Brazil’s new Indigenous affairs chief sets sights on illegal gold

Joenia Wapichana is accustomed to breaking new ground; she was the first Indigenous Brazilian to be voted to Congress and the first to receive a law degree.

But in her new position as the first indigenous person to head Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Agency, FUNAI, which she claimed was dismantled for the past four years under far-right then-president Jair Bolsonaro, she confronts one of her biggest challenges yet.

The feisty 49-year-old is the first to acknowledge that she has a lengthy to-do list, beginning with the problem that catapulted her into the public eye almost as soon as she took office last month: widespread illegal gold mining on reserves protected for Indigenous people.

To retake control of the nation’s largest reservation, the Yanomami territory, from illegal miners who are accused of poisoning the water with mercury, destroying the rainforest, raping and killing residents, and sparking a humanitarian crisis, newly elected leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has ordered a police and army crackdown.

Federal officials are finding it challenging to halt the surge in illegal gold, Wapichana said in an interview with AFP at her Brasilia office.

“Brazil still doesn’t have a way to curb the illegal gold trade,” she said.

The government response “is very fragile,” she added.

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