Miners and Troops Clash on Amazon Border

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

GOLD miners have sparked a flare-up on the sparsely populated border between Brazil and Venezuela in the Amazon River basin.

Earlier this week, the Brazilian National Indian Foundation, known as FUNAI, reported that four Venezuelan fighter planes entered Brazilian airspace, swooping low over a FUNAI outpost about six miles from the border. A FUNAI official said one of the planes flew lower than 100 meters off the ground. "He said the plane's lower compartment was open and he saw a bomb inside it," a FUNAI spokesperson said in a telephone interview.

Brazilian and Venezuelan diplomats could not be reached in Brasilia, but are said to be investigating this report, as well as that of a violent incident that allegedly occurred in the area earlier this month. Brazilian gold miners on the Venezuelan side of the border say Venezuelan troops machine-gunned a small Brazilian plane Jan. 16, forcing it to land. The pilot and a passenger, both injured in the landing, were then killed by the troops, miners say.

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Ottomar Pinto, governor of the Brazilian border state of Roraima, told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, "the miners and some Venezuelan soldiers are at fault." Both governments have taken care to stress their close relations and their intent to discover what happened. Brazilian Foreign Minister Jose Francisco Rezek may be called on to explain these events to the National Congress next week.

The heart of the issue, according to the FUNAI spokesperson, is that both Brazil and Venezuela want to keep the miners away from the area's rich deposits of gold and cassiterite, a form of tin.

The deposits are located in part of a huge tract of land Brazil set aside last November for the Yanomami Indian tribe. This week, the Brazilian government began staking out the land, temporarily closing it to all non-Yanomami, including researchers. Last July, the Brazilian government made a massive effort to push the gold miners out of the planned indigenous homeland. According to FUNAI, many of those who left went over the border into Venezuela.

Since last year, Venezuela has reportedly arrested more than a 100 miners, eventually sending them back to Brazil.

In an attempt to prevent the Brazilian miners' return, Venezuelan planes Wednesday bombed rough illegal landing strips on Venezuelan territory, Folha de Sao Paulo reported. In the Amazon region, travel and supply networks depend largely on air transport.

"The Venezuelan government must be tired of so many incursions," the FUNAI spokesperson said. "They must be trying to scare them." About 100 Brazilian miners, who had just left Venezuela, were at the FUNAI post when the planes flew overhead.

In the last decade, gold miners in the Amazon have brought disease and cultural degradation to the Yanomami. In 1988, there were about 40,000 Brazilians mining gold in an area traditionally inhabited by 9,500 Yanomami, who live, hunt, and farm in both Brazil and Venezuela.

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