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By Anthony Boadle

Brazil readies task force to expel miners from Yanomami lands, officials say

FILE PHOTO: A village of indigenous Yanomami is seen during Brazil's environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly/File Photo

Brazil is preparing a task force of armed forces, police and government agencies to soon launch an operation to expel illegal gold miners who invaded the Yanomami indigenous reservation, officials said on Tuesday.

More than 20,000 wildcat miners are blamed for bringing disease, violence and hunger that have caused a humanitarian crisis for isolated Yanomami villages on Brazil's largest indigenous reservation, on the border with Venezuela.

FILE PHOTO: Indigenous leader Joenia Wapichana speaks with journalists after a meeting with the parliamentary front in defense of the rights of indigenous people at the chamber of deputies in Brasilia, Brazil February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Defense Minister Jose Mucio said the military is needed to drive out the miners, who are well armed and have helicopters.

"We will soon confront them. We need to root out this evil," Mucio said in an interview with Band TV about the operation that the government has called "Yanomami Shield."

With army troops on the ground, the navy will patrol rivers and confiscate miners' boats and dredges while the air force will control the airspace, intercept suspicious planes and force them to land, he said.

Joenia Wapichana, who in a few days will become the first indigenous person to head the government's indigenous affairs agency, Funai, said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has pledged to end illegal mining on protected reservation lands.

Wapichana said she could not give details of the imminent operation in order to not alert the miners who have invaded the Yanomami territory.

"The message from President Lula is that it will happen soon and cannot delay long," she told journalists on the Amazon-based journalism platform Sumaúma in a webinar co-hosted by environmental NGO Mighty Earth.

Wapichana said the task force, as in past offensives against illegal miners on indigenous lands, will involve the Federal Police, environmental protection agency Ibama, Funai and several ministries, as well as the military.

Half of the 100 tonnes of gold produced each year by Brazil, or about 52 tonnes, is illegally mined, and much of that is exported to Switzerland after it is laundered through Brazilian financial brokers, the mining industry lobby Ibram said.

The miners have polluted waters with mercury used to separate metal from ore and earth. They fly supply planes to clandestine airstrips in the jungle and use the rivers to take heavier machinery and fuel to their prospects, which are muddy ponds where they dredge for gold in forest clearings.

Medical studies show that the mercury used by the miners has killed the fish and contaminated the water that the Yanomami rely on.

The miners are increasingly associated with well-armed gangs that have terrorized indigenous communities that for the first time cannot feed themselves, resulting in widespread malnutrition and deaths among the 28,000 Yanomami.

Lula last week declared a medical emergency in the Yanomami territory. On Monday, in a first step of operation Yanomami Shield, his government ordered a no-fly airspace over the reservation and steps to block river traffic heading to gold prospects.

Lula's right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, advocated mining on protected indigenous lands, and his government turned a blind eye to invasions of indigenous reservations by wildcat miners and illegal loggers.

"We are in a new era," Wapichana said. Those responsible for the humanitarian crisis the Yanomami are suffering will be punished for negligence, she said, and perhaps for committing genocide.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Leslie Adler and Chizu Nomiyama)

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