Fight against illegal Amazon gold mining intensifies

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Fight against illegal Amazon gold mining intensifies
An illegal gold mine is seen during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A helicopter patrols an illegal lane used by miners during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency is seen next to an illegal gold dredge burning down at the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An Yanomami indian (R) stands near an illegal gold mine during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A man successfully flees in a boat next to an illegal gold dredge on the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
People successfully flee with groceries and fuel on a boat on the Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Gold prospectors are detained by agents of Brazilâs environmental agency on the Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 16, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An illegal gold mine burns during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Uraricoera River is seen during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An illegal gold dredge is seen burning down at the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A village of indigenous Yanomami is seen during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency patrols the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agents of Brazilâs environmental agency shows ammunition found in a camp used by gold miners during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency detains a man at an illegal gold mine during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A man flees successfully near the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Yanomami indian children are seen near the Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 16, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A gold prospector is detained by agents of Brazilâs environmental agency on the Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency detains a gold prospector who works as a diver in the illegal gold dredge on the shores of Uraricoera River, during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency takes cover as an illegal gold dredge burns down at the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency inspects a miners camp on the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An agent of Brazilâs environmental agency burns a miners camp on the banks of Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A mining ferry burns down at the banks of Uraricoera River during Brazilâs environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
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AMAJARI, Brazil, April 26 (Reuters) - After trekking nearly two hours through dense jungle, Brazilian environmental special forces burst into a clearing where the trees had been sawn and a muddy crater dug: an illegal gold mine on indigenous land in the heart of the Amazon.

The miners and gold were already gone, scattered by the whir of helicopter blades, but armed troopers in camouflage burned tents and generators. When there was nothing left, they moved on to the next.

The five-day operation last week, led by Brazil's environmental agency Ibama and Indian foundation Funai, located 15 air strips and destroyed 20 barges used to transport equipment and supplies by the estimated 5,000 illegal miners in the vast remote region.

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At more than 23.5 million acres (9.5 million hectares), the Yanomami people's territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indigenous people.

The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but miners continue to exploit the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold.

The mercury has become a growing cause for concern. While miners once killed the Yanomami with guns or disease - nearly 20 percent of the population was wiped out in the 1980s - today the threat is the toxic liquid metal used to separate gold from grit.

A study published last month by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a public biomedical research group, found that in some Yanomami villages, 92 percent of residents suffered from mercury poisoning. The results shocked experts, who believe mercury is entering the food chain through fish in polluted rivers.

High mercury exposure harms the nervous, digestive and immune systems, can lead to impaired vision and hearing, and can be fatal.

Last week's raid was considered a success but Ibama's operation leader Roberto Cabral said the miners will probably be back.

"The aim is to destroy their equipment. We're not able to arrest them, there's no space in the helicopter," he said, sweat pouring down his face in the middle of the steamy jungle.

When miners were caught, they were grilled for information and released. Beyond the equipment, authorities have been hunting for clues on the illicit business interests behind the miners.

The region's remoteness is a constant challenge.

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From a base in the Tepequém mountains on the frontier with Venezuela, three helicopters flew the 35-person team for an hour and a half to the banks of the majestic Uraricoera river.

From there it was another hour or two on foot, cutting aside branches and wading through waist-high mud, to reach the mines. It is expensive and rare for the arm of the law to reach this far.

It might become rarer still. With Brazil suffering through its worst recession in a century, Funai's budget for 2016 was cut by 24 percent, while Ibama had its spending reduced by 30 percent.

For Fiona Watson, who works for the activist group Survival International and has campaigned for the Yanomami since 1990, any long-term solution must be based on having more people on the ground, graver punishments and a focus on those hiring the miners and supplying equipment.

"These miners are like ants," Watson said. "They just keep coming back."

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