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Why Brazil’s Yanomami are being decimated by disease and mining


BOA VISTA, Brazil – Malnutrition and serious illnesses, particularly malaria, are decimating the Yanomami population in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, and on January 20 the federal government declared a public health emergency. While many in Brazil wondered how the calamity could materialize overnight, it came as no surprise to those familiar with the situation of the Yanomami, who have issued warnings for several years.

The AP explains how the Yanomami got to this tragic point.

An estimated 30,000 Yanomami live in Brazil’s largest indigenous territory, which covers an area roughly the size of Portugal and spans the states of Roraima and Amazonas in the northwestern corner of the country. Brazilian Amazon. Some also live in southern Venezuela. They forage by hunting, gathering, fishing and growing crops in large open gardens in the forest. Every few years, the Yanomami move from area to area, allowing the soil to regenerate.


Illegal miners were first present in Yanomami territory in the 1980s, but were later largely expelled. They have flocked in recent years, lured by high gold prices and prodded by former President Jair Bolsonaro. Their number rose to 20,000 under Bolsonaro’s administration, according to estimates by environmental and indigenous rights groups.

The miners destroy the habitat of the animals that the Yanomami hunt and occupy fertile land that the Yanomami use to farm. The miners also treat the ore with mercury which poisons the rivers the Yanomami depend on for fish. Mining creates pools of stagnant water where disease-transmitting mosquitoes breed. And miners who move to mine new areas spread the disease to natives who have low immunity due to limited contact with outsiders.

“The impacts are piling up,” said Estêvão Senra, a geographer and researcher at the Instituto Socioambiental, a nonprofit organization for environmental and indigenous rights. “If (the Yanomami) are sick, they miss the right time to open a new agricultural area, jeopardizing their future.


No. This accelerated over several years. Eight out of 10 children aged 5 or younger suffered from chronic malnutrition in 2020, according to a study conducted in two Yanomami regions by UNICEF and the Brazilian state health research institute Fiocruz. There have been 44,069 cases of malaria in two years, meaning the entire population has been infected, some people more than once, Roraima state prosecutor’s office said in 2021, citing system data national disease notification system of Brazil.

Curable conditions like influenza, pneumonia, anemia and diarrhea become fatal. At least 570 Yanomami children died of untreated illnesses during Bolsonaro’s tenure, from 2019 to 2022, according to Health Ministry data obtained by independent local news site Sumauma. This marked a 29% increase over the previous four years.

There was a greater need for medical care, but services for indigenous peoples deteriorated under Bolsonaro, according to Adriana Athila, an anthropologist who has studied public health care for the Yanomami, which is provided by one of the special districts designed for the needs of indigenous communities. . There have also been reports of miners taking over health facilities and airstrips in Yanomami territory for their own use. Local leaders themselves have been sounding the alarm for years.

“The miners are destroying our rivers, our forest and our children. Our air is no longer clean, our game is disappearing and our people are crying out for clean water,” Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, chairman of the Yanomami local health board, wrote on Twitter last March. “We want to live, we want to regain our peace and our territory.”

The recent influx of miners has severely compounded the disruption of traditional Yanomami life that has taken place over the previous two decades. This has been caused by the introduction of welfare programs that forced people to travel for several weeks to collect their benefits in cities, where they often stay for long periods in squalid conditions, and by the creation of non-indigenous institutions, such as military bases, medical posts and religious missions, which turned some temporary villages into permanent settlements, depleting hunting and land resources.


As a young legislator in the 1990s, Bolsonaro fiercely opposed the creation of the Yanomami territory. More recently, he has been an outspoken advocate for mining on Indigenous lands and the integration of Indigenous peoples into modern society. Environmentalists, activists and the vast majority of indigenous groups have criticized his efforts and warned of the devastating effects. He lobbied Congress for an emergency vote on the bill his mines and justice departments drafted and introduced in 2020 to regulate mining on Indigenous lands, but lawmakers refused. Even major mining companies rejected the proposal.

The Wildcat gold miners, for their part, were undeterred, “because they knew the government would turn a blind eye,” Senra said.

Hekurari also accused Bolsonaro’s administration on Saturday of ignoring around 50 letters asking for help. This is partly why some, including President Lula, have accused Bolsonaro of genocide.

Bolsonaro called the claims “another leftist farce” on his Telegram channel on Sunday, and said indigenous health care was one of the government’s priorities, citing the implementation of a health protocol for the country. entering their territories during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that during his tenure, the Ministry of Health provided more than 53 million basic healthcare services to indigenous people.

After defeating Bolsonaro in the October elections, Lula took power on January 1. The change raised hopes that the emerging crisis would finally get some attention, Senra said, given the abrupt reversal of Amazon policy that Lula had described during the election campaign. Indeed, Lula dispatched a team to Yanomami territory last week and traveled on Saturday to Boa Vista, the neighboring capital of Roraima, where many Yanomami have been evacuated for treatment.

Following Lula’s declaration of a medical emergency, the military began flying food kits into Yanomami territory and set up a field hospital in Boa Vista, while the Ministry of Health appealed national level for health professionals to volunteer.

Marcos Pelligrini, a former Yanomami territory doctor and professor of collective health at the Federal University of Roraima in Boa Vista, said he felt relief when he saw army helicopters carrying food kits.

“It’s a moment of hope,” he said.

But going forward, miners still need to be removed from the area by federal police and environmental regulator Ibama, with help from the Defense Ministry, Indigenous Peoples Minister Sonia Guajajara told Estado newspaper. of S. Paulo.

Hughes reported from Rio de Janeiro. AP writer Fabiano Maisonnave contributed.

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