Illegal gold mining in indigenous Yanomami territory, Brazil

Illegal gold miners threat Yanomami peoples' livelihood. The Federal State appetite for the Amazon resources also places a constant burden on them.


The Yanomami people live deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Since the Amazon has been first explored and colonized through its rivers, the Yanomami enjoyed partial isolation for a very long time which allowed them preserving their traditional way of living, in equilibrium with their surroundings. Their territory extends from the Orinoco River basin in southern Venezuela to the Amazon River basin in northern Brazil. In the early 21st century their number reaches approximatively 32.000 souls, from which at least 14.000 live in Brazil. Their territory is rich in mineral resources, which provoked since the mod-1970s the continuous illegal invasion of their land by garimperios gold–diggers. The violence and illnesses brought by the intruders led to the deaths of around 1,500 Yanomami people.  

In 1991, an area of some 93,240 square km is established as a Yanomami people’s reserve by the Federal government of Brazil. However it barely represents 30% of their ancestral territory.  In spite of the legal demarcation there is no adequate protection program for the reserve borders so the presence of illegal miners even increased over the 90s decade.

If adopted, the draft Mining Law on Indigenous Lands No.1610 would allow the legal entry of mining companies into indigenous territory. The application of that law would put the Yanomami peoples at further risk of land contamination and displacement since by 2013 their territory alone was subject to 654 mining requests. The Yanomami people kept mobilizing making their voice heard at national and international levels, notably through the Cultural Survival network. The National Committee to Defend Territories opposed the law but it was still debated by the Brazilian Federal legislators by 2014.  The draft law No. 1610 is part of a larger proposal for several Constitutional Amendments and bills contributing to weakening indigenous’ defense of their lands’ rights. 

Basic Data
NameIllegal gold mining in indigenous Yanomami territory, Brazil
SiteYanomami Territory
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Mineral ore exploration
Military installations
Specific CommoditiesDiamonds
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe area was initally invaded by 500 illegal miners. Their number keeps on increasing but no official data can enlighten the situation.
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population14.000
Start Date07/2002
Relevant government actorsGovernment of Brazil, CIDH - USA, FUNAI - Brazil, Ministry of Mines and Energy - Brazil, Commission for the Defence of the Consumer, Environment and Minorities - Brazil, Federal Police - Brazil, Supreme Federal Tribunal - Brazil, State Governor of Roraima - Brazil
International and Financial InstitutionsInter-American Comission on Human Rights
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersAmnesty International, CIMI - Brazil, Comision Nacional de Politica Indigenista (CNPI), National Commission for Indigenous Policy (CNPI), Survival International
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingArtisanal miners
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Forms of MobilizationInvolvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Potential: Waste overflow, Oil spills, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..) , Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseDeaths
Land demarcation
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Application of existing regulations
Development of Alternativesthey want their land to be respected, having all of the miners away from it, in order to have it less polluted and their population to be less infected and more protected.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.The territory of the indigenous people is not being respected in spite of the demand of the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights and the pledges of the community. Due to this, many are being killed or are dying in consequence of the destruction of their habitat.
Sources and Materials

Decree 1775 recognzing indigenous territories

Draft Law 1610 allowing mining camps


Derechos indigenas y grandes proyectos de desarrollo: guri, la linea de transmision electrica Venezuela-Brasil, Maxim Repetto, 1999
[click to view]

Mineracao em Unidades de conservaao. Ricardo Fanny, Rolla Alicia, 2006

Mineração em Terras Indgenas na Amaznia brasileira. Ricardo Fany, Rolla Alicia, Instituto socioambiental, Sao Paulo, 2005

Matanza de unos 40 indigenas yanomami. Amnistia Internacional, 20/08/1993
[click to view]

Country Report: Brazil - The Current State of Socioenvironmental Law in Brazil: The New Forest Code, Megaprojects and Threats to Traditional Lands, IUCNAEL EJournal
[click to view]

The indigenous issue in Brazil, From the colonial period to the recent battles in Congress, indigenous rights are under constant threat, A. Bastos, 18/04/2015
[click to view]


Comissao Pro-Yanomami
[click to view]

Demarcation - And Then What? Brazil takes a step, but its commitment to protecting indigenous lands is not proven, Cultural Survival
[click to view]

Yanomami People, Wikipedia
[click to view]

Yanomami People, Encyclopedia Britannica
[click to view]

The Good Project
[click to view]

Yanomami protest mining bill, Cultural Survival
[click to view]

Yanomami oppose mining on their land, J. A. Schertow, 10/09/2007
[click to view]

O indígena no Brasil: Uma luta histórica para existir, C. Cunha, 20/11/2015
[click to view]

Brazil's Treatment of Its Indigenous People Violates Their Rights, Amazon Watch, F. Watson, 29/05/2013
[click to view]

Operation targets illegal gold-miners in Yanomami’s rainforest, Cultural Survival, 14/02/2014
[click to view]

The Yanomami, Cultural Survival
[click to view]

Other Documents

Illegal mining in Yanomami territory Survival / Colin Jones
[click to view]

Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader Survival / Fiona Watson
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorLucie Greyl & Camila Rolando Mazzuca
Last update08/02/2016