By: Don Phillips
13 January 2020
Deep in the Yanomami indigenous reserve on the northern reaches of the Brazilian Amazon, the ruins of an illegal goldminers’ camp emerge after an hour in a small plane and two in a boat. No roads reach here.
Wooden frames alongside the Uraricoera River that once supported shops, bars, restaurants, a pharmacy, an evangelical church and even brothels are all that is left of the small town. The army burned and trashed it as part of an operation aimed at stamping out wildcat mining on the reserve.
The army may have taken away the town, but they left the garimpeiros, as the miners are called, who this morning are hunched around a freezer, waiting for the soldiers camped downriver to leave so they can get back to work. Up to 20,000 garimpeiros are estimated by Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental to have invaded this reserve, where mining and unauthorised outsiders are currently prohibited. But the garimpeiros may not remain unauthorised for long: the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to legalise their work with a bill in Congress.
“I know it is illegal,” says Bernardo Gomes, 59, sitting by the frame of a bar. Formerly a worker at mining giant Vale, Gomes says his time at the company taught him how to protect the environment. “Today, unfortunately, I am helping to destroy it,” he says, explaining that a nearby patch of dead trees was suffocated by mud sucked out of the nearby mining pit.