By Charles Lyons
In early October, concerned for the indigenous across Brazil, particularly during the pandemic, I decided to visit the State of Roraima––the most isolated of Brazil’s twenty-six States –– located in the extreme northeast of the country.
I wanted to learn more about the attacks against the Yanomami indigenous, and other tribes in the region, where illegal gold mining has been allowed to flourish under current president, Jair Bolsonaro.
To back-pedal a beat: Besides working as a consultant for Amazon Aid Foundation, I’m also a freelance journalist. I’ve written articles in The New York Times and The Brazilian Post covering such topics as Covid-19’s impact on indigenous peoples, suicides within an indigenous tribe, and large dams in the Amazon.
Most recently, I produced two long-form news reports, for PBS NewsHour, on the pandemic in Brazil. One covered inequities in healthcare for poor and indigenous Brazilians; the other, Bolsonaro’s inadequate public health response.
As luck would have it, I arrived in Boa Vista, the capital city of Roraima, on a holiday. Some of the people I’d hoped to interview were out of town. The city, on the bank of the Branco River, was calm and yet I had that disturbing sense of trouble lurking beneath the surface.
Despite this beautiful setting, which I captured one morning on a run, I soon learned that the area near the river had for years been overrun with bordellos and drugs; only recently had it been remade for tourists, well-to-do businessmen, and politicians who rolled through town.
The city, though, like much of Brazil, was still a zone of extremes. The poor were waiting in long lines at the central bus station; the wealthy lounged around a pool drinking beer.
The hotel where I stayed, one of the better in town, provided an up-close look at groups of businessmen, many wearing dark glasses indoors, gorging themselves on lavish meals of chicken and beef. I have no certain idea which businesses these folks were in, but during my trip I heard of a new soybean rush in the region, and have been reading, increasingly, about illegal gold mining on indigenous territories across the entire Amazon, where conditions are as wretched as those depicted in Sebastião Salgado’s haunting photographs.
The violent crimes against the region’s indigenous, especially the Yanomami, are well-documented in the Brazilian press, even before the pandemic. See, for example, this article in Portuguese on gold prospectors illegally operating in Yanomami territory.
Indigenous communities have been shot at, and, in some instances, killed. The goal is intimidation, to make indigenous want and need to leave their ancestral lands, for their own safety, as miners and loggers attempt to seize more territory and increase profits from the land.
The indigenous live across thousands of acres in Roraima, as explained to me by Luiz Henrique Reggi Pecora, a lawyer with Instituto Socioambiental. For the most part, the tribes are isolated and unprotected from invasion.
And, increasingly, organized crime is involved, as reported on November 2, 2021, by O Globo, in an article with this headline: “We are the War: Organized crime advances on illegal mining in the Amazon.”
The full article, in Portuguese, is here.
The article details two “action points” in the Amazon–– in Roraima, in the Yanomami territory; and in the State of Para, on Munduruku land.
O Globo reports that in both regions, criminals linked to Sao Paulo-based crime organizations, once solely focused on drugs, have expanded their businesses, infiltrating the illegal gold mining sector. By turning to gold, they launder their cocaine money. With plenty of cash, they send freelance criminals to the Amazon carrying pistols, guns and rifles. Their mission: to arm miners to threaten indigenous people.
One of the architects of such criminal infiltration into mining in Roraima was recently arrested and imprisoned in Boa Vista. This man has escaped from prison five times. Will he finally be brought to justice?
On my last day in the region, I engaged the father of a young man working at the hotel to drive me to the Venezuelan border town of Pacaraima, where I’ve heard of rough conditions for refugees escaping President Nicholas Maduro’s Venezuela.
My driver, Terry, hails from British Guiana (just a two-hour drive from Boa Vista) and speaks excellent English. Terry used to work with Doctors Without Borders, helping them in local indigenous communities. The pandemic cut into his opportunities. He’s happy to drive me some three hours over rugged terrain.
As we prepare to enter the more mountainous region near the border, my mind wanders into the vast fields and dirt side-roads stretching as far as the eye can see. The landscape feels like the old American West. It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to conclude that anything can happen out here –– and everything does.
The recent O Globo article, for example, references small planes landing on remote airstrips in the Amazon, carrying hundreds of pounds of cocaine. It also notes: Bolsonaro got elected in part because of his “tough on crime” rhetoric. According to researchers sighted in O Globo, organized crime has in fact flourished under the current president.
As we draw closer to Venezuela, I ask Terry to slow down. There, painted on a small bus stop, are the words: Fora Indigena – Out, Indigenous. I will see the same sign several times –– in each case, near the site of roadside indigenous communities.
Closer still to the border, we see lone figures and entire families, all their belongings on their backs, walking, endlessly walking.
Can their new country offer a better future?
Once in Pacaraima, we encounter an overwhelming scene. Hundreds of families just arrived from across the border.
Some are waiting to be processed and given shelter. Some hope to scrape together enough money for a bus ride to Boa Vista or beyond. Refugees in the streets, refugees everywhere.
Millions have fled Venezuela over the last several years, to Peru, Colombia, and elsewhere ––but these desperate hundreds, in a small, messy border town, bring home the enormity of the humanitarian crisis.
We don’t stay long in Pacaraima. On the road back to Boa Vista, we stop at a village of no more than twenty homes and food stalls. There, the man selling fruit regales us about how the Venezuelan refugees coming into Brazil are criminals who should never be allowed to enter.
As we complete the journey back to Boa Vista, I reflect on the man’s words. The families I saw at the border certainly didn’t look like criminals; they just looked like people trying to find a better life.
But, in Roraima, nothing is as it seems.