The drowning of two young boys in a river in the Brazilian state of Roraima has local community leaders asking if illegal mining played a role, amid a national debate over protections for Brazil’s Indigenous communities and their lands.
The children were playing by a river on Yanomami territory on Wednesday when they were pulled into its currents, state officials and local police confirmed to CNN.
The Yanomami Indigenous Health District Council alleges that a dredging boat was involved in the incident, citing information provided by Indigenous leaders.
In statement, the council said, “A four-year-old boy and an eight-year-old boy, cousins, were playing next to miners’ machinery known as a ‘dragger’ which is a special type of vessel designed to perform various functions concerning the bottom of any course of water… The impulse caused by the machinery in the water, made the water pull the children, who were carried away by the current.” The council is part of Brazil’s Ministry of Health.
The younger child’s body was recovered by community members, according to the Hutukara Yanomami Association. Divers from the state’s first responder team found the second body on Thursday, a first responder spokesperson told CNN.
The cause of the drownings will be investigated, the spokesperson also said.
Roraima police have told CNN they have “no information” regarding the involvement of a dredging machine in the incident.
Dário Vitório Kopenawa Yanomami, vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, has insisted in public statements that the deaths would not have happened if dredging machinery had not been present in the river.
Local community leaders told him that dredging activity for mining “shakes the land and river,” causing the water to stir and make waves, he told CNN.
Illegal gold mining is flourishing in Yanomami lands, according to Amazon Watch, a US-based watchdog and advocacy group.
President Jair Bolsonaro has long argued that the natural resources of Indigenous lands should be put to mining and agricultural use for Indigenous groups’ own economic welfare and that of the country.
In a social media diatribe on April 2019, he described Indigenous lands as having “trillions of reais underground.”
“The Indigenous cannot continue to be poor over a rich land,” he said.
But Indigenous activists have said they disagree with Bolsonaro’s vision of profiting from wild lands, and do not believe it will benefit them.
The federal government’s Indigenous peoples’ agency, FUNAI, said it is monitoring the Roraima case.
From Camilo Rocha in São Paulo and CNN’s Taylor Barnes in Atlanta.