Environment: Assault In the Amazon

Brazil tries to drive gold miners from the rain-forest home of the Stone Age Yanomami tribe

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They swept through a remote northern stretch of the Amazon rain forest on a mission to rescue one of South America's most primitive peoples. Swooping over the jungle canopy in helicopters and small planes, 80 Brazilian troops and government officials have spent the past three weeks dynamiting airstrips used by thousands of garimpeiros, or prospectors. Lured to the Brazil-Venezuela border by one of the world's richest deposits of gold, the garimpeiros have not only damaged a precious patch of rain forest but have also threatened the survival of the Yanomami, the Amazon's largest Stone Age tribe.

This marks the government's second major effort to force miners off Yanomami lands. In May troops blew up 14 landing strips and drove out all but 8,000 of the 40,000 invaders. No sooner had the soldiers left, however, than the garimpeiros returned and rebuilt some of the airstrips. Says Joao Carlos Nicolli, regional administrator of the federal Indian agency: "The big gold lords weren't touched in the first operation. It was a show for the foreigners." He thinks the government is more serious this time. One sign: troops destroyed an airstrip belonging to Jose Altino Machado, a prominent garimpeiro leader. Officials say they hope to eliminate 48 landing sites by December.

Isolated from outsiders until the early 1900s, some 24,000 Yanomami still dwell in Brazil and Venezuela. They live in doughnut-shaped communal homes, have no written language, wear no clothes, use rudimentary tools and subsist by hunting, fishing and cultivating a variety of crops, including sweet potatoes and bananas.

The gold rush, which began in 1987, has been devastating. The garimpeiros have denuded large tracts of forest, poisoned rivers with mercury and introduced numerous diseases. Since the miners' arrival, more than 1,500 of the 10,000 Brazilian Yanomami have died. Most succumbed to malaria, tuberculosis and venereal disease, as well as malnutrition brought on by a dwindling supply of fish and game. "They gave us rice and wheat, but then we got sick," says a Yanomami named Saba, who is recuperating from tuberculosis. "They pretended to be our friends, but they are killing us."

The government's assault on the miners seems to be working. Since May, gold production in the area has dropped almost 70%, and many local dealers have closed their operations. Moreover, the Yanomami are starting to regain their health. In Paapiu village, for example, where the malaria infection rate surged from zero to 90% after the garimpeiros came, only 10% of the Indians are now affected.

But their long-term prospects are still clouded. Some of the evicted miners are setting up shop on Yanomami land in Venezuela. The Yanomami can only hope that both Venezuela and Brazil will follow through on their promises to preserve the Indians' land in protected parks.