The Yanomami people suffer from mercury-poisoned water and degraded food sources caused by illegal gold mining.
Brazil’s President has called it a “genocide” against the indigenous Yanomani tribe. A health official likened the situation in their ancestral land to a Nazi “concentration camp”.
Yet, no one could have imagined the scale of the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Brazil’s largest indigenous reservation in the Amazonian region, where decades of wildcat gold mining have polluted rivers and ripped off forests that were once the source of traditional food for the native population.
The result is a health crisis among the 30,000 Yanomani people – acute malnutrition, food shortages and lack of healthcare facilities leading to hundreds of deaths in recent times.
Though the problem has been visible for years, it shook the nation’s conscience after environmental news outlet Sumauma wrote in December about “horrifying reports and photos of children and old people” suffering from several diseases, noting “the news of the deaths” as “constant, the tone of the reports desperate”.
Photographs of malnourished and sick children – with bloated bellies and ribs sticking out from their chests – have left the country searching for answers and prompting President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to make a hurried trip to the epicentre of the crisis.
On Monday, President Lula – who said he was in “deep shock” on seeing the sick children – announced a crackdown on the transportation of supplies to the illegal gold miners, fast-tracking his government’s response to the situation in an area of 37,000 square miles.
Lula, who visited the area with Indigenous People’s Minister Sonia Guajajara on January 21, had earlier declared a public health emergency in the affected region.
“More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was a genocide. A premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government insensitive to the suffering of the Brazilian people,” Lula tweeted, accusing his predecessor, the far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, of opening up protected lands to illegal miners.
Authorities have rushed health professionals and medical supplies to the affected area and set up field hospitals to provide relief on the ground.
Multiple airlifts of acutely ill Yanomami children have increased from isolated jungle villages, transporting them to the only paediatric hospital in the state capital of Boa Vista.
‘Very grave situation’
Indigenous leader Dario Kopenawa, vice president of the Hutukara Association that advocates Yanomami rights, describes the situation as an “increasing health crisis”.
“It is a very grave situation. We have spoken about this (crisis) for many years… almost the last four years,” Kopenawa tells TRT World. “We (have) warned for a long time what was going to take place with my people. I’ve spoken a lot about this vulnerability in our territory.”
He identifies three issues for creating the dire situation. “The precarious state of healthcare, the humanitarian health crisis and the illegal garimpeiros (gold prospectors).”
Authorities found young and old Yanomami in a “grave state of health” with severe malnutrition, malaria, acute respiratory infection and verminosis, a disease caused by parasitic worms.
One Sumauna report described “bodies of children and old people, whose skin just about covers their bones and who look so fragile that they barely seem able to stand up straight. Ribs that seem to pierce the tiny bodies contrasting with the huge bellies that are full of worms.”
Survival International, the global advocacy group for tribal rights, highlighted a “devastating” report in December, pointing out that at least 570 Yanomami children under five years of age have died of preventable diseases since Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019. “Yanomami children are dying of malnutrition at a rate 191 times higher than the national average…,” the group said.
Justice Minister Flavio Dino, who announced a “police investigation”, noted that Brazil’s law regarding genocide “is still in force and covers various types of genocide practices, involving not just killing, but also violating physical and mental integrity, as well as actions and omissions that lead to the extermination of a given ethnic group”.
“Based on what I saw, on what society saw, I have no doubt there was, unfortunately, not only negligence but also a certain degree of intention, which will be investigated by the Federal Police,” Dino said.
A man-made crisis
Indigenous peoples and environmentalists accuse Bolsonaro of removing a number of environmental protections during his tenure, driving ecological destruction in the Amazon.
“When Bolsonaro’s government assumed the presidency in Brazil, we indigenous peoples already knew that the extermination project of Brazil’s indigenous peoples had been in their plan for a long time,” says Marcia Elizabeth Fernandes, communications advisor at the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR) and member of the Wapishana people, who live in Roraima and Guyana.
“In his campaign, he preached that he would not demarcate even a ‘millimetre of land for the Indians’. And so, he achieved his goal,” Fernandes tells TRT World.
The genesis of the crisis, however, goes back to the 1970s-80s when Brazil’s military dictatorship encouraged impoverished citizens to seek out gold and other resources.
An estimated 40,000 miners fanned out in the indigenous Yanomami territory, bringing death and destruction to the land – the indigenous population suffered violence and disease, and about 20 percent of their population was decimated.
Authorities drove out the illegal miners and demarcated the area in 1992. But many returned a decade later. An estimated 20,000 prospectors are said to be involved in mining at present.
Survival International’s Director of Research and Advocacy Fiona Watson, who has worked with the Yanomami for over 30 years, describes it as “a deliberate, man-made crisis, stoked by (former) President Bolsonaro, who has encouraged the mass invasion and destruction of the Yanomami’s lands”.
“The Yanomami rarely suffer from malnutrition in normal circumstances. Their forests are bountiful; they are experts at growing, gathering and hunting everything they need, and they enjoy excellent health,” she adds.
In a separate statement to TRT World, Survival International says that “the miners are also destroying the forest, scaring off the game the Yanomami hunt for food, and poisoning the rivers and fish which the Yanomami consume, with mercury.”
Yanomami leader Kopenawa says that it is not a shortage of food or hunger that is impacting his people. “Quite the opposite… we, the Yanomami, we are ill. We are poisoned by mercury…(we are) full of malaria, influenza, diarrhoea, verminosis, pneumonia….”
In April last year, a report by the Hutukara Yanomami Association reported a 46 percent increase in wildcat gold mining, scarring the verdant and fertile landscape.
Greenpeace Brasil has described its impact as leaving a “trail of destruction and deaths”.
In December 2022, Greenpeace decried the opening of a 1-km makeshift runway to serve the illegal industry, and a 150km road carved through the forest, passing less than 15km from the home of the voluntarily isolated people, the Moxihatetema.
The 150km road is paving the way for powerful machinery like hydraulic excavators to increase mining exploration, impacting the ecosystem.
The Articulation of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB) says the situation of the Yanomami people has already been denounced to the courts at least 21 times.
Kopenawa says medicines and equipment are being diverted from the community by the illegal miners operating in the area.
An investigation by InfoAmazonia discovered miners were selling medicines intended to combat malaria via WhatsApp groups. In 2022, the community suffered 11,530 confirmed cases of malaria but was left without sufficient stock to treat people in affected areas.
Survival International is now calling for the removal of the miners, besides sending health teams to support the community and prosecuting officials and business people financially gaining from the “genocide”.
Kopenawa says the community’s representatives have done their part by highlighting the issue, and now it is up to the Brazilian judiciary “to comply with our requests and punish the invaders” that ravaged the environment and violated the rights of women, girls and children.
“Therefore, the judiciary has to carry out its duty and hear our call for redress. That’s what we want today,” the Yanomami leader adds.