Illegal gold miners from Brazil may have killed dozens of Yanomami people in a remote area of the Venezuelan Amazon, according to reports from an indigenous organization there.
In a letter directed to government officials, the Horonami Yanomami Organization called for an investigation of reports that miners invaded the community of Irotatheri, in the district of Alto Orinoco, “killing most of the members of the community, consisting of approximately 80 people, using firearms and possibly explosives.”
The Venezuelan government formed a task force to investigate, according to a statement issued by the Public Ministry.
The Yanomami live on both sides of the Venezuelan-Brazilian border.
Three survivors, who were in the forest at the time of the attack, reported hearing the sound of gunshots, explosions and a helicopter, which may have transported the miners, according to the letter from the Horonami Yanomami Organization. It said that members of another community, who went to visit Irotatheri, found the three survivors and saw charred bodies and the remains of a communal house, which had been burned.
The Horonami Yanomami Organization called on the Venezuelan government to send investigators to Irotatheri and to work with Brazilian authorities to evict illegal miners and monitor the area.
The organization’s letter is dated August 27, but the attack apparently occurred in early July. Puerto Ayacucho, the largest town in the area, is more than two weeks on foot from the Yanomami reserve, according to the Public Ministry statement.
In the letter, the organization said it informed the Army post in Puerto Ayacucho of the attack in late July, and a commission of representatives from the organization, the Army and the Amazonian Center for Research and Control of Tropical Diseases (Centro Amazónico de Investigación y Control de Enfermedades Tropicales, CAICET) traveled to the community of Momoi in mid-August to interview witnesses.
The Horonami Yanomami Organization said there have been reports of illegal gold mining in the area for the past four years, including reports of Indigenous Peoples being recruited to work in mining. Abuse of women has also been reported.
If confirmed, the attack would be the latest in a series of confrontations between Yanomami communities and illegal gold miners along the Venezuelan-Brazilian border. The Horonami Yanomami Organization 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. One such operation reportedly occurred in early July.
“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. “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. The Venezuelan authorities must now bring the killers to swift justice, and send a signal throughout the region that Indians can no longer be killed with impunity. The mining and logging must be stopped.”