A humanitarian crisis looms in Brazil's Yanomami territory, where communities have been ravaged by malnutrition, malaria, COVID-19 and widespread illegal mining. Now, the central government is trying to crack down on illegal mining and support these communities after years of neglect.
Last week, the government of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva kicked off a widespread operation to stop illegal mining on Yanomami Indigenous territory.
Videos of the operation have gone viral over social media over the last week. In one, officers from Brazil’s environmental protection agency IBAMA approach a boat of illegal miners trying to motor into the area. The officers wear bulletproof vests over tan and camouflage uniforms. Their guns are raised.
“Stop,” they yell. “Stop. Turn around now.”
The officers pull alongside the boat. "Get your hands on your heads,” they yell. “You're going to come with us.”
The miners comply without a word. There are eight of them in the boat that is packed with bags and supplies.
Since the operation kicked off, IBAMA officers have found and destroyed a plane, a helicopter and other heavy machinery.
In a press conference last week, Justice Minister Flavio Dino said they were confiscating and destroying equipment so that it can’t be reused in illegal activities and those people who refuse to leave may be arrested.
Removing 20,000 illegal miners is not an easy task. Yanomami territory along Brazil’s northern border is remote and huge — roughly two times the size of Switzerland. Wildcat gold mining on Yanomami territory increased 300% in the last four years under ex-president Jair Bolsonaro.
Last week, a delegation of Yanomami leaders traveled to the US to raise further attention to their cause.
“They want to steal our land and destroy our nature, our water,” Leader Davi Kopenawa told the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the opening of a Yanomami photography exhibit in New York. "They are bringing disease. That’s why we’re here."
Fiona Watson traveled with the delegation in the United States. She's worked with the Yanomami for decades, and she’s the director of research and advocacy at the London-based NGO Survival International.
"We had political meetings in Washington with the Organization of American States, with the State Department, USAID and various Congress people, and I think that was really important,” she said.
“Because, Lula met with Biden last Friday, and it really put the Yanomami crisis into the spotlight.”
The news reports and images of starving Yanomami children have shocked the world in recent weeks. At least 570 Yanomami children are reported to have died from malnutrition and curable diseases under the Bolsonaro government. Dozens more have been flown to hospitals in recent days. The communities are battling malaria, mercury poisoning from the wildcat gold mines, hunger and constant threats from the miners who are backed by criminal groups.
President Lula visited the region on Jan. 20, where he promised to turn the tide.
“I am here to say that we are going to treat our Indigenous peoples as first-class human beings. Not like fourth or fifth-class people,” he said. "What I have seen here is inhumane.”
Lula has declared a humanitarian crisis for Yanomami territory.
The Brazilian military has been delivering aid, food and supplies to Yanomami villages.
Yanomami leaders blame former President Jair Bolsonaro for empowering illegal miners, gutting Indigenous and environmental protection agencies and ignoring their pleas for help.
"Many teams came from Bolsonaro's government to see our reality,” Junior Hekurari, the president of the Yanomami Health Council, told the Brazilian news outlet Brasil de Fato. "I took them around and showed them first hand, but unfortunately they just turned their backs or closed their ears."
Brazil’s Supreme Court has called for an investigation into allegations of genocide by the Bolsonaro government against the Yanomami people.
But in an interview last week, Bolsonaro’s former environment minister Ricardo Salles denied any wrongdoing by the former president.
"The responsibility for that situation is in the hands of all of Brazilian society,” he said. "All of Brazilian society has ignored the situation for the Indigenous in northern Brazil for a very long time."
Salles further applauded Bolsonaro’s attempts to legalize wildcat mining on Indigenous lands, which he said could have regulated the activity and its impact.
Meanwhile, numerous videos shared online last week showed groups of miners voluntarily packing up and leaving their camps in Yanomami territory.
"This is all very positive,” Fiona Watson said. "But what I fear, is that the intentions are there. They’ve hit the ground running. But time and time again, we've seen [this] in the past with the Yanomami and indeed other Indigenous territories. It's so easy for these illegal miners to go back and of course all the politicians and big economic interests behind something like the gold industry are still there.”
Yanomami land is only one of numerous Indigenous territories that have been invaded by illegal miners in recent years. In other words, Indigenous leaders say, the government efforts are an important first step. But there is a long way to go.
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