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Brazil: the Yanomami abandoned

An Amazon people utterly abandoned by the government



  • A new report highlights the escalating existential crisis among the 30,000 Indigenous people living in the Yanomami Territory, covering 9,664,975 hectares (37,317 square miles) in northern Brazil. Data shows that the Yanomami reserve is in the top ten areas now most prone to illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
  • The report accuses Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazilian government of abandoning the Yanomami to the invasion of their territory by tens-of-thousands of illegal miners. While the administration has launched sporadic operations to stop these incursions, the miners return as soon as police leave the reserve.
  • Bolsonaro is also accused of having done little to combat COVID-19 or provide basic healthcare. As a result, pandemic case numbers have grown by 250% in the last three months, now possibly infecting 10,000 Yanomami and Ye’kwana, about a third of the reserve’s entire population, with deaths recorded among adults and children.
  • “Children, young people and the generations to come deserve to live healthy lives in their forest home. Their futures should not be cut off by the actions of a genocidal administration,” says the report compiled by the Yanomami and Ye’kwana and a network of academics. Brazil’s Health Ministry denied the charge of negligence.
  • This article, by LAB editor and correspondent Sue Branford, first appeared on Mongabay on 19 November 2020. You can see the original here.
  • Banner image: The Yanomami today are enduring multiple crises, including COVID-19, a mass invasion by illegal miners, extensive deforestation and mercury pollution. Image by Fiona Watson / Survival International.
The Yanomami are a proud people who say that Brazil’s Bolsonaro administration is pushing them toward extinction via its near total neglect. Image by Fiona Watson / Survival International.

“On the river Marauiá, down here, there’s a lot of viruses which are very strong and there’s also this COVID-19 thing. I am very worried, because three people have already died, in three communities,” says Francisco Pukimapiwëteri Yanomami.

A new powerful report, entitled “Xawara – Tracing the Deadly Path of COVID-19 and Government Negligence in the Yanomami Territory,” published by the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a major Brazilian NGO, brings together scores of similar testimonies from some of the 30,000 Indigenous people living within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which covers 9,664,975 hectares (37,317 square miles) in northern Brazil, in the states of Roraima and Amazonas.

The report reflects mounting anger among the Yanomami who feel they’ve been all but abandoned by Brazilian authorities and the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. They are being forced to deal alone, they say, with a frightening cocktail of inter-related problems — land invasion by illegal miners, the pollution of their rivers, hunger, greater vulnerability to COVID-19 and other diseases, even among children, and more. The Xawara — the Yanomami word for the fumes produced by an illness brought in by white outsiders — is only the latest manifestation, albeit a particularly serious one, of the existential catastrophe they face.

The Yanomami have lived through many epidemics, ever since the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, bringing measles, smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis. Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader, still has a vivid memory of an epidemic in 1959, brought in by government employees, missionaries, hunters and explorers.

He says: “Only the people of Yoyo roopë were able to escape this epidemic, led by my stepfather. […] My stepfather quickly began to encourage people from our home to flee. […] To overcome their indecision, my stepfather burned down our house. He was a great man, very brave! This was how we left the region of Marakana, in a hurry. […] If we had not fled, most of us would have also died from this epidemic.”

Other epidemics erupted during the first gold rush in the 1980s, when 40,000 goldminers invaded the Yanomami territory, at the time not formally recognized federally as their land. The creation in 1992 of the vast Yanomami Territory helped the Indigenous population recover, but there are still communities with few elders, so many having died during past epidemics.

An illegal mine on the Mucajaí River, in the Kayanau region. Some 20,000 invading miners, well supported with major financing, heavy equipment and even by airstrips to bring in supplies and carry out gold, are reported in the Yanomami Territory. These outsiders also are a major vector for the coronavirus. Image by Chico Batata / Greenpeace.

Because of this history, the Yanomami were quick to grasp the risk that COVID-19 represented. In early March 2020, Maurício Ye’kwana, a Ye’kwana leader, spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva: “Our territory is being invaded by over 20,000 miners who bring diseases like malaria, and alcohol, drugs and violence into the communities, and pollute our rivers with mercury. In 2020, two Yanomami were murdered by miners. Also, in the middle of the pandemic, they have brought COVID-19, infecting the communities near the mining operations. We, the leaders, have asked the Brazilian government to fulfill its obligation to remove the illegal miners, but there has been no adequate reply to the problem.”

FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous agency, and the Federal Police have undertaken operations to end illegal mining in the territory, including one this year. But, according to the just released report, the miners soon re-invade, once the federal police leave. The report quotes data from the Deforestation Alert System, run by Imazon, a not-for-profit organization, that shows the Yanomami Territory was among the ten areas under most pressure from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from August 2019 to July 2020.

The Yanomami are also angry at the lack of adequate health care. According to the report, this was not always the case: “The pioneering program Saúde Yanomami (Yanomami Health) provided exemplary healthcare. It was developed between 1996 and 1999 by CCPY (Pro-Yanomami Commission) and between 1999 and 2004 by Urihi Saúde Yanomami and became a model for guidelines for indigenous health. The competent work carried out by the two organizations led to the eradication of malaria in the territory.”

But this autonomous system, run by NGOs, was dismantled at the turn of the 21st century, when health care was taken over by the government and centralized. Time and again studies have shown that Yanomami health has deteriorated as a result, particularly in villages close to areas invaded by miners. Malaria has become endemic, weakening the population before COVID-19 arrived. As the report states: “Our children are shaking due to malaria and the cases of coronavirus continue to rise.”

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Yanomami children, suffering from a lack of government healthcare and often underfed, suffer high rtes of disease. Image by Fiona Watson / Survival International.

The report notes that, when health professionals were vaccinating the Yanomami against flu in 2015, they discovered that 500 Indigenous people had respiratory diseases. At least 22 people died as a result, including 17 children under age four.

A study, carried out by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation for Public Health (Fiocruz) in partnership with UNICEF in 2018-2019, found that four-fifths of the territory’s Indigenous children they examined were short for their age, half were under-weight and seven out of ten were anemic. This has exacerbated the children’s vulnerability to COVID-19.

But, rather than responding to the deteriorating situation, the report claims that the authorities merely looked away. Between January and September 2020, it says, the official Yanomami health authority, known as the, DSEI-Y, “spent nothing on capital equipment and material” so failed to prepare for the advancing pandemic. Other Indigenous people were also abandoned, the report says, with the amount spent on healthcare in all of Brazil’s Indigenous territories in April and May 2020 less than over the same period in 2019.

In the report, some Indigenous even accuse DSEI-Y employees of corruption. A Yanomami from Kayanau, an area heavily invaded by miners, said: “One health employee distributes these medicines [intended for the Indigenous] to the miners and now we are suffering greatly! He hides the medicines from us, because he wants gold [from the miners].”

Degraded area surrounding the illegal Tatuzão mine, along the Uraricuera River, in the Waikás region of the Yanomami Territory. While the Bolsonaro government intermittently sends in federal police to chase out miners, they have failed to provide permanent full-time law enforcement within the besieged reserve, say the Yanomami. Image by Chico Batata / Greenpeace.

In the absence of effective government action, the Yanomami and the Ye’kwana, another Indigenous people who share the territory, have seized the initiative. They’ve encouraged people to stop moving between communities and to isolate themselves in the forest. They’ve also worked intensively to reduce the deadliness of the coronavirus through shamanism and traditional medicines.

Even so, COVID-19 is expanding throughout their territory. According to the report, the number of cases has grown by 250% in the last three months and the virus may now have infected about 10,000 Yanomami and Ye’kwana, about a third of the reserve’s entire population. At the end of October, there were 23 suspected or confirmed deaths from COVID-19, though this may be an underestimate. Some of the deaths are of children.

Contacted by Mongabay, Brazil’s Health Ministry, which is in charge of primary health care in Indigenous territories, denied the charge of negligence. It said it had increased the length of time that its health teams remained in Indigenous areas, it had contracted special rapid response teams to prevent the dissemination of the coronavirus, and it had worked with the Defense Ministry to carry out complementary actions in areas of difficult access.

The Health Ministry also said that its COVID-19 figures, which are considerably lower than those presented in the report, showed that the mortality rate from COVID-19 among children aged 0 to 10 years in the Yanomami Territory is far lower than the rates registered in most Indigenous territories. The ministry said that, overall, DSEI-Y has recorded a death rate of 0.9% from COVID-19 in the Yanomami Territory, which is a third of the rate of 2.8% registered for the whole of the Brazilian population (Indigenous and non-indigenous).

There is little doubt, however, that the Yanomami and the Ye’kwana believe that the negligence of the authorities is pushing them towards extinction. Indigenous outrage permeates the report. The introduction ends: “Children, young people and the generations to come deserve to live healthy lives in their forest home. Their futures should not be cut off by the actions of a genocidal administration.”

An illegal mine on the Couto Magalhães River, between the Papiu and Kayanau Indigenous regions in the Yanomami Territory. Image by Chico Batata / Greenpeace.


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