Squalid men, women and children, with apparent rib bones and gazes of abandonment begging for help. All are Brazilians of the Yanomami indigenous ethnic group, residing in the state of Roraima, northern Brazil. The images have travelled around the world, portraying the lack of public policies and omissions. They also reveal the neglectful treatment meted out to native peoples of the Amazon and worsened in recent years, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that killed 570 Yanomami children from 2019 to 2022. These figures represent 29% more fatalities than in the previous four years, according to the Ministry of Health.
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The connection between starvation and illegal mining may not be so clear to many, but it is real and has a direct connection with the images that deeply shocked Brazil and the world. Almires Machado, the first indigenous professor at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), says that the existence of indigenous peoples is inseparable from their capacity of feeding themselves with what they hunt and fish. Products used in illegal mining, ranging from mercury to caustic soda, pollute rivers, fish, vegetation and fruits. The problem is aggravated by the escalation of violent conflicts with miners and land grabbers, which generate tension among indigenous people – the fear of coming across an armed criminal while looking for food.
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This feeling of uncertainty prevents indigenous people from exploring the forest far beyond where they live, even if the surrounding area is contaminated. "This was the treatment we received ever since the first European set foot in the so-called New World", says Professor Almires Machado, whose mother belongs to the Guarani ethnic group, and father, to the Terena ethnic group.
The Yanomami relatives use bows and arrows. The prospectors use automatic weapons, with high destructive power and increasingly accessible. Whenever there is a confrontation, the Yanomami is almost always at disadvantage" - Professor Almires Machado
Almires Machado also points out that the support network for the preservation of the indigenous peoples well-being has been dismantled in the last four years. This includes not only the government bodies responsible for fighting environmental crimes, such as the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Resources (Ibama) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), but also the medical and food assistance for indigenous peoples by means of the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai). The latter, a fundamental vector in the fight against malaria, a parasitic disease that has also spread among Brazilian indigenous people.
Between 2014 and 2020, the number of cases increased 12 times, according to the Epidemiological Surveillance Information System. Among the actions taken to change this scenario, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security published in the Official Gazette last Monday (30) the creation of a working group to establish measures with the purpose of combating illegal mining in indigenous lands in 60 days.
Another factor also composes the scene: there are many reports of miners co-opting indigenous people for illegal work and fomenting rivalries within villages, including the handing over of weapons to recruited indigenous people who, with no alternative left, would agree to work in mining. In addition, the professor points out that there are also several reports of sexual exploitation of indigenous children and adolescents.
"The Yanomami ‘relatives’ – as they refer to individuals from other ethnicities - use bows and arrows. The prospectors use automatic weapons, with high destructive power and increasingly accessible. Whenever there is a confrontation, the Yanomami is almost always at disadvantage. The greeting is already a buckshot reception. What they do is hide the children, the future of the villages, the priority", explains Machado.
For him, it is time for the political segment to react firmly, building greater political representation, something that is beginning to change with the presence of indigenous people heading existing bodies, such as Sesai and Funai (National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples), and also with the creation of the unprecedented Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. “The new government has already shown, at least, humanity concern. So, it's a good start. I see public opinion shocked and also mobilized. I know that most Brazilians are pro-indigenous life. I believe that this pressure will result in politicians making other decisions and not desiring to embarrass themselves internationally", he highlights.
Growing and diversified criminal networks
The murders of indigenist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, in June 2022, made the power of organized crime that revolves around the Amazon rainforest explicit as well as the way by which it interferes in social relations in the region, especially among traditional peoples. Professor Aiala Colares Couto holds a postdoctoral degree in Geography and develops researches on crime and violence in the Amazon. He was in Roraima in 2022, where he observed a phenomenon he classifies as dependence on the state, under which he includes the capital Boa Vista, in what concerns mining and activities derived from it.
In the last two years, the government of Roraima state has sanctioned at least two pro-mining laws, later declared unconstitutional by the Federal Supreme Court: one that authorized mining activities employing mercury and another that prohibited the destruction of machinery seized in anti-environmental operations in the state.
Professor Aiala explains that, with the economy and so many direct and indirect jobs revolving around the mining activity, it tends to expand and invade indigenous lands, especially those that are not demarcated. Officially, civil construction accounts for 64.6% of these jobs and is the main sector of the economy of Roraima, according to data from the National Confederation of Industry (CNI). Mining, considering metallic and non-metallic minerals, accounts for 3.6%.
"The smuggling of wood and ores, such as gold, cassiterite and manganese, land grabbing for speculation purposes, the emergence of militias in areas of land disputes, land claimed by indigenous peoples and quilombolas constitute structural problems in the Amazon. Conflicts over the use of territories added to the negligence on the part of the State towards the protection and guarantee of the rights of indigenous people have strengthened a necropolitical project that promotes genocide and ecocide, that is, the death of ethnic groups and also of nature”, explains the professor.
Aiala points out that the biggest challenges for the Brazilian government today are to guarantee the autonomy of territories and face organized crime infiltrated in the Amazon and in indigenous lands. He explains that international factions and drug traffickers from countries that border the Brazilian Amazon is a reality. In addition, branches of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) – regarded as the largest criminal organization in Brazil, originated in the state of São Paulo – have also arrived in the region.
People also claim for help in other states
Professor Aiala Colares Couto warns that, in the southwest of Pará, the Munduruku lands have also been impacted by the activity of miners who open up exploration areas within indigenous territories, expelling and moving away entire villages. "This is very serious, as there are reports, by indigenous peoples, of threats to village leaders and even of their being co-opted by miners. It is necessary to prevent the indigenous people of this region from experiencing the same problems that the Yanomami have been through in Roraima. Strengthen protection bodies and combating illegal mining must be a commitment, on the part of the State, to indigenous peoples", he says.
The Kayapó and Munduruku indigenous lands in Pará; Yanomami in Roraima and Amazonas; and Sawré Muybu, also in Pará, with the presence of isolates, are those with the largest areas invaded by miners. Data are from the Environmental Research Institute of the Amazon (Ipam) and from Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab).
The Secretary of Communication of the Roraima government , in note, emphasized that “the management of indigenous peoples is of exclusive competence of the Federal Government”, - the one who conducts operations against illegal mining, receiving support from the State Government, when requested. “considering the access to the areas is restricted”. The note also states that, in the last four years, the Government of Roraima “carried out 27,650 health care services to indigenous people in the five hospital units located in the capital and that care within the community is under responsibility of the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health”.
The document also informs that the state executive branch “is open to dialogue and available to the Federal Government for action”. In addition, more than 203,000 medication samples were passed on by the Government of Roraima to support health care actions that will be carried out by professionals who will work at the Federal Government Field Hospital – set up alongside the structure of the Casa de Saúde Indígena.
Outside the Amazon - Professor Almires Machado, from UFPA, warns that the Guarani-Kaiowá people, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, have also faced similar problems since the beginning of the 2000s. At the place, however, it is agribusiness that pushes indigenous peoples away from their villages. “In agribusiness, there are similar methodologies that seek to invade more and more lands to produce on a large scale, causing deforestation of areas for pasture. This is an obstacle to the well-being of indigenous peoples in various parts of Brazil”, he states.
The concern with the Guarani Kaiowá people was also highlighted by the Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara, in a recent interview with Empresa Brasil de Comunicação (EBC) vehicles. “We have received requests from the Guarani Kaiowá. They live in repossession areas (areas that have not yet been demarcated, disputed by farmers) and this scenario makes food production difficult,” she said.
Most of the areas awaiting demarcation are within the Amazon
One of the worst problems shared by different ethnic groups is the lack of land demarcation. The proof lies in the fact that when the Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara, took office last January, shouts of “demarcation now” could be heard in the background.
According to data available on the Funai website, there are currently 237 areas in Brazil whose demarcation processes are still “under analysis” - the majority is in the Legal Amazon. In this scenario, there is an increasing number of rural environmental registers (CARs) issued on indigenous lands, that is, rural properties that have been registered in areas that have not yet been demarcated as indigenous lands, or even in some areas that have already been demarcated. It happens because the registration is self-declaratory, leaving state agencies to analyze and validate the declared information. The document is also mandatory to register the area of rural properties.
Besides, according to data provided by Ipam and Coiab, indigenous lands with isolated peoples have 10.9% of the territory in situation of overlapping illegal registers. Among the lands without isolated people, where there are indigenous people who already have contact and interaction with the outside of the village, the average of overlapping registers is of 7.8%. Also, according to these data, the Ituna/Itatá indigenous land alone, located between the Pará municipalities of Altamira and Senador José Porfírio, for example, has 94% of the territory overlapping with CARs registers.
Assistance to indigenous peoples faces obstacles
A research carried out by Mapbiomas – a collaborative network composed by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), universities and technology startups – points out that there are currently 13,161 indigenous people suffering from hunger and malnutrition, due to illegal mining, in five territories of Pará and of Amazonas, the two states with the largest territorial extension in the country.
The great distances in the Amazon, the limited options of transport and the large number of indigenous people dispersed in different villages and territories become logistical obstacles to guarantee health assistance to indigenous peoples. Still, there are individuals who do not hesitate on efforts to provide support and solidarity. The initiative “Ação Cidadania Contra a Fome”, an entity that promotes food security through donations throughout Brazil, has been carrying out a task force since the health crisis of the Yanomami emerged. With support from the Armed Forces, they have already delivered 17 tons of food to Roraima. Rodrigo Afonso, executive director of the institution, highlights that this is a job that requires planning to meet specific demands, very different from the needs of those who live in large urban centers.
In each region, we contact the local indigenous department to collect information. The National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples helps us along this process of deeper investigation of people's eating habits, as such providing what they in fact need and consume”, he explains. “It's more than just donating food, since we have to combine cultural and nutritional aspects. In the case of the Yanomami people, for example, we had to send powdered milk, something they (originally) are not used to consume. But, according to health professionals, children need a very nutritious diet, due to the severity of the cases. Our work is very meticulous and does not allow mistakes", he adds.
Rodrigo Afonso points out that the indigenous people are not used to and would not even have a place to store food for long periods, therefore, the shipping schedule needs to be well planned to avoid waste. "Our challenge is to continue providing assistance when the chaos is no longer in the spotlight. This issue will gradually be forgotten by the media and this leads to a reduction in donations. A medium and long-term perspective is necessary. And we always count on solidarity of Brazilians, who can help us via the website www.acaodacidadania.org.br", he says.
Commotion must turn into pressure
Indigenous professor Almires Machado agrees that a long and medium-term plan is needed for solving the famine problem of the native peoples in the Amazon. He states that the basic-needs grocery packages are an emergency action, but that the problem itself is much broader and multidisciplinary. Machado points out that the anthropological aspect of indigenous food has been distorted by the progress of mining, which takes alcohol, ultra-processed foods containing coloring and various industrialized products to the villages. In other words, the first step is to remove illegal miners from the region.
There is no Brazil without indigenous peoples, because they arrived here when everything was still nothing" - Professor Almires Machado
The professor hopes that the commotion provoked by the images of the humanitarian crisis of the Yanomami results in concrete actions. According to him, seeing indigenous peoples surviving, despite so many extermination attempts, is a reminder that, regardless how much brutality is committed against indigenous peoples, they resist: there is no Brazil without indigenous peoples, because they arrived here when everything was still nothing. "There was an estimate that by the 1980s, there would no longer be indigenous people alive in Brazil. It was the opposite. We have demonstrated resilience and resistance", he says.
The indigenous professor reiterates that, in the last 523 years, the way of intimidating native peoples has not changed. “It just moved back at some times and was stronger at others, but it's alive. However, not all non-indigenous Brazilians approve that. The news reinforces the idea that the invasion and conquest continue in northern Brazil. Some people are shocked and this needs to be turned into desire to pressure politicians”, he points out. “I am very grateful for all the people who show solidarity, after all, we are all Brazilians. And we all have indigenous customs in our daily lives, from street names to the food we eat. It's part of our culture. And always will," he concludes.