The surveillance plane left the runway and banked west towards the front line of one of Brazil’s most dramatic environmental and humanitarian crises.
Its goal: a 120 km (75 mile) clandestine road that illegal mining mafias have dug through the jungle of Brazil’s largest indigenous territory in recent months, in a daring attempt to smuggle diggers into these supposedly protected lands.
“I call it the road of chaos,” said Danicley de Aguiar, the green peace ecologist leading the reconnaissance mission above the huge indigenous sanctuary near the Brazilian border with Venezuela.
Aguiar said such heavy machinery had never before been detected in Yanomami territory – a Portugal-sized collection of mountains, rivers and forests in the far north of the Brazilian Amazon.
“We believe there are at least four diggers in there – and that takes mining in Yanomami territory to the next level, to a colossal level of destruction,” the forest campaign manager said, as his team prepared to take flight to confirm the existence of the road.
The plane’s cabin filled with excited chatter an hour into the flight as the first glimpses of the clandestine thoroughfare appeared.
“We found it, people!” celebrated the navigator, while the pilot performed a series of breathtaking maneuvers above the canopy to get a clearer view of the dirt runway.
“This is the road to chaos,” Aguiar announced through the plane’s internal communications system.
“And this it’s chaos,” he added, pointing to a gaping hole in the rainforest where three yellow diggers had dug a gold mine on the banks of the coffee-colored Catrimani River.
In a nearby clearing, a fourth digger could be seen destroying territory home to around 27,000 members of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples, including several communities that have no contact with the outside world. Worryingly, one of these remote villages is just 16 kilometers from the illegal road, Aguiar said.
Sônia Guajajara, a prominent indigenous leader who was also on the plane, suspected that the criminals had taken advantage of the recent Brazilian presidential election to infiltrate their equipment deep into Yanomami lands. “Everyone was focused on other things and they took advantage of that,” Guajajara said.
The arrival of the diggers – first witnessed by journalists from The Guardian and Brazilian TV Globo – is the latest chapter in half a century of onslaught by powerful and politically connected mining gangs .
Wild prospectors known as prospectors began flocking to Yanomami lands in search of tin ore and gold in the 1970s and 1980s, after the military dictatorship urged poor Brazilians to occupy an area it called “a land without men for landless men.
Huge fortunes have been made – and often lost. But for the Yanomami, it was a disaster. Lives and traditions have been turned upside down. Villages have been decimated by epidemics of influenza and measles. About 20% of the tribe died in just seven years, according to rights group Survival International.
A global outcry saw tens of thousands of miners deported in the early 1990s as part of a security operation called free jungle (Jungle Liberation). Under international pressure, the Brazilian president at the time, Fernando Collor de Mello, created a reserve of 9.6 million hectares. “We have to guarantee the Yanomami a space so that they don’t lose their cultural identity or their habitat,” Mello said. said.
These efforts were initially successful, but over the next decade, prospectors were back due to soaring gold prices, lax enforcement and crushing poverty that ensured mining bosses a steady supply of exploitable workers.
The onslaught intensified after Jair Bolsonaro – a far-right populist who wants indigenous lands opened up to commercial development – was elected president in 2018, with the number of savage miners on Yanomami lands reaching around 25,000. .
“It was a government of blood”, said Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, a Yanomami leader who blamed Bolsonaro for emboldening the invaders with his anti-indigenous rhetoric and crippling Brazilian environmental and indigenous protection agencies.
When Guardian journalist Dom Phillips, murdered in the Amazon last June, visited a mine in Yanomami territory in late 2019, he found “a manual industrial hell amid wild tropical beauty”: muddy miners using wooden scaffolding and high-pressure hoses to push their way through the dirt.
” It’s amazing. You’re in the lap of this big forest and it’s almost like you’re in one of those old movies about ancient Egypt… All those monstrous machines destroying the earth to make money,” said photographer João Laet who went there with the British. journalist.
Three years later, the situation has deteriorated further with the arrival of the hydraulic excavators and the illegal road.
Alisson Marugal, a federal prosecutor responsible for protecting Yanomami lands, said the introduction of such machines was a troubling development for communities already facing an acute “humanitarian tragedy”.
The miners, some suspected of having links to drug factions, had sparked sexual violence, outbreaks of malaria and forced health posts to close, exposing children to ‘scandalous’ levels of disease and illness. malnutrition. The rivers were poisoned with mercury by an illegal fleet of around 150 mining vessels.
Marugal said Brazil’s underfunded environmental agency Ibama has launched sporadic crackdowns, blowing up and torching illegal airstrips, helicopters and planes used to reach the territory. But the intermittency of such missions – and the enormous economic benefits they entailed – meant that they were only a temporary inconvenience.
Bush pilots could receive up to 1,000,000 reais (£160,000) for a few perilous months to ferry prospectors, supplies and sex workers to remote camps in the jungle. For their bosses, the benefits were even greater.
“Brazil and the planet need the Amazon alive,” Lula said in his first speech after narrowly beating his rival in October’s election.
Marugal believed that stopping illegal mining on Yanomami lands was perfectly possible if there was political will, which was totally lacking under Bolsonaro. In fact, Ibama already had a plan involving a relentless six-month offensive that would have cut the miners’ supply lines and forced them to flee the forest depriving them of fuel and food.
Aguiar argued that militarized repression would not succeed in the long run unless accompanied by policies addressing the difficulties on which environmental crime was built.
“This is not going to be settled with guns alone,” the activist said. “Overcoming poverty is an essential part of overcoming this destructive economy.”
Iron Man The Yanomami also hope for large-scale federal intervention when the new government takes power in January, but warn that defeating the prospectors won’t be easy.
“These miners are not just carrying spades and axes… They have rifles and machine guns… They are armed and all [their] bases have heavily armed security guards with the same type of weapons that the army, federal police and military police use,” he said.
The price of inaction would be erasure for a people who have inhabited the rainforest for thousands of years.
“If nothing is done, we will lose this indigenous land,” Marugal said. “For the Yanomami, the outlook is bleak.