Authorities estimate that more than 15,000 gold miners have invaded what are supposed to be inviolable lands, and the natives accuse them of raping and killing members of their community, while depriving them of one of their main means of subsistence, fishing, by polluting mercury rivers.

In this vast territory like Portugal, where some 30,000 indigenous people live in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, illegal gold mines are synonymous with violence, pollution and disease.

Federal authorities declared a state of health emergency in the region in January in response to an explosion of severe cases of malaria, pneumonia, gastrointestinal infections and malnutrition.

In view of an operation to dislodge the miners which should begin this week, more than 500 police and soldiers have been sent to the state of Roraima (north), where the Yanomami reserve, the largest in Brazil, is located, according to the Minister of Justice Flavio Dino.

Authorities hope that by the time police start carrying out forced evictions, "at least 80 percent of those 15,000 (miners) will have left" Yanomami lands, Dino said.

Exodus of gold miners

The Minister of Justice assured that several thousand of these invaders had started to flee in recent days, after the start of operations of the Air Force in the reserve last week.

The airspace has been completely closed in certain areas, depriving the artisanal miners of one of their only sources of supply.

Dozens of gold miners arrived Monday in a makeshift port of Alto Alegre, some 80 km west of Boa Vista, capital of the state of Roraima, according to an AFP journalist.

On condition of anonymity, some said they had spent the last three days navigating through the jungle to leave Yanomami lands.

The local police have tightened controls and supervised the route of the miners, checking that they were not transporting illegal weapons or drugs.

Law enforcement did not make widespread arrests, AFP found.

Brazilian media have shown images of miners in large numbers leaving the reserve in recent days, some ready to walk 30 days in the jungle.

Others try to flee by river, in overloaded boats.

Mr. Dino welcomed this exodus, saying that the government prefers to see the miners leave peacefully, "without conflict".

“We expect these departures to increase in the coming days,” added the minister.

However, he warned that gold miners will not go "unpunished": "all those who have committed crimes of genocide, environmental crimes, those who have financed illegal gold panning or laundered money" with this activity, will be prosecuted. , he insisted.

"Permanent emergency"

The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples said on Monday it had received preliminary information that three indigenous people who only recently had their first contact with the outside world had been killed by gold diggers.

"It is very sad to see the strong presence of (gold miners) and (these) great destructions", declared the Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara during a press conference, adding that "this is a permanent emergency".

Many serious cases of undernutrition have been recorded and several hundred children have been treated in an air force field hospital in Boa Vista.

According to the authorities, health teams continue to rescue "between 30 and 35" patients every day who are in serious condition and come from Yanomami communities.

Brazilian police opened an investigation for "genocide" last month after the publication of official data reporting the deaths in 2022 of a hundred children under the age of five in Yanomami territory.

Illegal gold panning has increased sharply under the mandate of the far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022), favorable to the authorization of mining activities in indigenous reserves.

© 2023 AFP