At least 80 members of a remote Amazonian tribal village may have been wiped out after gold miners launched an assault on the indigenous community, tribal leaders said.The charred remains of dozens of Yanomami Indians were discovered inside the village “shabono” in the remote community of Irotatheri on the southern Venezuelan border with Brazil.
A shabono is a circular hut that typically houses dozens of tribesmen and women.
Three survivors were found walking in the jungle after the attack, having fled at the sound of gunshots, explosions and the sound of a helicopter while they were out hunting.
The massacre is believed to have happened sometime last month but due to the remoteness of the village, information had to be relayed from village to village until it reached Yanomami tribal leaders who alerted the Venezuelan authorities.
Luis Shatiwe Ahiwei, a leader of the Horonami Yanomami Organisation, said the number of people killed in the attack could not be certain but witnesses had said about 80 people lived there.
Mr Ahiwei and others members of the Yanomami organisation met with military officials and prosecutors earlier this week in the southern town of Puerto Ayacucho to ask that they travel to the area.
The account of the attack, given after the survivors spent days walking through the jungle, was relayed to several neighbouring communities including Hokomawe and Momoi. Others then took the news to the larger community of Parima.
He said the survivors told the villagers that they had been out hunting at the time of the attack, which they blamed on miners from nearby Brazil. The hunters said they heard gunshots, explosions and the sound of a helicopter, which miners sometimes use to ferry supplies, Mr Ahiwei said.
“Those who were hunting returned to the forest, running with fear, and they stayed in the forest,” Mr Ahiwei said.
He said that according to the survivors’ account, the miners attacked because some in the community had been “rescuing Yanomami women” from miners.
The Yanomami are one of the largest isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon, with a population estimated at roughly 30,000 on both sides of the Venezuela-Brazil border. They have maintained their language as well as traditions that include face paint and wooden facial ornaments piercing their noses, cheeks and lips.
The Yanomami have often had to contend with Brazilian gold miners, known in Portuguese as garimpeiros, who for years have crossed into Venezuela and torn up the forest, leaving pits of water laced with mercury.
In 1993, activists say, 16 people were killed by Brazilian miners in a Yanomami community in the area of Haximu. In 2010, Venezuelan authorities said four people in an indigenous community died after drinking water contaminated by miners.
The Yanomami have complained of increasing encroachment by the miners.
“The presence of garimpeiros in this area has been documented since at least four years ago, and complaints have been made various times,” said Aime Tillett, an activist with the indigenous rights organisation Wataniba in Caracas. “What we’re asking is for the government to take sufficient measures to control the garimpeiros.”
The London-based indigenous rights group Survival International called for Venezuela to swiftly bring those responsible to justice and to evict wildcat gold miners. “We would like to see instant action from the Venezuelan authorities to pursue these people,” said Fiona Watson, the organisation’s research director.
As for how many died, that remains to be seen, Watson said. “It is possible that some people did escape other than the three survivors that we know about. On the other hand, maybe it was a full-scale massacre,” she said.
Linda Manaka, a representative of the Venezuelan Association of Indigenous People in Puerto Ayacucho, said that based on the account she believes dozens died.
“Generally a ‘shabono’ is made up of dozens of people,” she said. “At least there are about four, five dozen people.”
“We’d like to be able to talk with the survivors,” she added.
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