Six Months On, the Yanomami Crisis in Brazil Continues Amid Rising Violence

mining pits filled with water in a deforested area
Boa Vista, Brazil
Six Months On, the Yanomami Crisis in Brazil Continues Amid Rising Violence

In early April, 35-year-old Indigenous health worker Angelita Prororita Yanomami went missing near Boa Vista, the capital city of the northernmost Brazilian state of Roraima. Two months later, her remains were found near the Branco river.

A local investigation has produced no suspects and no cause of death. Disgusted by what they call a lack of political will to solve the case, local groups and family members have appealed to the federal government to join the investigation. So far, this appeal has fallen on deaf ears.

While Angelita, who worked as a translator and interpreter at the Support House for Indigenous Health (Casa de Apoio à Saúde Indígena), had separated from her husband, the fact that she had been married to Dario Kopenawa, son of a renowned local tribal leader, raises questions. Who killed Angelita, and why?

More recently, on July 3, Brazil’s Ministry of Indigenous Peoples revealed that a Yanomami child was killed and five other community members were wounded. The suspected shooter is an illegal gold miner, in Parima village, also part of the Yanomami Territory. Indigenous Peoples Minister Sonia Guajajara said in a statement: “The Federal Government has acted to ensure that those involved are identified and held accountable.”

For years, the Yanomami of Roraima have suffered threats and worse by gold miners and their funders. Following this latest violence, Amazon Watch program director Christian Poirier called for immediate action “to dismantle the criminal networks plaguing these territories and bring their political and entrepreneurial enablers to justice.”

map of the region
Map of Yanomami Indigenous territory / Credit: Mongabay.

Poirier and others say these latest crimes are signs that the crisis among the Yanomami is far from over. But wasn’t the situation supposed to be improving?

In late January, a few weeks after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office, Brazil’s Ministry of Health declared a medical emergency in the Yanomami Territory in Roraima.

Some of the world’s top media covered the humanitarian crisis. They wrote about child mortality rates due to malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia, and other illnesses exceeding those of war-torn and famine-stricken countries. They wrote about ongoing violence by miners against the Indigenous population. And they wrote about widespread water contamination due to mercury use by a network of illegal miners long operating unchecked in Indigenous territories.

With the “medical emergency” declaration, the press noted at the time, Lula was able to restore health services to the Yanomami, dismantled during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.

But, six months on, most international press attention has ceased even as the humanitarian crisis and brutal violence continue. Interviews with people close to the situation on the ground reveal that restoring health services has not been easy, and some of the conditions that caused the crisis in the first place remain unresolved. In just weeks, Brazil’s Congress is due to decide on whether to pass a proposed law that would legalize extractive activities. Will this new law, PL490, which Indigenous leaders and supporters have been vocally resisting, complicate the government’s current efforts to help the Yanomami?

people getting in and out of boats on a river
Illegal gold miners disembark at the port of Arame on the Uraricoera river, after departing illegal mines on Yanomami territory / Credit: Lalo de Almeida for Folhapress.

“I think there has been enormous improvement in terms of commitment from the government to solve the situation,” said Luiz Henrique Reggi Pecora, a lawyer with Instituto Socioambiental, who is based on Boa Vista, the capital city of Roraima. Still, Pecora said there was work to be done to stop illegal mining and attend to the health needs of Yanomami communities that haven’t yet been reached by health teams. “We hear that there are a lot of regions where people are still desperate to have access to food,” Pecora said. “So, the situation is bad.”

Two years ago, visiting the region, I saw firsthand some of what the Indigenous people who live in the area were up against. I asked the father of a young man working at the hotel where I stayed (a seasoned driver who had worked with Doctors Without Borders) to drive me to the Venezuelan border town of Pacaraima, where I’d heard of rough conditions for refugees escaping President Nicholas Maduro’s Venezuela.

My driver, Terry, originally from Guyana, spoke excellent English. As we prepared to enter a mountainous region near the border, my mind wandered into the vast fields and dirt side roads stretching as far as the eye could see.

As we got closer to Venezuela, I saw words scribbled on a plastic encasing around a small bus stop and asked Terry to slow down. Up close, I could see the words: Fora Indigena ––Out, Indigenous. I would see these same words elsewhere –– in each case, near the site of roadside Indigenous encampments.

Indigenous people in the region have long faced intimidation by illegal miners, many funded by organized crime. Brazilian newspaper O Globo has reported on criminals linked to São Paulo-based crime organizations, who once focused their operations solely on drug smuggling but quietly pivoted. Today, they launder their drug money into gold, a legal commodity for the most part untraceable as it slips into international markets. O Globo detailed how a little cash goes a long way: the crime syndicates send freelance criminals to places like the Yanomami Territory, wielding pistols, guns and rifles. Their objective is to scare Indigenous people off their land so cartels can expand unimpeded their gold operations. In late January, the world finally learned about the devastating consequences, both environmental and human, of such forays into illegal gold mining on remote Indigenous territories.

For her part, Joenia Wapichana, president of the National Indian Foundation (Funai) and the first Indigenous woman elected to Congress, defends the government’s response to Roraima’s humanitarian crisis. She explains that the size of the Yanomami Territory (an area of about 9 million hectares, or 22.2 million acres, roughly the size of Portugal) and the magnitude of the challenges there do not lend themselves to quick fixes. “I know not all illegal miners have left,” she said during a video call in late June, speaking from her office in Brasília. “Some are still leaving. We have not ended the operation yet; it is ongoing.”

thick dark smoke rising from forest
An illegal mining raft set on fire by IBAMA on the Uraricoera River / Credit: Lalo de Almeida for Folhapress.

One of the biggest problems Wapichana faces in helping solve the Yanomami crisis is a shortage of staff and funding. She said this follows four years of the Bolsonaro government, which gutted Funai while allowing criminal networks involved in illegal mining on Indigenous territories to flourish. “To fight the organized crime that exists there, strategies are required,” she said, “strategies to remove and to maintain permanent supervision of rivers and entrances.”

Referring to recent clashes between Yanomami and miners, Pecora noted that the miners who hadn’t yet left the territories have been more willing to fight. One case in point: clashes near the Uraricoera River. “We had been insisting that the government bodies stop illegal miners from crossing the river by boat,” he said. “They actually did that this year, finally, in the beginning of the year, and it was effective.” But he said progress stalled when illegal miners attacked teams from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). Such attacks have impacted the ability of the government to rid the region of illegal miners, while other more random acts of violence against the Yanomami continue.

In late June, the government decided to expand the role of the Ministry of Defense in combating illegal mining, with members of the Air Force, Navy, and Army now working alongside IBAMA, Funai and other agencies whose staff have been small and vulnerable. Prior to this, the military had only provided intelligence, logistical assistance and help distributing humanitarian aid.

As these changes are implemented, the situation in Roraima remains tense; I had planned to visit several remote Yanomami communities for this story but was warned against doing so by multiple people who live and work in the area. Even in and around Boa Vista, violence has plagued Indigenous people and those who defend them.

Wapichana reflected on the ongoing violence within the Yanomami and other Indigenous territories in Brazil. “We see organized crime structuring itself better than the federal government,” she said, adding that agencies of the government need to modernize.

Delivering food to malnourished Yanomami has also proven challenging, Wapichana told me. “Food is sometimes thrown from airplanes, and there is a risk of losing that food,” she said, noting the need to rebuild airstrips in remote regions such as Surucucu, in northwestern Roraima, where communities are especially in need. “We end up taking smaller planes that don’t fit as much quantity and end up sometimes not being able to land because of the weight.”

people inside cargo plane looking at forested area.
A Brazilian Air Force cargo plane drops a load of food onto landing strip in Surucucu / Credit: Lalo de Almeida for Folhapress.

The food delivery problem is compounded by the size of the population that still needs help. Wapichana said within the Indigenous territories experiencing crisis there are 31,000 people, mostly Yanomami, in 376 separate communities. 60% of them are under the age of 20. It’s a tall order, she said, for the roughly 700 professionals –– nurses, doctors, administrators, etc. –– to manage. “The Yanomami area today is our priority, but we still have limited civil servants,” stressing the need for staff from and cooperation among organs of government including Funai, IBAMA, the ministry of the environment, and the Federal Police.

Another factor that hampers the government’s efforts to help the Yanomami is the extent of water contamination due to mercury runoff into rivers during gold mining processes. Wapichana said she recently met with researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Fiocrus, who had been denied entrance to the Yanomami Territories during the four years of the Bolsonaro’s presidency. “Almost 70% of the people in the study groups had mercury in their bodies. … It is not only about the protection of health but also the protection of the land,” she said.

Mercury pollution is not an easy fix — now or in the future –– as Diego Bueno, substitute superintendent for IBAMA in Roraima, told Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo: “Mercury has already been spilled, it already exists in the water. Even if mining stops, there may still be contamination over time.”

Considering the wider, ongoing problem of illegal gold mining in Indigenous territories across Brazil, Wapichana called for the implementation of the Minamata Convention, which dictates that mercury should not be used in mining. Since 2013, Brazil has been a signatory and yet mercury use persists. “We need to raise awareness,” she said, “to fight the lack of certification of gold origins.”

“The ongoing violence wracking Yanomami territory stems from the challenge of rooting out the remaining pockets of well-financed illegal miners who use their proximity to the Venezuelan border and links to narco-traffickers to consistently evade Brazilian authorities,” said Amazon Watch’s Poirier. “Until there is a rigorous and concerted federal effort to end these activities,” he added, “the bloodletting of Amazonian Indigenous peoples will continue.”

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published on 11 July 2023 by Mongabay and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: IBAMA’s Special Inspection Group arrive by helicopter to prevent illegal mining on the Yanomami territory near Boa Vista / Credit: Lalo de Almeida for Folhapress.

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