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Bolsonaro’s genocide of the Yanomami

The price of 'blood gold' - families and children deliberately starved

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Lula’s first three weeks in power have been packed with enough drama for several Shakespeare plays, with an attempted coup, palace invasions, a military crisis and the unfolding tragedy of the Yanomami indigenous population – left starving while goldminers devastate their territory. 

Brazilians have been shocked by pictures of skeletal children with stick-like limbs and distended bellies. Over 500 Yanomami children have died of avoidable causes during the four-year presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, and many more will probably not survive, as they succumb to hunger, diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia.

Who is to blame for the tragedy of the Yanomami? Video: DW (Germany), January 2023.

These deaths are not the result of famine or war but of Bolsonaro’s deliberate encouragement of illegal goldmining, which has reached the most remote villages in the Yanomami territory, located in the far northwest of Roraima, an Amazon state. 

They are also the result of his government’s deliberate neglect of health services in the area, with health posts destroyed or abandoned, and his dismantling of Funai, the national agency for indigenous affairs, and the replacement of experienced staff with police and military officers. 

It was not for lack of warnings: the cries of the Yanomami which Bolsonaro ignored. Video: The Intercept, May 2022

Appeals systematically ignored

Skeletons have come tumbling out of the Bolsonaro cupboard as the new government takes office. Appeal after appeal from Yanomami leaders and NGOs to the government- 21 altogether – were ignored. Money earmarked for indigenous health went instead to an evangelical mission connected to Damares Alves, the former minister for human rights, which has not set foot in the Yanomami area for four years. Money for urgently needed drugs was spent on hiring planes owned by mining companies.

The Yanomami were left without their normal sources of food as up to 20,000 goldminers invaded their rivers and polluted them with oil and mercury, killing the fish. Heavy machinery frightened away game with its noise as it pounded the sandbanks in search of gold and felled the forest to open up roads and airstrips.

Look at the devastation caused by illegal mining in Yanomami territory. A scenario of fear and terror in the more than 350 communities in the territory. They are suffering from hunger, exhaustion, illness and violence, including the sexual abuse of women and children in exchange for food. In less than a year, the destruction caused by the invaders increased 40 per cent in comparison with 2020. In this video we show aerial photographs of the destruction. Video: Globo 12 April 2022.

The Yanomami’s kitchen gardens, planted with maize and bananas, were ransacked by the intruders leaving them with nothing. The result is a humanitarian crisis which has left them debilitated by lack of food and deprived of any sort of health care: the Yanomami have been left completely vulnerable, dying of malaria and pneumonia. Starving children have been vomiting worms. 

This is genocide

The result is a situation which the new Justice Minister, Flavio Dino, and many jurists, say constitutes genocide.

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Bolsonaro’s war against the Yanomami, whose territory of rainforest, rivers and mountains is  riddled with gold, began soon after he was elected congressman in 1990. He started an implacable campaign to get the demarcation of the Yanomami area, the largest indigenous area in Brazil, revoked, presenting bill after bill, all of them fortunately shelved. In 1998 he made it clear that what he really wanted was a ‘final solution’, i.e. extermination, declaring that the ‘Brazilian cavalry have been incompetent’, unlike ‘the American cavalry which wiped out its Indians in the past and today does not have this problem.’

During his presidential campaign in 2017, he said that if elected, ‘not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.’ In 2020, now president, he presented the bill PL191, authorizing mining and agribusiness in indigenous areas, which is banned under Brazil’s constitution. This was nicknamed the Genocide Bill by those who opposed it and has not yet been approved.

Throughout his government Bolsonaro made a point of receiving mining entrepreneurs in the presidential palace. In 2021 he visited an illegal mine in the area of the Makuxi Indians, located very near the Yanomami area.  In the 2022 presidential eIection Bolsonaro received the overwhelming majority of votes in Roraima. The governor and almost every federal congressman and woman and assembly representative elected in the state are Bolsonaro supporters. As though to leave no doubt about the state’s priorities, the main statue in the central square of the capital, Boa Vista, is the giant figure of a garimpeiro, or goldminer.

Emergency aid

Meanwhile a gigantic aid operation has begun in Brazil. NGOs are collecting and sending food, which is being distributed by the Brazilian air force, some of it via air-drops. Even drinking water is being distributed, because the goldminers have made the rivers undrinkable and toxic. Emergency teams of doctors and nurses have been recruited to take medical assistance into villages. Hundreds of gravely ill women and children have been airlifted to hospital in Boa Vista. 

Field hospital set up in Boa Vista, Roraima, to treat ill and malnourished Yanomami. Video: Jovem Pan News, 27 January 2023.

But the recovery of the Yanomamis’ health and of their environment will be a long and difficult process, because it also depends on expelling the thousands of garimpeiros.  ISA’s Marcio Santilli said, ‘(the Yanomami) will have to move further into the interior to find clean water and replant their gardens, so they can produce their own food again. This means there is a long path to go before this terrible wound caused by predatory mining in their territory can be healed.’

Blood gold

The new president, Lula, promised to remove the garimpeiros during his rapid visit to Boa Vista to see the situation for himself. However expelling the garimpeiros, confiscating their machinery, their boats and planes and destroying their airstrips and roads, is a huge task. The network of buyers and sellers who pass on the gold produced illegally from indigenous lands to international outlets has to be interrupted. Years of unpaid taxes have to be paid. And everyone who buys an object which includes gold or invests in gold bars needs to ask where it came from. Just as there are blood diamonds, so there is blood gold. Yanomami children are paying the price with their lives and their future.

Moves have also begun to take Bolsonaro to the International Criminal Court at the Hague, to face the accusation of genocide. ‘There was a state policy to exterminate the Yanomami people’, said Caíque Souza, of the Indigenous Council of Roraima, ‘and we want punishment.’

In 1995 I visited a Yanomami village to take part in a meeting about an education project. Children ran around, playing, full of energy. To see today’s pictures of huddled Yanomami children, too weak to walk, wizened with malnutrition, aged three or four but weighing no more than a six-month-old baby, is heartbreaking. Those responsible must be punished, beginning with the man at the top, Bolsonaro.


Main image: Sumaúma. One of a series of photos taken by Indigenous people and health professionals who managed to get through the blockade imposed by illegal miners to reach the Yanomami indigenous lands in recent months. Publication of the images was agreed by Yanomami leaders, who want to show the reality of what they are denouncing. A genocide.

Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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