers of gold in this vast and rich territory. Fernando, one of the Yanomami leaders, told CNN on a recent reporting trip to the riverside Palimiu settlement what the community has been enduring for months now.

“The problem is the armed garimpeiros pass here at night,” he told CNN in May. “There’s always lots of them. As many as seven canoes,” with five to seven people in each. The miners, who have set up camps throughout the nearly 24-million acres of the Yanomami reserve — roughly the size of Portugal — use the waterways as their thoroughfare, transporting petrol and people, as well as goods to their bases.

But it’s rarely done quietly, says Fernando, who accuses the miners of encroaching on Yanomami land, intimidating and firing at them. Between May and June the village suffered five attacks. One of them, a half-hour shootout on May 10, was caught on camera. The video shows women and children running for cover as a boat passes the riverbanks of their village. The incident left four dead, including two Yanomami children, according to the Brazilian federal police. Nerves are high. “These people are ruining our land, are killing our children, they’re making us suffer,” Adneia, a Yanomami elder, told CNN.

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