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SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: May 27, 2021
SNIP: Rare and disturbing aerial photographs have laid bare the devastation being inflicted on Brazil’s largest reserve for indigenous people by thousands of wildcat goldminers whose illegal activities have accelerated under the country’s far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro.

Activists believe as many as 20,000 garimpeiro prospectors are operating within the Yanomami reserve in northern Brazil using speedboats and light aircraft to penetrate the vast expanse of jungle near the border with Venezuela.

Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly bemoaned the size of the Yanomami territory and been accused of emboldening environmental criminals with his pro-development rhetoric, was due to make a provocative trip to ​a village in the reserve’s south-western tip​ on Thursday – his first to an indigenous community since becoming president in January 2019. Yanomami leaders denounced the visit as an unwanted attempt to promote illegal mining in their ancestral land.

The images, captured during flyovers early last month, leave no doubt about the intruders’ impact on the 9.6m-hectare (24m-acre) Amazon enclave – nor the impunity with which they are allowed to act in a supposedly protected reserve.

Several photographs show areas where the miners, whose trade Bolsonaro has vowed to legalise, have obliterated the dense, pine-green forest and replaced it with immense bronze-coloured gashes littered with felled trees and pools of stagnant water. Others depict bustling riverside encampments where the garimpeiros live and work, featuring bars, restaurants, shops, houses and even a snooker table. In some pictures it is possible to make out single-engine planes and helicopters – used to smuggle workers, supplies and equipment into the reserve – positioned beside clandestine airstrips near the Venezuelan border.

Along the Uraricoera river, a region the Guardian visited last year, the monitoring team spotted enormous manmade craters reminiscent of the Serra Pelada goldmine made notorious in the 1980s by the images of Brazil’s most celebrated photographer, Sebastião Salgado.

“What shocked me was the enormity of it,” said Christian Braga, the Amazon-based photographer who took the recent images from a Greenpeace turboprop plane.

“We knew these mines existed. The whole of Brazil knows there are goldmines on Yanomami land. But we didn’t understand the true scale of it and how economically valuable these mines are. These mines are prosperous. These mines are worth millions … It is truly frightening. They are just huge.”

Braga said the miners he saw at work in the Yanomami reserve, which is the same size as Portugal, bore no relation to those who once used steel pans to hunt for gold in remote Amazon rivers.

“That’s history; nowadays the mines are insane. These guys are organised. They’ve got planes. They got antennas. They’ve got satellite TV, motorbikes, quad bikes, planes, helicopters, air conditioning, generators. These guys have built a town,” the photographer said.

“When I looked down [at their camps] I just thought: we’ve lost control of goldmining … just look at the point this has reached. More than 20,000 garimpeiros. What are we going to do now?”

In a recent interview the anthropologist Ana Maria Machado, who works with the Yanomami, called the region “a pressure cooker about to explode”.