Yanomami health disaster sparks outrage as Lula vows to tackle crisis

  • An average of three indigenous Yanomami babies have died every week in Brazil over the past four years from diseases thought to be treatable, an investigation with shocking pictures shows.
  • Experts say decades of incursions by illegal miners into Yanomami indigenous territory and the collapse of health care systems under Jair Bolsonaro’s administration have led to a spiral of malnutrition and disease within the Yanomami population.
  • Official complaints from Indigenous rights advocates and allies have been systematically ignored since at least 2018, making problems worse.
  • Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has called the crisis a genocide and vowed to tackle the problem with a series of immediate and long-term action plans.

At least 570 indigenous Yanomami infants have died from treatable diseases such as diarrhea and malaria in the past four years, an average of three every week, highlighting the ongoing plight of one of Brazil’s most persecuted peoples.

The figures were published by environmental news outlet Sumouma, showing a 29% increase in deaths of children under the age of 5 compared to the previous four years. Along with the data, Sumauma also published photographs of malnourished Yanomami children, shared by sources whose names were not disclosed for security reasons.

The report also found that six out of 10 Yanomami children under the age of 5 are malnourished, and that in 2022, six children under the age of one will die from causes that are usually not related to access to health services or medicine. could have been stopped.

Experts say the actual figures could be much higher. “Deaths and cases are vastly underreported,” Fiona Watson, director of research and advocacy at Survival International, an NGO that champions Indigenous rights, told Mongabay over the phone. “The number of deaths and cases from malaria and malnutrition will be much higher,” said Watson, who has actively campaigned to raise awareness of the Yanomami crisis.

The Expression of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) published a picture of a malnourished child to draw attention to the health crisis in the Yanomami region.

The Yanomami indigenous territory extends into the northern Amazon rainforest, between the states of Roraima and Amazonas, with an adjacent section in neighboring Venezuela. Brazil’s newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited Yanomami representatives in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state, on January 21, accompanied by the country’s first Indigenous Minister Sonia Guajara and Health Minister Nicia Trindade.

“More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was a massacre,” Lula tweeted, A task force of experts from Brasilia and Boa Vista has now been convened to create an action plan to prevent further deaths within Yanomami indigenous territory. “There will be no more genocide,” Lula Told In another tweet.

Covering an area the size of former colonial power Portugal, the Yanomami region is home to more than 30,400 indigenous people and is legally protected land, meaning no commercial activity is permitted there. However, the region’s abundance of natural resources has attracted illegal gold miners for decades, destroying the forest and exposing indigenous residents to wave after wave of violence and disease.

A UN human rights review found that in 2013, the child mortality rate in Brazil’s indigenous regions was “twice the national average and improvements in indicators have been very slow.” It also revealed cases of Yanomami children being hospitalized in 2016 due to pneumonia, malnutrition and lack of health care. Indigenous advocates say these problems will worsen under Jair Bolsonaro’s administration in office from 2019 to 2022, which has seen an explosion of illegal mining and a reduction in regional health care and federal support.

“On the one hand, there is the advancement of increasingly complex mining involving organized crime, which has greater potential for destruction and more weapons,” said Luis Ventura, assistant secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church in Mongabe. Told on phone. “And on the other hand, the Bolsonaro government completely abandoned health care policy for the Yanomami people.”

While serving as a congressman, Bolsonaro repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to demarcate Yanomami indigenous territory.

Overflight images in 2021 reveal devastation caused by illegal gold mining within Yanomami indigenous territory in Roraima state, where at least 20,000 miners are at work. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.
Illegal mining in Yanomami land.
Illegal mining in Yanomami lands has polluted the region’s rivers with mercury, poisoning the indigenous people who depend on the forest’s natural resources for survival. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

The country’s largest indigenous rights coalition, the Expression of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), said in a statement that “the situation is part of a political project that seeks to promote the violent extraction of natural resources as the fastest way to destroy indigenous peoples.” Goods from protected areas.

Invasions, especially by illegal miners, spread diseases such as malaria among the indigenous population and deprived the Yanomami of their food sources by contaminating rivers with mercury, a toxic metal used liberally in artisanal mining.

“When the Yanomami get sick with malaria, they can’t hunt or fish because they are too weak,” Watson said. “That’s what’s leading to this terrible rate of malnutrition. They live in this amazingly rich, biodiverse wilderness. If it weren’t for this man-made devastation, they would be able to feed themselves and not have malnutrition.” Would.”

Miners also hinder the efforts of health workers to treat and prevent diseases within Yanomami communities, leading to shortages of health care and medicines in many villages. “It’s lawless,” said Watson. “Health care workers are threatened by the miners, who are forcing them to give preferential treatment and medicines.”

Reports of high levels of mercury in the water, a result of mining waste, have been flagged for years as putting the Yanomami and their future generations at risk.

“It’s another ticking time bomb because we’re seeing people with birth defects and exposure to mercury in their system and dying from it,” Watson said.

The situation is not new and “has been systematically denounced and documented by Indigenous organizations and allies since at least 2018,” said CIMI’s Ventura. However, the complaints went unheeded under Bolsonaro. According to a report by The Intercept Brazil, Hutukara, an indigenous organization representing the Yanomami, reported criminal activity and humanitarian crises to public bodies 21 times in two years during the Bolsonaro administration – all of which were ignored.

the Lula administration has announced status A “public health emergency of national importance.” Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Fanai, issued a statement of measures, pledging to distribute 5,000 parcels of essential food, the equivalent of 85 metric tons of food, and 200 cans of nutritional supplements for malnourished children was, which brazilian air force The Yanomami have begun to distribute to communities within the region. It also plans to set up a committee to address health aid shortages and create a center for emergency operations.

Experts have welcomed the promises.

A Yanomami man holds a sign that reads
A Yanomami man holds a sign that reads “Get out miners. Mining is killing Yanomami people” during President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s recent visit to Roraima amid an indigenous humanitarian crisis. Image © Ricardo Stuckert / Palacio Do Planalto / Agence Brasil.
Illegal gold miners have wreaked havoc within Yanomami indigenous territory for decades.
Illegal gold miners have wreaked havoc within Yanomami indigenous territory for decades, with a spike in invasions and destruction during the Jair Bolsonaro administration from 2019 and 2022, fueled largely by the pro-mining stance of the then president. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

“The planning starts correctly, with immediate help for the food issue and then an emergency reorganization of health care, because people in such critical condition need medical follow-up,” said Rogerio do Pateo, at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, a professor of anthropology, told Mongabe over the phone. “Finally, we need a police operation and investigation to flush out the invaders and prevent them from returning.”

Experts say years of impunity under Bolsonaro should be reversed and illegal miners evicted from the land and punished for crimes against both indigenous people and the environment.

“It’s the only thing that will stop people from doing this again in the future,” Watson said.

Thousands of miners were expelled from the area in the 1990s after the demarcation of the land in 1992, but many returned within a decade. According to an emailed statement from Survival International, it is possible to recapture them, but “it requires real political will and the money to make it happen.”

Flavio Dino, the new Minister of Justice and Public Safety, said in a statement that he would launch a police investigation into crimes in the Yanomami indigenous territory. “There are strong indications of genocide, which will be determined by the federal police,” he said in the statement.

The inquiry comes almost 30 years after the massacre of 16 Yanomami men by illegal gold miners. Five gold miners were convicted of the massacre two years later in 1995.

Indigenous rights advocates say change won’t happen overnight, but see Lula’s promises as hopeful.

“He sent the opposite message to the previous government by going there himself,” Pateo said. “

Banner Image: President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits an indigenous hospital and indigenous health aid home in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state, on 21 January. Image © Ricardo Stuckert/Palacio do Planalto/Agencia Brasil.

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At 30 years old, Brazil’s Yanomami reserve is beset by mining, malaria and mercury

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