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Illegal gold mining in indigenous Yanomami territory, Brazil


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

Name of conflict:Illegal gold mining in indigenous Yanomami territory, Brazil
State or province:Roraima
Location of conflict:Yanomami 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 commodities:Gold

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The area was initally invaded by 500 illegal miners. Their number keeps on increasing but no official data can enlighten the situation.

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:14.000
Start of the conflict:07/2002
Relevant government actors:Government 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 Finance InstitutionsInter-American Comission on Human Rights
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Amnesty International, CIMI - Brazil, Comision Nacional de Politica Indigenista (CNPI), National Commission for Indigenous Policy (CNPI), Survival International

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Forms of mobilization:Involvement 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-economical 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
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Land demarcation
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Application of existing regulations
Development of alternatives:they 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 an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain: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 & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Decree 1775 recognzing indigenous territories

Draft Law 1610 allowing mining camps

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

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

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

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

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

Matanza de unos 40 indigenas yanomami. Amnistia Internacional, 20/08/1993

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Comissao Pro-Yanomami

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

Yanomami People, Wikipedia

Yanomami People, Encyclopedia Britannica

The Good Project

Yanomami protest mining bill, Cultural Survival

Yanomami oppose mining on their land, J. A. Schertow, 10/09/2007

O indígena no Brasil: Uma luta histórica para existir, C. Cunha, 20/11/2015

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

Operation targets illegal gold-miners in Yanomami’s rainforest, Cultural Survival, 14/02/2014

The Yanomami, Cultural Survival

Other documents

Illegal mining in Yanomami territory Survival / Colin Jones

Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader Survival / Fiona Watson

Meta information

Contributor:Lucie Greyl & Camila Rolando Mazzuca
Last update08/02/2016



Illegal mining in Yanomami territory

Survival / Colin Jones

Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader

Survival / Fiona Watson