Bolsonaro, illegal mining and Yanomami genocide

(CASTELLANO) Main photo: Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress

The attempted coup d’état by Bolsonaristas has not been the only crisis Lula da Silva has faced since taking office as Brazil’s president.

Lula was sworn in on 1 January 2023, after winning the October 2022 elections. In December, Bolsonaristas tried to take over Brasilia, following in the footsteps of Trump supporters in 2021 by taking over the Capitol. Like them, it did not go so well.

After resolving that crisis and what it entailed for the involvement of the military and civil servants, the next crisis Lula faced was none other than that of one of the peoples relegated and despised by his predecessor, one of the many indigenous peoples of this immense country: the Yanomami. On 21 January, Lula travelled to Brazil’s northernmost state, Roraima, to Boa Vista, to witness first-hand the plight of this people, with the recent deaths of 570 children. The government has declared a «sanitary emergency» of «national importance» in the Yanomami and Ye’kuuna1 indigenous land, which is the largest in Brazil with nearly 10 million hectares, in the face of «destitution» in recent years, he said.

Lula referred to the situation as «genocide». After his visit, Lula tweeted: «More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was genocide. A premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government insensitive to the suffering of the Brazilian people». Obviously, due to his short time in government, he was referring to the government of his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. He was also accompanied on the trip by Justice Minister Flávio Dino, who announced that Bolsonaro «will be investigated by the Federal Police» for what he also considered «indications of a crime of genocide».

 

Mining site in Xitei (Roraima) («Yanomamis under attack» – Photo: BrunoKelly)

The reason for this genocide is the invasion of the territory by illegal mining, which destroys and pollutes. Mining pollution destroys the nutritional possibilities of the Yanomami and other peoples, but also contaminates them and kills them. Lula was blunt: «there will be no illegal mining on indigenous lands», and he has pledged to bring «permanent medical teams» to the communities.

For Brasil do Fato journalist Milton Alves, this is a «planned genocide» because «predatory capitalism covets the vast region (…) rich in minerals and with areas coveted by cattle ranchers and loggers».

Lula’s attitude clashes head-on with that of Bolsonaro. One of the decisions of the new government has been the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. In the same tweet Lula said «I have heard that in Brazil there is too much land for so few indigenous people, and that the indigenous people are occupying Brazilian territory. But these people forget that in 1500 the original peoples owned all of Brazil. It is we who occupy what belongs to the first inhabitants of the country».

While the governor of Roraima, the Bolsonarista, the PP’s Antonio Denarium2, is also a denialist in this regard: he denies that malnutrition exists only in the state, that the miners are responsible for the Yanomami crisis and that these people «must acculturate, they cannot stay in the middle of the jungle, looking like animals». He also refers to this piece of land as the richest in the world, as it contains «the entire periodic table».

Bolsonaro’s anti-indigenous policy

It has been known since he took power that Bolsonaro has tried to dismantle indigenous and environmentalist policies, considering them an obstacle to the advance of extractivism. And obviously, because he has no respect for these peoples. Thus he tried to dismantle FUNAI (National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples), which he defined as a «rat’s nest». FUNAI was founded in 1967, in the midst of the military dictatorship, as the National Indian Foundation. Unable to eliminate it completely, Bolsonaro transformed the body into a machine for the destruction of the peoples it was supposed to defend. A 200-page report testifies to this.

In recent days it has also come to light that even the Ethno-environmental Protection Base (BAPE) of FUNAI in Serra da Estrutura in Yanomami territory was used by illegal miners (armed) who used its runway to operate helicopters. Although the fact was reported, the government did not act.

Dialogue with native peoples’ leaders was ignored and coordinators were replaced by the military: only two of FUNAI’s 39 Regional Coordinating Bodies were headed by civil servants, with 22 being coordinated by members of the army and two by federal police. One of these policemen was the director of FUNAI himself, Marcelo Xavier da Silva, at the suggestion of the ruralistas, the large landowners. His appointment also illustrates that the preference of this body and the government is not to protect indigenous interests but those of the big landlords and their expansion. But Bolsonaro also eliminated its funding and staff. FUNAI currently suffers from a deficit of 1,500 employees.

The change in conception can be seen in the new government, which has dismissed 43 regional and national officials and appointed Joênia Wapichana as president of this body. Wapichana belongs to the Wapixana people, also originally from the Amazon, from the very state of Roraima, like the Yanomami. She also went to the scene of the tragedy, witnessing «a serious picture of the health situation; a high level of malnutrition among children, especially between 0 and 7 years of age, and also among adults and the elderly. People who are dying of hunger and who should receive assistance from the Brazilian state», she said.

Yanomami meeting (Survival)

One of the emblematic cases of Bolsonaro’s policy towards indigenous peoples and FUNAI is that of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips. The former was an indigenist who worked for FUNAI but was sacked in 2019 specifically for his work with the Yanomami people and against illegal mining, and the latter a British journalist. Both were killed in June 20223. On 23 January it emerged that the persons behind the crime were an illegal fishing entrepreneur, as the mastermind.

In addition to weakening the functions of FUNAI, Bolsonaro tried to eliminate the protection capacities provided by the Indigenous Reserves to these peoples. In the case at hand, Bolsonaro had already proposed the end of the Yanomami Indigenous Land when he was a congressman in 1993, only a year after its creation.

Survival was one of the driving forces behind the creation of a reserve for the Yanomami people, the Yanomami Park, in the early 1990s. Even then, the main threat was mining and the introduction of violence and disease, which led to a 20% reduction in their population. In 1991, Yanomami indigenous land was officially demarcated in Brazil with almost 96,650 square kilometres and registered in 1992.

In this territory there are still isolated Yanomami who remain uncontacted by capitalist society. They are especially threatened by illegal mining, because they have neither physical defences nor practical means to prevent the spread of diseases that are now being introduced. There are an estimated 115 uncontacted peoples in Brazil.

In 2016 Survival warned of a group of around 100 uncontacted Yanomami sighted from light aircraft near the Venezuelan border who are at serious risk from the proximity of mining activities. The Moxihatatea group remains on the run, avoiding contact – because their lack of contact is their choice and must be respected. In 2020 they were surrounded by violent miners with a desire for revenge. Mining airstrips have been found within a few kilometres of areas allegedly inhabited by uncontacted people. FUNAI closed five of its 17 protection posts for uncontacted tribes in 2017, including the base near the Yanomani Moxihatatea group.

In Venezuela, on the other hand, the Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve, which includes the Duida-Marahuaca, Serranía de la Neblina and Parima Tapirapecó national parks, was established in 1993.

Bolsonaro’s same indigenous policy has had a dramatic effect on other peoples such as the Guarani of Mato Grosso. The Munduruku people of Pará are also being harassed by mining companies. The Grand Carajás Project (PGC) is a mineral extraction and processing and energy production project, which also includes logistics and communication infrastructure in a huge region of 900,000 km² in north-central Brazil, mainly concessioned to Vale. PGC has mainly affected the Awá people, many of whom still remain uncontacted.

The Yanomami genocide

The Yanomami people have been exterminated mainly because of the existence of mining resources in their territory, which attracted thousands of people. For these people, the existence of the Yanomami people was an obstacle to their objectives, which, together with the lack of state presence in the area, resulted in violence against this indigenous people and, on many occasions, death.

The construction of the Perimetral Norte highway displaced the Yanomami people. Photo: Bruce Albert (1975) – Sumama

In 1993, miners perpetrated what is known as the Haximú massacre, in which 16 Yanomami, including a baby, were killed in this village. The murders at the hands of illegal miners have not ceased, and so, of the last two in June 2020, three uncontacted in November 2021 denounced by the Hutukara Association or this 11 November in which two motorists shot dead a Yanomami woman who was walking with her child in her arms in Boa Vista. It is the dramatic chronicle of an extermination with clear racist overtones, in which, as always, the indigenous condition is added to the misogynist one, and which were protected and legitimised by the speeches and positions of Bolsonaro’s previous government.

Since Bolsonaro’s election as president, criminal mining activity has grown exponentially, by more than 250% in the last three years, according to figures from the Hutukara Yanomami Association, in its report «Yanomami under attack: illegal mining in Yanomami indigenous territory and proposals to combat it».

The Movement of those Affected by Dams (MAB) has taken the same position. MAB is also very active against the impacts of large-scale mining, closely linked to the development of dams and other highly destructive infrastructure. In fact they are now immersed in the 4th anniversary celebrations of Brazil’s biggest mining disaster, Brumadinho (2019). MAB has demanded «that the Federal Government quickly fulfil its promise to put an end to the process of dispossession, conflict and death that marked the previous administration» to «guarantee the lives of indigenous peoples and the protection of the forest, interrupting this cycle of destruction».

Yanomami during the construction of the Perimetral Norte highway, 1973. Photo: Carlos Zacquini (Sumama)

A sanitary genocide

It is well known that indigenous peoples are vulnerable to disease because of their lack of contact with European societies and the diseases they carry and for which they have not developed defences. Thus, at the beginning of the European colonisation of Abya Yala, diseases such as smallpox and typhus were responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Geographer Jared Diamond estimates that 95% of the original inhabitants died after Columbus’ arrival from the diseases he introduced. A simple flu can be lethal.

The Yanomami people came into contact with Europeans in the 1940s, when the Brazilian government sent teams to demarcate the border with Venezuela. However, there are still uncontacted communities, partly out of their own free will. Even then, this contact caused the first deaths among the Yanomami people through measles and influenza. Malaria and pneumonia also decimated the Yanomami people.

In 1973, two villages, one fifth of the Ỹaroamë subgroup, were wiped out when they came into contact with outsiders during the construction of the Perimetral Norte Highway4. They were infected with diseases for which they had no immunity, such as measles, influenza, malaria and others. The construction of this road was a decision of the military government (1964-1985) to cross the Amazon. Today, the road is still a conduit for settlers and miners, and with them, disease and conflict. In the 1980s, 40,000 miners arrived in Yanomami territory causing the death of 20% of the Yanomami people in seven years.

So if we add to that new diseases or pandemics such as the recent Covid 19, the risk rises considerably. Or even more if we take into account the negligence of Bolsonaro and his government in this matter, because in his administration there is, on the one hand, his denial of the pandemic, and on the other, as we have already explained, his contempt for the indigenous peoples and his reluctance to invest or contribute to their welfare. Bolsonaro denied assistance to indigenous peoples during the pandemic, excluding them from access to clean water, beds and failing to implement measures such as isolation.

Protesters burn a photo of Funai president Marcelo Xavier (Divulgação/Apib – Brasil do Fato)

But this only adds to the inadequate management of the pandemic. Because another of the things that Bolsonaro is accused of, and for which he and 80 other people could also be prosecuted, is the management of the pandemic: in Brazil the death rate was 696,603, with 1 person dying out of every 3035. This was the conclusion of the Covid Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) in its final report6, which found him responsible for ten crimes against humanity and crimes of responsibility.

Now, the Federal Supreme Court (STF) has also initiated proceedings against Bolsonaro for non-compliance with judicial decisions and possible provision of false information to Justice in his management of the health and protection of the Yanomami. In the initial 10 months of the pandemic, there was no prevention plan. Lula’s government has dismissed 11 indigenous health coordinators from the Ministry of Health, including one from the state of Roraima.

But undoubtedly one of the most severe impacts on the health of the Yanomami people is associated with the contamination of rivers and jungle with mercury, as they consume the water directly, as well as the fish on which they base their diet, which are also contaminated. Mercury is used in gold mining to separate gold from rock. Two recent scientific studies showed that in some communities located near mining camps up to 90% of the population suffer from dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies.

Fiocruz conducted a study on the Yanomami indigenous population in 2019 in the Maturacá region of Amazonas and found the presence of mercury in 56% of women and children. The effects of mercury poisoning have devastating consequences for their survival and quality of life.

The effects of mercury poisoning have devastating consequences for their survival and quality of life. Mercury is a heavy metal which, being liquid, is easier to fragment and therefore easier to contaminate. It is cumulative in the body and affects nerve and kidney tissue, and can also cause other diseases such as acrodynia or Minamata disease.

In addition, the health of the Yanomami people is also affected by the impacts of mining on the environment, and consequently on the food chain in which they participate, as it affects their food resources. While not the main environmental impact, mining also involves forest fires to facilitate access to the subsoil, which are often difficult to contain. In addition to the impact of mercury on fishing, noise directly affects hunting by causing animals to flee. These impacts totally affect the protein supply of these people. Extractivist activity in their territory has added to the health crisis of a people who used to satisfy their needs by living like most indigenous peoples, in total sustainability and harmony with Nature.

The Yanomami people, like many other indigenous peoples of the Amazon, are gatherers. But they also know agriculture. The gardens are the responsibility of the women, who cultivate about 60 types of vegetables from which they obtain almost 80% of their food. Only 10% of their food comes from hunting. But their botanical knowledge extends to nearly 500 plants that they use for countless purposes. True wisdom that provides full sustainability.

The current Brazilian health ministry declared a state of public health emergency in the Yanomami Indigenous Land and proceeded to deploy an operation together with the army, including a temporary camp for the hospitalisation of more than 700 indigenous people. In addition, this ministry has resumed the construction of the emergency system (SUS or Sistema Único de Saúde) for the Yanomami people, which dates back to 2011, at the Casa de Saúde Indígena Yanomami (Casai) in Boa Vista. The current Secretary of Indigenous Health, Weibe Tapeba, defined the place as «a concentration camp».

Mining impact on Yanomami territory («Yanomamis under attack» – Photo: BrunoKelly)

The Yanomami genocide on the Venezuelan side

Borders were imposed on peoples such as the Yanomami, half of whose population is located in the current state of Venezuela. As reported by the Observatorio de Ecología Política de Venezuela, this indigenous people is also threatened by illegal miners from Brazil and Colombia, and to a lesser extent from Venezuela itself. The environmental impact of these miners is identical to that of Brazil, and therefore the effect on the Yanomami population is also identical. Since 1992, the presence of illegal miners in the Siapa river basin, the Alto Orinoco Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve (RBAOC), and Aracamuni hill has been denounced.

The organisation SOS Orinoco published in 2021 the report «Yanomami communities affected by illegal gold mining in Cerro Aracamuni and the Siapa River». Several videos show the existence of illegal mines in the latter and in the Serranía La Neblina National Park.

In the Venezuelan case, this illegal mining has the added ingredient, due to its proximity to Colombia, of armed elements of that conflict using this resource to finance their activities. In addition to the participation of Colombian guerrilla elements, there is also the cooperation of allegedly «corrupt» Venezuelan military personnel (SOS Orinoco, 2019).

From the mid-2000s onwards, a series of denunciations began to take place, including communiqués, letters and mobilisations by the Yanomami communities and the United Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon. The Venezuelan case coincides in that the Yanomami genocide has intensified due to their remote and difficult to monitor situation for institutions (with clear negligence on that part), exacerbated by the Covid crisis, and the energy and economic crisis that has affected Venezuela.

Community radio project of the Yanomami Hutukara Association to communicate between communities in defence of their territory (Photo: Hutukara).

 

NOTES

1Although fewer in number, this territory is shared by the Yanomami people with the Ye’kuuna, who are more numerous on the Venezuelan side (4,800).

2 Denarium is a pseudonym – hence Latin for «money» and hence the Spanish word «dinero» and the portuguese “dinheiro”.

3The perpetrators of the crime were Amarildo Oliveira (Pelado), his brother, Oseney de Oliveira (Dos Santos) and Jefferson da Silva Lima (Pelado da Dinha).

4To add to the tragedy, the construction of the Perimetral Norte was halted in 1976 due to lack of funding. But the project severely affected the future of the Yanomami Ỹaroamë people who have been assimilated and many live urban, miserable lives. Many have adopted a nomadic lifestyle, it is believed, as a result of the trauma caused by the imposition of the project (see https://sumauma.com/en/assassinato-mulher-yanomami).

But the project severely affected the future of the Yanomami Ỹaroamë people, who have been assimilated and many live urban lives of squalor. Many have adopted a nomadic lifestyle, it is believed, as a result of the trauma caused by the imposition of the project (see; https://sumauma.com/en/assassinato-mulher-yanomami-boa-vista-quando-inicia).

5 3rd country in terms of number of deaths, 21st in terms of deaths per million inhabitants.

6The report written by Renan Calheiros refers to Bolsonaro as a «serial killer».

The crimes identified are:

  • epidemic resulting in death
  • violation of preventive health measures
  • quackery
  • incitement to crime
  • forgery of a private document
  • irregular use of public funds
  • prevarication
  • crimes against humanity, in the form of extermination, persecution and other inhumane acts
  • offence of liability for «violation of a social right».
  • offence of liability for «incompatibility with the dignity, honour and decorum of the office».

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