Yanomami tragedy: the warnings that the Bolsonaro government didn’t want to hear

By ignoring the calls for help from the indigenous community, the reports filed by civil society and by actively working on behalf of illegal mining in the country’s largest indigenous land, the previous federal administration and its allies signed a population’s death sentence

Crianças yanomani em atendimento de urgência (Foto: Sesai/Divulgação)
Crianças yanomani em atendimento de urgência (Foto: Sesai/Divulgação)

For the Yanomami people, there is no difference between your dreams and your awake life. Everything is part of reality. “When dreams involve the collective, they share them,” explained the anthropologist Hanna Limulja, author of the book “O Desejo dos Outros: Uma etnografia dos sonhos yanomami” (The Desire of Others: An ethnography of Yanomami dreams), in an interview with Gama magazine. “For example, if in a dream there appears near the house an oka pë, who is an enemy sorcerer, you need to be careful not to stray too far from home that day.”

Despite the dream warnings, the threat acquires new proportions when the oka pë takes the form of the president of Brazil. Between 2019 and 2022, the Yanomami, who have the largest protected reserve in Brazil – the Yanomami Indigenous Land, located in the states of Amazonas and Roraima – was one of the indigenous groups most affected by the dismantling policy introduced by the government of Jair Bolsonaro. 

The report “Yanomami under attack”, compiled by the Hutukara Association and published in April 2022, estimated the presence of some 20,000 wildcat miners in the Yanomami Indigenous Land who have connections with organized crime, drug trafficking and local businessmen. The report also identified cases of forced marriage between miners and indigenous girls in exchange for food and firearms, as well as rape of minors, child abduction, grooming and slave labor.

One of the results of this violence: 570 children were killed by mercury poisoning, malnutrition and hunger in four years, according to data obtained by the journalism website Sumaúma. This is a 29% increase in the number of deaths of children under 5 from preventable causes. 

The intrusion by wildcat miners has also contributed to the increase in malaria cases in the region. According to Sivep-Malária (Malaria Epidemiological Surveillance Information System), the Yanomami represent 9.3% of all malaria cases in Brazil, whereas they represent 0.013% of the Brazilian population.

Faced with this health crisis, the Ministry of Health of the Lula government has declared a Public Health Emergency of National Importance. But this crisis did not appear without warning. 

The falling sky

In June 2020, amid the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples raised a cry for help through the #MinersOutCovidOut campaign, which was supported by Conectas. At the time, the campaign asked that the authorities take steps to urgently vacate the Yanomami Indigenous Land, at the risk of going down in history as being responsible for thousands of deaths and the genocide of that population. 

A month later, in July 2020, the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), a body of the OAS (Organization of American States), issued a resolution that granted precautionary measures for the protection of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana indigenous peoples. According to the IACHR, in 2020 these populations were facing a serious situation and they were running the risk of irreparable damage.

“The decision of the IACHR is, above all, a recognition by the most important body in the region of the seriousness of the indigenous situation in Brazil on account of the pandemic, particularly for the Yanomami and Ye’kwana,” said the then program director of Conectas at the time, Camila Asano, now executive director of the organization and its representative as an advisor to the CNDH (National Human Rights Council). “The country, as a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights, has an obligation to do its part and follow the observations of the IACHR.”

Dreamless sleep 

Indigenous organizations, indigenists and social and environmental rights defenders have also turned to the Brazilian courts to address the intrusions by wildcat miners into the indigenous land during the pandemic. In June 2021, the Supreme Court judged ADPF Case No. 709, and unanimously ordered the protection of the Munduruku and Yanomami peoples on account of the escalation of intrusions and conflicts in their territories and the threat of massacres and armed violence against the indigenous populations who live there, in addition to the deforestation of more than 13,230 hectares of forest in indigenous territories between August 2020 and March 2021 due to illegal activities.

The order for protection was proposed by APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) in conjunction with the political parties PSB, PSOL, Rede, PCdoB, PT and PDT and with the collaboration of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute), the Guarani Yvyrupa Commission, MNDH (National Human Rights Movement), Terra de Direitos, CIMI (Indigenous Missionary Council), ABA (Brazilian Association of Anthropology), CITA (Tapajós Arapiuns Indigenous Council) and Conectas – organizations that participated as amici curiae.

“There has been a weakening of institutions such as FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) and SESAI (Special Office for Indigenous Health), which have seen budget cuts, but there has also been a politicization of these agencies. The people at the top, since Bolsonaro has been president, are not qualified, they are not familiar with indigenous issues and they are certainly not there to protect these people,” said the lawyer Júlia Neiva, coordinator of the Defense of Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas. “It is obvious that they are there to serve the interests of the Bolsonaro government, which are not aligned with the protection of indigenous groups.”

The Court’s decisions, which partially accepted the requests made by the plaintiffs in the case to protect the Yanomami people, were not even complied with. After the official announcement of the crisis, the Supreme Court noted the non-compliance with the rulings and stated that there are signs that the government of Jair Bolsonaro provided false information to the justice system on the assistance and protection of the Yanomami. The Court will investigate the case. 

For the Yanomami community, however, the verdict had already been given some time ago by their leader Davi Kopenawa, in the book “A Queda do Céu” (The Falling Sky). According to him, politics for the Yanomami people is a way of engaging with different people, something whites don’t know how to do, because, despite sleeping a lot, “whites only dream about themselves.” 

Emergency action 

During the transitional government, indigenous representatives, such as the current Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara, provided Lula’s team with information on the serious problems faced in the Yanomami territory. As a result, over the past few weeks, the federal government has begun to carry out a series of actions to address the crisis. President Lula himself visited the Yanomami communities. 

In a statement, the Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship said that the Bolsonaro government received “between 2019 and December 2022, several reports of violations of the rights of indigenous peoples, all registered with the National Ombudsman for Human Rights” and that the Ministry is preparing a “detailed report to be submitted to the national authorities and international bodies so that the appropriate political and legal measures can be taken”.

According to Neiva, the emergency action is essential to save the lives of the indigenous peoples. It will then be necessary to strengthen the mechanisms for the protection and expansion of rights and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples must play a central role in this process. “Holding to account the authorities that ignored the situation of not only the Yanomami, but also other indigenous and traditional peoples, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, is something to keep in mind,” she concluded.

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