Venezuela investigates deaths of Amazon Indians

CARACAS Fri Apr 16, 2010 3:42am BST

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities are investigating whether several deaths in a remote Yanomami Indian region near the source of the Orinoco river were caused by pollution from illegal gold mining.

Investigators and soldiers this week traveled to Parima B, a village in the Amazon region close to Venezuela's border with Brazil. Using interpreters, they spoke with village elders about the deaths of six Yanomami.

"It seems the death of a man, a leader of the village of Momoy, and three women was caused by pollution in the zone from illegal mining," the Attorney General's office said in a statement on Thursday.

Illegal gold mining in the region, especially on the Brazilian side, introduced diseases among the tribe in the 1980s that killed about 20 percent of them.

The Attorney General's office said two teenagers were apparently killed after being "sprayed with a liquid by unidentified people". It did not say if the deaths were linked or when they happened.

Considered the largest isolated Amazon tribe, with a population of about 30,000 between Venezuela and Brazil, the Yanomami had limited contact with the outside world until 50 years ago.

Last year Venezuelan health authorities contained a potentially devastating outbreak of swine flu among the Yanomami.

Tribe members typically live in circular communal huts built around a courtyard. The men hunt for food and the women plant crops in clearings.

Unprecedented attention from the socialist government of President Hugo Chavez is bringing rapid change to the tribe.

About 30 doctors are permanently stationed on the Venezuelan side of the forest reserve where they live.

Literacy projects, agricultural training and government jobs are now part of daily life for many of the Indians.

(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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