SÃO PAULO – As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies in Congress try to pass a bill to allow mining operations in Indigenous territories, native activists and church organizations are claiming it would adversely impact the environment and human rights in the South American country.

Last week, more than 7,000 members of Indigenous groups from all regions of the country camped inside the capital Brasilia in order to protest the proposal, which had been designated by the Chamber of Deputies’ President Arthur Lira – a Bolsonaro ally – as a matter to be urgently considered.

The bill was first introduced in 2020, but due to opposition from Indigenous peoples and other groups, it had been taken off the schedule of the Brazilian Congress. Now, the bill’s supporters are using a shortage of fertilizer caused by the Ukraine war as an excuse to reintroduce the proposal.

The Bolsonaro administration argues that minerals needed for the production of fertilizers – especially potassium – can be found in Indigenous territories. Environmentalists claim that there are potassium reserves in many areas outside Indigenous territories and that starting mining projects now would not produce short-term results, so wouldn’t impact the current shortage.

On April 11, demonstrators covered their bodies with mud and fake blood to represent the environmental and social damage caused by mining operations in Indigenous lands.

The Indigenous encampment disbanded on April 15, with demonstrators claiming it helped postpone the bill, since the April 8 deadline imposed by Lira had passed without incident. However, the congressman promised it would be voted on by the end of the year.

In March, the main association of mining companies operating in Brazil – including Rio Tinto, Anglo American, and Vale – issued a statement criticizing the bill, explaining any legislation “should be broadly debated by the Brazilian society, especially by the Indigenous peoples.”

Nevertheless, the pressures from some industry sectors for the use of Indigenous lands continues, said Antônio Eduardo de Oliveira, the Secretary General of the Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (known as CIMI).

“There is a growing aggression to the Indigenous’ rights going on in Brazil. Loggers, miners, and agribusiness have the government’s support in their intent to explore Indigenous lands,” he told Crux.

Oliveira said that even Indigenous peoples whose territories have been officially set aside as reservations by the government – such as the Munduruku, the Xavante, and the Yanomami – have had problems with illegal mining operations.

Last week, a Yanomami association named Hutukara released a report on the impact of illegal mining in the group’s territory in the Amazon region. The document showed that illegal mining activities grew 46 percent in 2021, affecting 273 Yanomami communities and 16,000 people, more than half of the total Yanomami population.

The devastation brought by the illegal miners includes the contamination of the territory’s rivers with heavy metals, the destruction of the local vegetation with the resulting impact on the local wildlife, and a surge in cases of malaria.

“The pits opened and later abandoned by miners accumulate rainwater and favor the reproduction of mosquitos. We have been facing hundreds of cases of malaria, which is severe especially among kids,” Junior Hekurari, a Yanomami healthcare official, told Crux.

He said that malnutrition is another serious problem among many Yanomami communities. Mining drove away the animals that the Indigenous peoples usually hunted, and also killed the fish, causing growing hunger.

“Children are suffering with diarrhea due to the dirty water,” he added.

Direct violence against the Yanomami has also increased, according to Hutukara’s report. Miners have threatened and attacked communities several times. Last year, a video captured a group of miners shooting at the Palimiú community.

Cases of rape were described as frequent, including of teenage girls. Miners are also accused of offering to exchange food for sex, the report said.

“I have personally seen cases of 13-year-old Yanomami girls who got pregnant by miners,” Hekurari told Crux.

The number of miners currently operating in the Yanomami territory is estimated at around 20,000 people, while the Yanomami population is about 26,000.

The locals also complain about the heavy machinery, boats, dredges, and airplanes used by the miners.

“The noise of the engines never stops. It makes it impracticable for the pajés [the Yanomami shamans] to concentrate. It is killing our spirituality,” Hekurari said.

De Oliveira said that equally grave situations can be identified among several Indigenous peoples living in different parts of Brazil. The bishop said that all Indigenous groups are mobilizing against the bill and other legal attacks on their rights, and hope that Bolsonaro will be defeated in the upcoming presidential elections.

“But even if he leaves Brasília, the situation will keep being very difficult. The attacks on Indigenous rights have been too profound. All peoples will keep protesting whoever wins the election,” he said.

Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, CIMI’s President, said it was “shameful” that mining enterprises – legal or not – are operating on Indigenous lands.

“It is a disastrous policy to take the Indigenous lands away in order to exploit them. It has been destroying our common home, only to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few people,” he told Crux.

Paloschi said that such “inhumanity” has been applauded by the Brazilian president and many of his government ministers.

“That is why those brave Indigenous peoples have been shouting to the whole world that those policies are a project of death,” he said.