Yanomami indigenous suffering malnutrition, disease and death in Brazil

The world was appalled to see the impact of hunger combined with the inexistence of health care for the Yanomami ethnic people in Brazil. It is a humanitarian tragedy without proportions.

On 16 January, after receiving reports of malnutrition and child deaths, the Brazilian government’s Ministry of Health sent a team to investigate the situation of the Yanomami.

The professionals were faced with what would be a devastated land. The experts found severe malnutrition, numerous cases of malaria, acute respiratory infection, diarrhoea, intestinal worms and other problems, particularly among the elderly and children. 

This situation led to a decree of Public Health Emergency in the region of Serra Parima – the core of Yanomami territory. 

On 21 January, President Lula visited the area accompanied by his ministers. He called the situation “of neglect and abandonment ” of the Bolsonaro government towards the Yanomami and denounced as ” genocide ” the drama faced by these native people. The president made a commitment to end illegal mining and guarantee health care in indigenous territories.

Given the gravity of the situation, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) sent André Siqueira, a malaria specialist from the National Institute of Infectology at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), to investigate the case. In an interview with the BBC, the infectologist said he had witnessed “the worst health and humanitarian situation” he had ever seen, a “catastrophic” and “disastrous” situation.

The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples disclosed that 99 children had died from malnutrition, pneumonia and diarrhea in 2022. There were also 11,530 confirmed cases of malaria. And it is possible that at least 570 children have died in the past four years from mercury contamination, malnutrition and starvation. 

A tragedy foretold

The case, although it has surprised many, has been described by indigenous organisations as a “tragedy foretold”. The Hutukara Yanomami Association, which represents 30,000 Yanomami and Yekuana indigenous people, had already sent 21 formal requests for help to the Bolsonaro government, which warned that conflicts with miners could “reach genocidal proportions”.

At the end of 2019, Bolsonaro was denounced at the ICC (International Criminal Court) by Comissão Arns, for crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. But nothing happened.

Illegal mining: violence and death

According to the Yanomami people’s denouncements, from 2018 to 2021 the area of mining in the Indigenous Land alone jumped from 1,200 to 3,272 hectares.

The activity of mining and the presence of miners affect the territory in various ways: contamination by mercury, transmission of diseases and violence. 

The Yanomami territory is the target of illegal mining and has faced, especially in the last four years, contamination left by mercury residue, which serves as a magnet to stick the smaller pieces of gold together, making them easy to separate. The activity affects the waters and degrades the health conditions of indigenous and riverside communities. And what’s worse, the impacts extend beyond the region directly affected. 

Besides, there is the problem of disease transmission. A research by the Federal University of Minas Gerais in partnership with the Socio-environmental Institute (ISA), reviewed by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) has shown that it is the miners who are most responsible for the transmission of diseases to peoples living in geographical isolation. This fact has even been aggravated by the transmission of covid-19 to indigenous peoples.

The types of violence committed by illegal miners are many. Among the most serious attacks, the Hutukara Associação Yanomami denounced that at the end of 2022 that miners had burned down a care unit in the Homoxi region, an area where 700 indigenous people live.

“The abandonment of indigenous peoples to their own fate and resistance is a State project in Brazil, as native people in Brazil have always had to resist and fight to defend their lands, culture and life”, denounces the member of the National Executive Secretariat of CSP-Conlutas Küna Yporã Tremembé, from the Tremembé ethnic people in Maranhão. 

The leadership reinforces that in the last four years, illegal miners and loggers have operated under the government’s permission, threatening and killing those who resisted, but they were not the only ones. “Ruralists and agribusiness, backed by the powerful, expanded the lands by invading indigenous lands,” he stressed.

For Küna Yporã, it is necessary that the Lula government commits to the demarcation of all territories by 2026. “The symbolism of the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, and with its importance, makes no sense if the ethnic groups continue to be expelled from their sacred territories by miners, deforesters and politicians,” he stressed.

Jair Bolsonaro, Damares Alves, Marcelo Queiroga, Eduardo Pazuello and Marcelo Xavier must be investigated and punished, not only by Brazil, but by the International Criminal Court for the crimes committed against the native people in Brazil.

CSP-Conlutas defends that indigenous struggle against this genocide should be raised in unity with the quilombolas, peasants, extractivists, riverine peoples and workers of the cities, because it is also a struggle against capitalism.

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