In Brazil, illegal gold miners, also known as garimperios, are seeking help from the government to leave occupied areas of Yanomami territory, Brazil’s largest Indigenous reservation, one of their leaders and a Brazilian senator said on Monday.

Jailson Mesquita, head of the Garimpo e Legal movement (Wildcat Mining is Legal), has asked the government to airlift miners out of the Yanomami reservation, or aid them in getting to no-fly zones where they can fly out on smaller planes.

Reuters also pointed to a video on social media in which he asks for the government to unblock rivers for 10-15 days to allow miners to make their own way out of the territory.

Mining is banned in reservations under Brazil’s constitution, but the Yanomami reservation’s mineral-rich land has attracted illegal miners for decades.

Reuters reports that more than 20,000 miners have occupied the reservation that is home to just 28,000 Indigenous Yanomami people.

A medical emergency

The miners have been blamed for a humanitarian crisis in the protected territory after instances of disease and malnutrition have begun to climb. An increase in cases of malaria and malnutrition among Yanomami children and the elderly, and reported excess deaths in the hundreds over the last four years, has led Brazil’s new government to declare a state of medical emergency in the region.

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Indigenous people in the Yanomami reservation have only recently been contacted and still live in relative isolation. This means that their immune systems are not equipped to deal with diseases brought in from outside that might be otherwise common to non-indigenous people, the Instituto Socioambiental explains. Poor health services and lack of available medicines compound this problem.

On top of this, illegal mining leads to high levels of mercury being discarded in rivers and lakes, contaminating local water supplies and poisoning native communities. It also severely depletes natural resources.

In response to the crisis, on 18 January, President Lula set up a task force that will include the military, police forces, and Indigenous protection agencies. According to Sumaúma, government officials have been visiting the worst-affected regions of Yanomami territory to assess the situation and set up a plan for aid.

Indigenous Affairs minister Sonia Guajajara said in an interview with Mongabay that tackling the health emergency was at the top of her ministry’s priorities. She also said that the budget for 2023 would be recomposed to increase funding for Indigenous health programmes.

“Victims of this whole process”

However, there have been calls for leniency against the miners, many of whom are themselves trying to make a living in difficult circumstances. Roraima Senator Chico Rodrigues said via Reuters that “It is important to protect Indigenous people, but we cannot criminalise the miners who are looking for a living to survive. What matters is that the miners leave peacefully and protected.”

Guajajara also said that, along with the Yanomami people, the miners too are “victims of this whole process,” emphasising that blame and punishment should instead be aimed at the politicians and business people who own and run the mines.

She also recognised that removing miners from the reservation would create a separate problem beyond its borders as the garimperios would be left without work and income.

The Yanomami reservation was marked out and recognised by the Brazilian Government in 1992. At the same time, authorities evicted thousands of gold miners from the area to protect the environment and its Indigenous peoples.

However, under former President Jair Bolsonaro illegal miners returned to the area in large numbers. A report published in August last year shows that under Bolsonaro’s regime there was a 180% increase in illegal invasions of indigenous lands by goldminers and loggers.

Brazil’s new government is looking to approve plans to move illegal miners out of the territory in less than three months, according to the Guardian.