Some 20,000 goldminers have illegally occupied Yanomami Indian land since the discovery last year that streams in the Amazon rain forest, where the Indians live, contain rich deposits of gold. Anthropologists and the government's national Indian foundation, Funai, say the garimpeiros (miners) are destroying the Yanomami Indians, who, with 9,900 members in Brazil, are the largest remaining primitive tribe in the Americas.
``The garimpeiros create violence, cause the Indian women to become prostitutes, and bring diseases,'' Romero Juca, Funai's president, said in an interview in Bras'ilia. He called on the military to evict the garimpeiros.
But thus far the military either has been unwilling or unable to oust them.
At Paapiu, one of 15 dirt airstrips spread throughout Yanomami territory that serve as base camps for the gold mining trade, garimpeiros and their patrons have vowed they won't leave without a fight.
On a recent summer day, they sat in the shade of a lean-to alongside the airstrip, drinking $2 Cokes and making fun of the Indians. ``The only good Indian is a dead Indian,'' one said, to the others' laughter.
``We don't have any problems with the Indians,'' another garimpeiro said. ``We give them food all the time.'' A few minutes later several Yanomami children, wearing only loinclothes, came by to ask for candy.
On the other side of the narrow runway stood a row of small airplanes. Every few minutes a plane took off or landed, barely clearing the tall trees at the end of the strip. A helicopter ferried supplies to garimpeiros hidden in the jungle.
At the other end of Paapiu's runway were several huts housing three Funai officials and eight members of the military police. Eli Gomes, a pilot for the garimpeiros, said the police and Funai officials receive a payoff for every plane that lands.
The garimpeiros and Yanomami have clashed several times, with a confirmed death toll of four garimpeiros and 10 Indians.
Many Yanomami are dying from garimpeiro-introduced diseases, from which they have no immunity, said Carlo Zacquini, a Roman Catholic priest and Yanomami rights activist in Boa Vista. One garimpeiro recently wrote in a letter that when he and several others invaded a Yanomami village in search of food, the Indians didn't try to repel them because they all had pneumonia.
Mr. Juca said Funai is studying a proposal to create an Indian reserve for the Yanomami, who use poison-tipped arrows and eat the ashes of their dead, that would be off-limits to outsiders.
Jose Altino Machado, the garimpeiros' leader, charged that Funai wants to kick out the garimpeiros in order to allow giant mining companies to exploit the vast riches under Yanomami soil. ``The companies are a lot easier to control than us,'' he said.