RIO DE JANEIRO – Hundreds of wildcat miners attacked police who were trying to halt illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon region and then raided an Indigenous village, setting houses on fire, federal prosecutors in the northern state of Para reported.
The clashes came days after a Supreme Court justice ordered the government to protect Indigenous populations threatened in recent weeks by illegal miners who appear to have been emboldened by support for their industry from President Jair Bolsonaro.
The state prosecutor's office said miners tried to block a federal police operation by closing off entries to the municipality of Jacareacanga on Wednesday and trying to raid a police base where heavy equipment for the operation was kept.
Hours later, miners raided a village of the Munduruku people and set several houses on fire, including one that belonged to a prominent mining critic and indigenous activist, Maria Leusa Munduruku.
The attack followed clashes farther north in Roraima state, where miners in motorboats have repeatedly attacked and threatened a riverside Yanomami settlement known as Palimiu. There, miners also clashed with federal officials investigating the incidents.
Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, president of a Yanomami association, told The Associated Press that two of the group's children drowned while fleeing during a particularly violent confrontation May 10 that also resulted in three miners being killed.
Federal prosecutors in Roraima have not been able to confirm any of the deaths, but said a police investigation was underway.
Clashes around the Palimiu community have intensified since April 24, when Yanomami men took fuel and some equipment from wildcat miners they accused of encroaching on their land, Hekurari and state prosecutors said.
Hekurari said miners have been driving their motorboats past the village almost daily, shouting threats and sometimes firing their guns.
“People aren’t sleeping properly. They are very tired,” Hekurari said in a Zoom call from Palimiu. He said Yanomami men keep watch each night.
He alleged that miners have killed several people and raped women and girls — allegations not confirmed by federal prosecutors in the state, who said they were investigating.
Bolsonaro on Thursday was less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the vast Yanomami reserve to inaugurate a small wooden bridge along a federal highway that runs near a rich deposit of the mineral niobium that he has often touted as a potential economic boon for Brazil.
The conservative president has been outspoken about his desire to legalize mining in Indigenous territories — something not allowed under Brazil's constitution — and to promote development in the Amazon.
“It isn't fair to want to criminalize the prospector in Brazil," Bolsonaro told supporters outside the presidential palace May 14, according to the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo. "People wearing suits and ties give their guesses about everything that's happening in rural areas.″
Such comments have encouraged miners, say federal prosecutors, environmental and Indigenous rights activists.
“There is a feeling of impunity in the country, that those who invade won’t be penalized," said Juliana Batista, a lawyer who works at the Socio-Environmental Institute, an advocacy group.
The institute says some 20,000 illegal miners are suspected of working within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which is Brazil’s largest Indigenous reserve and roughly the size of Portugal. Some 27,000 Indigenous people live on that land.
Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso this week ordered the federal government to “immediately adopt all necessary measures to protect the life, health and safety of indigenous populations” in Yanomami and Munduruku territory. He also accused the government for “recalcitrance and lack of transparency” in ensuring the health and safety of Indigenous groups.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly argued that Indigenous groups control too much territory, given their sparse population. He also says they should be integrated into broader society — a stance with which many communities disagree.
A March report published by two Indigenous associations, which used satellite imagery and flyovers, complained that the “unusual proximity” of some mining sites to Yanomami communities tends to fuel conflict.
Alisson Marugal, a prosecutor in Roraima state who has investigated clashes on Yanomami land, said from his office in the state capital of Boa Vista that illegal mining has brought prostitution, disease, drug and alcohol abuse and the loss of traditional ways of life.
"If nothing is done, conflicts with miners could lead to massacres,” he said.