SÃO PAULO – A year after heart-wrenching pictures of malnourished Indigenous children and elders went viral on social media in Brazil, creating a national scandal, new reports from the country’s Catholic bishops suggest that things really haven’t changed much despite the creation in the meantime of a federal taskforce.
The pictures were of members of the Yanomami people, an Indigenous group of roughly 35,000 people which lives in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Brazil and Venezuela. When they went public in 2023, the liberal government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva vowed action, creating a taskforce.
In a new article, however, an official of the Brazilian bishops’ conference called that taskforce “powerless,” asserting that “pain, hunger, malnourishment, rape, devastation, killings [and] chaos” remain the order of the day for the small Indigenous group.
“Despite the efforts of many public servants and Indigenous leaders to plan actions and services in order to fight hunger and disease, there has been no success because other state agents – the Army, the Air Force, and the Security Forces – deliberately failed to fully comply with the determinations of the Yanomami Operation,” claims the article by Roberto Liebgott, a coordinator with the Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (known by the Portuguese acronym CIMI).
In 2023, a few days after Lula took over, the humanitarian crisis among the Yanomami came to public attention. At least 343 people, most of them children and elders, died in 2022 from malaria, malnourishment, and other avoidable causes. Dozens of patients in serious conditions waited for some kind of help.
The situation prompted Lula’s administration to establish a broad operation in order to provide urgent medical attention to numerous Yanomami children in critical condition and to prevent new cases.
One of the first measures taken by the government was to expel from the Yanomami territory at least part of the 26,000 illegal miners operating in the region. Their work had been devastating vast areas of rainforest during the administration of former conservative President Jair Bolsonaro.
According to allegations from human rights activists, the illegal miners had been contaminating the soil and the rivers with heavy metals, bringing infectious diseases to the villagers (including COVID-19), introducing alcohol and drugs, raping Indigenous girls, and killing Yanomami who tried to oppose their presence.
The deep mining pits opened in areas previously covered with vegetation had been accumulating stormwater and creating an ideal environment for the mosquitoes that disseminate malaria, something that observers say provoked unprecedented surges of the disease and numerous deaths.
Operations conducted by the Armed Forces and officers of other governmental agencies have expelled most of such miners, but some of them remain in the area. Their operations are carried out with heavy equipment and air support. Critics say there’s evidence that the remaining groups are connected to mafia-like drug organizations that use mining for money laundering.
According to Liebgott, most of the measures taken by the Lula administration “were short-term actions guided by the effect they had over the media.”
“The government didn’t understand the seriousness of the human tragedy caused by the miners and failed to adopt systemic measures in the territory to combat the invasions, take the intruders out, and ensure the communities’ protection,” Liebgott told Crux.
In his opinion, Lula’s administration failed to fight the criminal organizations that control illegal mining from the outside, “those which fund the infrastructure, recruit the workers and send them over to the Indigenous territory.”
“The genocide [of the Yanomami people] which started in the Bolsonaro administration continues to happen, despite the good intentions of the current administration,” he said.
According to the Yanomami organization “Hutukara,” 308 members of the group died between January and November of 2023 (more than half were children under 5), a number that is similar to 2022.
Hutukara reported that the area impacted by illegal mining grew 7 percent in 2023, a lower rate than the ones reported during the Bolsonaro years (between 2021-2022, the growth corresponded to 54 percent). Nevertheless, it’s a sign that the problems continue.
“I estimate that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 illegal miners still operating here,” Junior Hekurari, one of the coordinators of healthcare in the Yanomami territory, told Crux.
Hekurari has been accompanying the healthcare situation in the Surucucu community and said that there are fewer people sick and dying now than there were in the previous years, but the conditions remain critical in communities near the illegal mining areas.
“The rivers are dirty and people can’t fish. Some children and elders are very skinny. Malaria continues to infect hundreds in some communities. But no child has died here lately,” Hekurari said, adding that he would see “four or five kids die every week” in the period he spent in Surucucu during the Bolsonaro administration.
Hekurari said that the Armed Forces have been sending helicopters to combat the invaders. The officers burn and destroy their equipment during such raids. But the problem is that it doesn’t take long for the miners to receive new machinery and go back to work, he described.
“Their planes bring everything back on the following day,” he lamented.
Despite that, Hekurari thinks that the situation is better now than during the Bolsonaro administration. The former president notoriously supported the economic exploitation of Indigenous lands and reduced the monitoring and control operations carried out by environmental agencies during his tenure.
“Now, at least we see a way out of it. But we want the government to listen to us. We want to take part in the strategic planning for our territory. We want long-term measures, not only emergency efforts,” he said.
Cardinal Leonardo Steiner of Manaus, who heads CIMI, visited the Yanomami territory last year during the height of the crisis and accompanied the urgent actions taken by the government. He’s now planning to travel to a nearby city next week, where he will talk to local missionaries and indigenous leaders about the current situation.
“In 2023, the Yanomami were suffering with the impossibility of planting cassava and other vegetables of vital importance for them due to the illegal mining and heavy rains. That problem continues and makes them physically weak,” Steiner told Crux.
Steiner considers that the government took some important measures last year, especially the foundation of the Ministry of the Indigenous Peoples, headed by Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara.
“It was a very significant step. But, of course, it takes time till a new ministry obtains the necessary strength, structure, and budget,” he added.
The National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (known as FUNAI), the governmental agency in charge of protecting the Indigenous peoples, has been facing several difficulties as well, Steiner affirmed, adding that he hopes it can be restructured and regain the authority it once had.
He said that the major problem today is the Congress, which has been taking several decisions that go against the needs of the Indigenous peoples.
One of them was approval of a bill containing the so-called temporal landmark thesis, that determines that only the Indigenous groups that were occupying their traditional territories when the Brazilian constitution was approved in 1988 can now ask the government to grant them.
Numerous peoples still wait to be the official occupiers of their lands and many of them have to deal with invaders. The temporal landmark thesis was considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but the Congress approved it anyway. It will take time till the law is revoked by the judiciary, and organizations such as CIMI fear the confusion and violence the process will cause in many parts of the country.
“The Congress also supports the exploitation of Indigenous territories. We in the Amazon know exactly what that means in terms of devastation,” Steiner, who is the Archbishop of Manaus in Amazonas State, said.