Venezuelan officials have denied initial reports of a massacre of Yanomami people by illegal gold miners that allegedly occurred in early July and which, because of the remoteness of the area along the Venezuela-Brazil border, ostensibly remained unknown to officials in the nearest large town for nearly a month.
In a letter to top government officials dated August 27, the Horonami Yanomami Organization (HYO) called for a full investigation of reports that miners invaded Irotatheri, “killing most of the members of the community, consisting of approximately 80 people, using firearms and possibly explosives.”
Three surviving community members, who were in the forest at the time of the alleged attack, reported hearing gunshots, explosions and a helicopter, according to the letter from the HYO. The group said that members of another community, who had gone to visit Irotatheri, found the three survivors and saw charred bodies and the remains of a communal house that had been burned.
Because there are no roads or phone lines in the area, the HYO said, the army post in Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela, was not informed of the attack until late July. A commission of representatives from the HYO, the army and the Amazonian Center for Research and Control of Tropical Diseases traveled to another Yanomami community, called Momoi, in mid-August to interview witnesses.
After the HYO’s letter was made public, the government said it would investigate. But on September 6, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said a team of fact-finders sent to the area on August 31 found nothing.
Indigenous rights advocates countered that the investigators never reached the community of Irotatheri, in the district of Alto Orinoco, where the killings allegedly occurred.
On September 9, the Associated Press reported that government officials and journalists had traveled to Irotatheri and found nothing wrong. The story said the journalists had spoken with community members through an interpreter.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called the reports an effort to undermine his bid for re-election in October.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested reports from the governments of both Venezuela and Brazil. In a statement issued September 5, the commission noted that the Venezuelan government had agreed to take steps to “monitor and control the entry of wildcat gold miners and illegal mining in the Yanomami area” as part of a settlement of a case in March.
The Yanomami live on both sides of the Venezuelan-Brazilian border. It was reported that Brazilian officials had raided illegal mining camps on Brazil’s side of the border on July 5, possibly pushing miners into Venezuela.
Arguing that there has been evidence of illegal gold mining in the area for the past four years, including reports of indigenous people being recruited to work in mining, the HYO has called on Caracas to work with Brazilian authorities to evict the miners and monitor the area. Abuse of women has also been reported.
There is a history of confrontations between Yanomami communities and illegal gold miners along the Venezuelan-Brazilian border. The HYO reported that several members of the community of Momoi died in 2009, allegedly of mercury poisoning from drinking water polluted by gold miners. Members of the community of Hokomawe also reported hostility from gold miners in 2010.
In 1993, gold miners killed 16 Yanomami, mainly women, children and elderly people, in the community of Haximú, in Brazil.
As the price of gold has soared on international markets in recent years, illegal mining has spread throughout the Amazon basin. Government control of the remote mining sites is lax, but Brazil has carried out some military operations against miners along its borders, the most recent being the July 5 operation.
“This is another appalling tragedy for the Yanomami—heaping crime upon crime,” Stephen Corry, director of the indigenous rights group Survival International, said in a statement following the September 9 AP story. “All Amazonian governments must stop the rampant illegal mining, logging and settlement in indigenous territories. It inevitably leads to massacres of Indian men, women and children.”