- Within weeks of taking office, the new Brazilian government began an emergency operation to provide health care assistance to Indigenous people in the Yanomami territory and remove the 20,000 illegal gold miners there who have sparked a humanitarian and environmental crisis.
- So far, over 6,200 Yanomami people have been treated and more than 100 health care personnel have been recruited. However, a lack of health care workers, deteriorating infrastructure and minimal support from the military is preventing access to communities most in need.
- As miners have begun to flee the area and environmental authorities seize and destroy their equipment, some Indigenous leaders say important progress is underway but more remains to be done.
SÃO PAULO — Since the new Brazilian government under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office on Jan. 1, its ministries have been working together to overcome a humanitarian crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. The situation there has grown dire over the last four years under the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, with the Yanomami people facing waves of invasions by illegal gold miners. The Yanomami, who number about 30,000, have to contend with some 20,000 illegal gold miners, known locally as garimpeiros, who have brought in a tidal wave of disease, mercury contamination in their rivers, severe malnutrition, attacks, and deaths.
In view of the situation, the Lula administration declared a state of public health emergency in the Yanomami territory on Jan. 20 and identified two major priorities: to provide health and food assistance to the Yanomami people, and to remove the illegal miners from their territory. As of today, thousands of Indigenous people have been treated and illegal miners have fled, but a list of technical and logistical struggles remain.
A few days before the emergency declaration, a team from the Ministry of Health and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) traveled to Roraima, the Brazilian state that hosts part of the Yanomami territory. What they found confirmed previous investigations carried out in the past few years by human rights organizations: Children and the elderly were mostly skin and bones, seriously ill from preventable diseases spread by miners. Outbreaks of malaria were rampant due to the stagnant pools of water they left behind, ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes.
More than half of Yanomami children were underweight and suffering from acute to chronic malnutrition. In the territory’s Arathaú community, that number is nearly 80% for children under the age of 5. In this same community, cases of malaria increased by 1,127% between 2018 and 2020, according to a report by the Hutukara Yanomami Association. At least 570 infants have died over the past four years from diseases such as diarrhea and malaria. The use of mercury by miners has also contaminated the rivers that the Yanomami depend on for drinking, bathing and fishing.
Health care facilities in the region were described as “dilapidated,” with “insufficient doctors and nurses,” according to the inspectors from the Ministry of Health.
A health care hiring spree
Results from the several weeks of operations are coming to light: as of today, more than 6,200 Yanomami people have been treated at the Indigenous health centers in the Surucucu, Auaris and Missão Catrimoni regions of the Indigenous territory, according to the Ministry of Health. Some have also been treated in the Roraima state capital, Boa Vista, at the House of Indigenous Health (CASAI), the small mobile hospital set up beside CASAI, and in municipal hospitals for the most serious cases. Of the 19 children hospitalized for acute malnutrition, aged between 6 months and 5 years, 15 gained weight and improved to a moderate condition.
“The government’s actions have been effective, and carried out even earlier than I expected. As soon as the government took office,” Márcio Santilli, one of the founders of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO that advocates for Indigenous and environmental causes, told Mongabay. “It released information such as the deaths of Yanomami children and took measures in the first few weeks, precipitating the issue in a very strong way.”
The challenges of bringing this crisis to an end, however, are immense. The operations demand complex infrastructure and logistics, which have not yet been properly supplied.
Some 30,000 Indigenous people, predominantly Yanomami but also groups in voluntary isolation, live in the Yanomami territory, an area almost the size of Portugal. Many of the 376 existing communities in the area are located in remote and densely forested places. Aircraft are key to getting to these communities. Although health care teams are being deployed to the region and 100 health workers were sent for the operation, there’s still a lack of medical professionals on the ground.
The Ministry of Health confirmed that 42 Indigenous people in the Yanomami Indigenous territory, including children, died in the first two months of this year. Six deaths are still being investigated. The main causes were severe malnutrition, diarrhea and pneumonia. If confirmed, the total of 48 deaths in two months will be similar to the four-year average under the Bolsonaro administration: 1,181, or nearly 25 deaths per month.
The Brazilian Air Force, which set up the mobile hospital next to CASAI, did not say whether there had been any deaths on site.
The Yanomami Special Indigenous Health District (DSEI) in Boa Vista, which runs 37 centers in the territory, still has only 5% of vacancies occupied. The invasion by illegal miners has led to seven of these centers being closed down, one set on fire, and the rest in a precarious situation.
In late February, the Ministry of Health urgently hired 14 professionals to the “More Doctors” program. Created in 2013 to provide basic care to vulnerable and remote populations in the country, the program was shuttered under Bolsonaro. Another five doctors will soon be hired, all on a permanent basis.
Too few helicopters and deteriorated runways
“The new government has already signaled that it is committed to improving the conditions of the Yanomami, but it is still insufficient in its entirety,” Kleber Karipuna, executive coordinator of APIB, Brazil’s biggest Indigenous rights coalition, told Mongabay.
“It was supposed to build a mobile hospital in the Surucucu region, which would relieve 60% of the patients at CASAI Yanomami, but so far it has not started. And there are not enough aircraft to transport patients and take them back to the communities.”
Setting up the proposed mobile hospital depends on the renovation of the Surucucu airstrip, located almost 300 kilometers (190 miles) from the capital and used by the Brazilian army since the 1980s. However, this runway has been in bad condition due to lack of maintenance. Large cargo aircraft can’t land here, meaning heavy equipment such as paving machines can’t be transported to the site, slowing the runway’s renovation process. Only helicopters can use the runway.
“For now, it’s a plug hole operation, just to close the craters,” said Karipuna, who was in the Surucucu region two weeks earlier. “The work on leveling the airfield will take at least two months.”
Another deteriorated army airstrip in Auaris, in the far west of Roraima, about 450 km (170 mi) from Boa Vista, is also preventing quick access to one of the most at-risk Yanomami communities in the Indigenous territory.
According to the Federal Public Defender’s Office, 98% of access to Yanomami land is by air, but the armed forces have provided only two helicopters to Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, and to the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI).
Public defenders traveled to the Yanomami territory in January and shortly afterward sent a letter to the ministries of defense and of justice.
“While only the Surucucu region was attended to, leaders of the Auaris villages were clamoring for immediate help with no prospect of assistance due to lack of aircraft,” they said.
With the lack of helicopters, people with serious health cases take longer to be transported to facilities in Boa Vista.
Funai also made two requests to the military for more flights for the delivery of 5,000 food baskets to the Yanomami, but received no response. Mongabay contacted the Brazilian Air Force for comment, but did not received a response by the time of publication.
Illegal miners flee, but go where?
The second major goal of removing the gold miners from the Yanomami territory began on Feb. 6, when agents from IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, moved into the area with logistical support from Funai and other government bodies.
Removing the 20,000 illegal miners is essential for other actions to be carried out in the territory, Jair Schmitt, substitute director of environmental protection at IBAMA, told Mongabay. Their removal will help secure the Indigenous people’s health and livelihoods, and restore areas deforested by mining, he said.
Miners, when extracting gold and cassiterite with the help of infrastructure, planes, helicopters, tractors and supplies worth millions of dollars, use mercury to separate gold from the earth. They then burn off the mercury, which evaporates into the air and sinks into rivers, contaminating the water that’s consumed by both people and aquatic life. High exposure to mercury can lead to severe neurological abnormalities, premature births and birth defects.
According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which monitors changes in the Amazon’s tree cover using satellite imagery, illegal mining in the Yanomami territory led to 958 hectares (2,367 acres) of deforestation under Bolsonaro (from 2019 to 2022). A 2022 report by the Hutukara Yanomami Association showed illegal mining increased by 46% between 2020 and 2021, following a 3,350% surge from 2016 to 2020. Miners have also lured Yanomami youth into mining and underaged girls and young women into sex work. Some miners also face allegations of rape and murder.
So far, IBAMA has destroyed a shed next to a clandestine runway, where 4.4 metric tons of cassiterite, a tin ore, were being processed, in addition to fuel stocks (diesel and gasoline). They seized the cassiterite and destroyed a plane, a helicopter and a tractor. No gold or mercury have been found to date; both items are said to be well hidden.
IBAMA and the National Agency of Petroleum Natural Gas and Biofuels (ANP) have cracked down on irregular sale of aviation fuel to distributors in Roraima. They’ve also fined four companies from Amazonas and São Paulo states for selling fuel to miners.
On foot or by boat, and less often by helicopter, the miners have begun leaving the demarcated territory, but the government isn’t monitoring where they’re headed. Environmentalists and human rights organizations say they fear the miners will simply move into other Indigenous lands. Some of the miners have crossed the border west into Venezuela, where illegal mining has largely contributed to increasing deforestation, while others have crossed into Guyana in the north. Others have spread out in cities close to Boa Vista.
In late February, the Guyana Defense Force detected an illegal mining site in the New River Triangle area, where communities of the Indigenous Tiriyó people live. They seized a helicopter and arrested two Brazilians. Other miners managed to escape.
“We don’t know how many miners have left the Yanomami territory, and it is unlikely that anyone has that number,” Schmitt, the IBAMA official, told Mongabay. “It is also difficult to predict how long it will take since they are distributed in distant areas and a lot of mines still operate.”
Santilli, from ISA, has a different opinion. He estimates that the withdrawal will end in less than a year.
“The garimpeiros cannot survive without logistical support. Some say there are only around 1,000 left, resistant and armed,” he told Mongabay.
IBAMA teams, along with police and public security agents, have set up control bases on the Uraricoera River, where a cluster of mines, camps, tents and floating restaurants are located, to block boats bringing supplies to the miners and transporting the extracted ore out. In the early morning of Feb. 23, gunmen on board a fleet of seven vessels broke through the blockade at one of the river bases, in the village of Palimiú, and shot at IBAMA officials. The agents shot back, injuring one miner and arresting him. The others managed to flee. The boats were loaded with cassiterite.
Politics and power
The governor of Roraima, Antonio Denarium, an ally of the former Bolsonaro government, declared in February that gold miners operating in the Yanomami territory were not criminals. In reality, gold mining in Indigenous territories is illegal under any circumstances in Brazil. The governor also said that he has uncles and cousins who partake in mining activity.
In the same month, the federal police carried out an operation into money laundering linked to the illegal gold industry. One of the people they investigated is Vanda Garcia, the sister of the Roraima governor. The group that Vanda Garcia is part of allegedly laundered 64 million reais ($13 million) in two years, according to the police.
Mongabay contacted the governor of Roraima by phone and email for an interview, but received no response at the time of publication.
The Lula administration is also cracking down on illegal gold mining through policies and bills presented before the courts and Congress. On Feb. 7, Attorney General Augusto Aras petitioned the Supreme Federal Court to overturn a law establishing the concept of “good faith” of gold buyers, which critics say eases illegal gold laundering. On Feb. 13, an Indigenous member of Congress, requested the expedition of a bill presented by Funai president Joenia Wapichana that establishes new rules for tracking the gold trade. The Yanomami crisis may drive the bill to a vote in the coming weeks, though it may encounter resistance in the new Congress, which has a largely pro-mining agenda.
For its part, the recently created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, the first in Brazil’s history, is operating on several fronts to achieve goals to guarantee the well-being and territorial management of the Yanomami people and other Indigenous groups in the country.
“We will create public policies in the areas of health, education and social rights,” Eloy Terena, the ministry’s executive secretary, told Mongabay. “We are carrying out studies and preparing a set of environmental and territorial management measures so that they have full access to their lands and can manage their own resources.”
This information gathering will be completed by the end of April, but the ministry has already defined some emergency points, such as access to clean drinking water. A technical team from SESAI is verifying the ideal places for drilling wells in the Yanomami territory and in other areas, such as where the Guarani-Kaiowá people live, in Mato Grosso do Sul state.
Banner image: The Yanomami health disaster created a favorable setting for changes in Brazil’s gold trading laws. Image courtesy of Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We discuss how the Brazilian presidential election could alter the outlook for the Amazon going forward with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president (recorded before the election). Listen here: