SÃO PAULO – Brazil saw an exponential increase in deaths linked to land disputes in 2021, according to a report published by the country’s Catholic bishops.

In 2020, the Brazilian bishops’ conference’s Land Pastoral Commission (CPT) said nine people had died in deaths connected to land disputes; that number shot up to 109 deaths in 2021.

These deaths include homicides and occurrences indirectly related to land conflicts, including diseases caused by those illegally entering Indigenous land such as miners and loggers.

A few landless peasants are counted among the dead, but the Indigenous peoples were the largest victim group, with 101 deaths reported by the Yanomami, an Indigenous people.

“All such cases involved the actions of illegal miners who operate in the Yanomami territory,” said Ronilson Costa, one of CPT’s national coordinators.

Numerous illegal mining pits can be seen in the Yanomami land, a vast region of 37,000 square miles in Northern Brazil inhabited by 26,000 people, not including the estimated 20,000 illegal miners.

Such pits accumulate rainwater and are ideal breeding ground for mosquitos, causing a surge of malaria cases over the past few years. Dozens of children and elderly people died from malaria in 2021, according to reports.

Junior Hekurari, a Yanomami healthcare leader, told Crux that mining has also contaminated the water and the soil with heavy metals and chemicals, killing fish and driving away other animals that the Yanomami hunt for food. Agriculture is also becoming impossible in several areas.

“Hunger has been growing more and more,” he said.

The illegal miners have also been directly killing the Yanomami. Last year, several incidents of violence were reported by Indigenous leaders in the region, including repeated cases involving miners passing by Yanomami communities in boats and shooting at them. In one case involving the Palimiú community, two children who ran into the river to hide ended up drowning.

The CPT numbers also include those who died due to accidents connected to illegal mining activity, including two children who were sucked in by a dredge as they played in a nearby river and a young man hit by a miners’ airplane.

“There is a sense that everything is allowed in the Amazon now, with the current administration’s policy of legalizing invaded land and incentivizing mining in protected territories,” Costa said.

Since the 2018 electoral campaign, President Jair Bolsonaro has defended the use of national parks and Indigenous lands by mining, logging, and agribusiness interests.

“Miners have been very violent against the Indigenous groups. Those are people who barely have bows and arrows, and miners are heavily armed,” Costa said.

According to Laurindo Lazzaretti, now a CPT pastoral agent and a former priest who lived among the Yanomami for more than a decade, the situation has been deteriorating over the past few years.

“Illegal mining is funded by politicians and businessmen and draws poor workers from different regions. All of them have the same mentality: They consider that the Indigenous people have too much land and that they are ‘more than animals but less than people’,” he told Crux.

Lazzaretti added that lately the largest criminal organization in Brazil, the First Capital Command (PCC), has been involved in mining inside the Yanomami territory. That is one of the causes for the growing brutality, and why denouncing the crimes comes at great risk.

“At the same time, the government authorities who should secure the territory do not act to solve these problems,” he added.

He said that the illegal miners not only threaten the Yanomami, but also try to gain their trust with food, appliances, and clothes – which at times can be infected and cause new diseases.

A report recently published by the Yanomami organization Hutukara said that miners also offer alcohol and drugs to the Indigenous – and many times exchange it for sex with minors.

According to a report last week by Junior Hekurari, head of a Yanomami health organization known as CONDISI, a 12-year-old Yanomami girl from the Aracaçá community was raped and killed by illegal miners.

After interviewing Aracaçá residents, the federal police said on April 28, that no signs of the crime had been found in the area. Earlier that day, Supreme Court Justice Cármen Lúcia had ordered the case to be investigated.

A video sent to Crux showed an illegal miner asking a group of Aracaçá residents if there had been any rape and killing in the community perpetrated by miners.

Visibly constrained, the group denies that such a crime had happened. The illegal miner then calls it fake news and says that it was a “setup of the press in order to paralyze the workers” in the region.

While he asks questions to the group about the case in Portuguese, an elder member of the group is seen gesturing and speaking in Sanöma language. Crux confirmed with two different Sanöma speakers that the man can be heard describing how the crime happened, saying things like “they came from there” and “they were many.”

“That video is a farce. It was deliberately produced with the intention of manipulating viewers,” Lazzaretti claimed.

Hekurari told Crux that the Yanomami traditionally burn corpses and that when he visited Aracaçá he identified signs of cremation.

“The miners had gone to the community before the arrival of the police and told them not to denounce. They were threatened and forced to accept gold in exchange for their silence,” he claimed.

Hekurari said that the village was abandoned after that, with all 25 residents having disappeared into the forest.

“I am already used to that. No murder is properly investigated,” he added.

Since he denounced the case, Hekurari has received threats from the miners. A group recently went to his girlfriend’s house looking for him and he has received threatening text messages on his phone.

An illegal miner interrogates a member of Brazil’s Yanomami community in a video provided to Crux. (Credit: Screen grab.)

On April 23, with the escalation of violence in the Yanomami territory, Archbishop Mário Antônio da Silva of Cuiabá, who for years was in charge of the Diocese of Roraima, published a statement about the situation on the website of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM).

“Over the past three years, the voracious dragon of mining has gained new force and is advancing with all ferocity and power of the criminal organizations over the Yanomami lands,” he said.

Da Silva denounced the Federal Government’s “omission and responsibility,” saying that instead of fulfilling its duties it is “incentivizing the invasions and proposing in the National Congress a bill to legalize mining in the Indigenous territories,” making reference to a legislative project currently being considered by the national Congress in Brasília.

He also called on Christians to assume the commitment of protecting the Yanomami territory and culture and not to condone the authorization of mining on Indigenous lands.

“Fortunately our bishops have been greatly supporting the Indigenous struggle,” Lazzaretti said.

He fears that the Yanomami can be completely destroyed as a people within a few years if the situation keeps getting worse.

“We who work with them are guided not only by environmental or social principles, but especially by an evangelical commitment to the poor and the forgotten. Taking care of the human person is to evangelize,” he said.