Social Issues

Heavy metals turn river in Brazil indigenous reserve intense yellow

Boa Vista, Brazil, Feb 2 (EFE).- A river that flows through the Yanomami indigenous reserve in northern Brazil has turned an intense yellow color, presumably due to heavy metal dumping by wildcat gold miners, Efe confirmed Thursday during a flyover of the region.

The Mucajai River’s mustard shade is striking to anyone familiar with the characteristic muddy-brown color of Amazonian rivers and a clear sign of the severe contamination of that waterway, which the Yanomami people rely on for drinking water and fishing.

An artificial lake deep in the jungle lies adjacent to the river and very likely was created by small-scale miners, who Brazilian authorities say are responsible for a humanitarian crisis affecting the population of that reserve located in the Amazonian state of Roraima and covering an expanse of nearly 10 million hectares (22 million acres).

An Efe photographer captured those images as a guest on a Brazilian air force flight delivering food and medical supplies to Yanomami villages, whose population is suffering from acute malnutrition and illnesses caused by the toxic substances used in wildcat mining.

After a brief flight on board the Embraer KC-390 military transport aircraft, soldiers delivered the essential items via parachute drop to one of the Yanomami villages.

Two huts – one about four times bigger than the other – were visible inside the hamlet in a jungle clearing. But other nearby clearings, the result of illegal logging or fires, were clearly created by intruders.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s new, center-left government declared a health emergency on the reserve on Jan. 20, a day before the head of state visited Roraima – which borders Venezuela to the north – to get a first-hand look at the situation.

A large majority of the 27,000 Yanomamis living on the reserve suffer from malnutrition, malaria and other diseases related to the toxic substances used by illegal wildcat miners, who have poisoned the rivers and decimated fishing activity.

At least 570 Yanomami children have died in recent years “from mercury poisoning, malnutrition and hunger,” according to the newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.

Last year, the ministry said, 99 Yanomamis between the ages of 1 and 4 perished from malaria, malnutrition, pneumonia or diarrhea.

Brazilian authorities seized dozens of aircraft Tuesday as part of a crackdown on wildcat gold miners accused of contributing to a health emergency among Yanomami indigenous people on that reserve.

At least 24 impounded planes were being kept on the grounds of the Federal Police in Boa Vista, the state capital, while police sources said that other aircraft used in illegal mining were destroyed.

The operation began after Lula signed an executive order authorizing the security forces to intercept any plane or boat suspected of involvement in the transport of contraband on the indigenous reserve.

An estimated 20,000 wildcat miners invaded the Yanomami territory during the 2019-2023 administration of Lula’s right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, who often complained that too much of the country’s land had been set aside for the indigenous peoples.

The miners spread disease, drove off the wildlife that supported hunting and polluted the rivers with mercury.

Bolsonaro, an admirer of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime, chafed at the constitutional prohibition against extractive industry on indigenous land and effectively suspended enforcement of environmental regulations in Amazonia, resulting in a dramatic increase in deforestation.

Since the health emergency began, dozens of people have been airlifted by helicopter and taken to a recently opened field hospital in Boa Vista staffed by 30 air force physicians, nurses and pharmacists.

Brazil’s air force, meanwhile, has distributed nearly 40 tons of food and supplies to Yanomami villages.

Lula, a former two-term president who defeated Bolsonaro in the Oct. 30 election, has called his predecessor’s policy toward the Yanomamis “premeditated murder.”

He said that Bolsonaro “abandoned” Brazil’s indigenous peoples and encouraged illegal miners and loggers to invade their reserves.

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