The Lula Administration’s Response to the Yanomami Crisis
In January, following sudden outrage after footage of sick and starving Yanomami were made public, the Brazilian government, headed by the newly sworn-in president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, declared a public health emergency and launched a campaign to provide assistance and evict tens of thousands of illegal miners, known as garimpeiros, from the territory—located in the state of Roraima. During the course of the operation, special-forces environmental operatives destroyed aircrafts and seized boats and weapons.
The Yanomami occupy the mountains and rainforests of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. Some 30,000 Indigenous people, mainly Yanomami, live in the reserve—which is the largest in the country. Gold mining on Indigenous reservations is considered illegal in Brazil and is at the root of the current Yanomami crisis. Miners bring tidal waves of disease, contaminate rivers with mercury, and hunt species that are critical for Indigenous diets—leading to severe malnutrition. Furthermore, miners frequently attack the Indigenous community.
In the past, the Brazilian government has done little to combat these issues, which have only multiplied. The last president, Jair Bolsonaro, viewed the Yanomami as an obstacle to the advancement of the region, attempting throughout his term to revoke the demarcation of the territory. While he failed to do so, he succeeded in reducing funding for state agencies in charge of preventing illegal mining, logging, and ranching.
The current president, Lula, recently accused his predecessor for not only inciting a humanitarian crisis, but committing “genocide” against the Yanomami people. Lula blamed the former president for enabling thousands of gold miners to enter the reserve, poisoning rivers with mercury and critically destroying forests—both resources the Yanomami depend on to survive.
After a visit to the region last month, Lula said: “More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw … was a genocide. A premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government impervious to the suffering of the Brazilian people.”
According to a report conducted by the Socio-Environmental Institute titled “Yanomami Under Attack,” under the Bolsonaro administration (2019-2022), the death rate of Indigenous children aged five or younger rose 29% compared to the previous government. At least 570 Yanomami children are reported to have died of curable diseases during that period.
Furthermore, the report found that the Yanomami territory was responsible for half of Brazil’s malaria cases and that more than 3,000 children were malnourished. In terms of environmental damage, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), illegal mining in the Yanomami territory led to 2,367 acres of deforestation during Bolsonaro’s term in office.
Since the operation to overcome the humanitarian crisis in the Yanomami territory was launched, more than 100 health care personnel have been recruited and over 6,200 Yanomami people have been treated. However, a host of challenges remain, as the efforts underway demand complex infrastructural and logistical attention.
A prevailing lack of sufficient personal, deteriorating infrastructure, and minimal support from the military is preventing access to the most vulnerable communities. More specifically, a lack of aircrafts means that communities living in remote and densely forested areas are unable to be reached and that transportation of patients between facilities and their communities is limited. Issues of accessibility and transportation coexist alongside an urgent scarcity of medical professionals on the ground. Furthermore, while miners have begun to flee, the government has failed to monitor their destinations, meaning they may simply be moving into other Indigenous lands.
Aside from the operations currently underway on the ground, the Lula administration seeks to eliminate illegal gold mining through policy as well. The recently-created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples—the first in Brazil’s history—plans to ensure the protection, well-being, and territorial management of the Yanomami people and other Indigenous groups in the country. Furthermore, in early February, Attorney General Augusto Aras requested the Supreme Court to overturn a law passed in 2013, which allows gold trade based on the principle of “good faith.”
The bill, by exempting buyers from verifying the origins of the mineral, discourages enforcement actions and protects companies that buy gold mined illegally in the Amazon. The Federal Police and the Public Ministry are currently investigating authorized gold trading companies, known as DTVMs, suspected of laundering illegal gold.
Furthermore, according to the Minister of Justice and Public Security Flávio Dino, the federal police plan to investigate the possibility of genocide and other crimes against the Yanomami people occurring under the last administration.
Ultimately, while the immediate removal of illegal gold miners from the Yanomami reserve holds the promise of ensuring Indigenous people’s health and livelihoods and restoring areas deforested by mining, much remains to be done, both in terms of resource allocation and policy.
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My name is Clara Rabbani and I am a rising Junior at the University of Chicago, majoring in Anthropology with a minor in Environmental Studies. During my time with Latina Republic, I worked as an Environmental Writer with a focus on Brazil. My stories were primarily centered on activism, indigenous life, current environmental crises and innovations, and national NGOs. The conservation of nature and native biodiversity, as well as the preservation of indigenous voices have been major themes in my work. Working as a Latin American Correspondent has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Bringing attention to such urgent environmental topics has really informed my own understanding of our current social systems and governments and influenced the path I want to follow professionally. As I pursue my studies in the fields of Anthropology and Environmental Studies, I hope to continue building on the many skills I have developed in my time with Latina Republic. I truly appreciate the work the organization is doing as a platform for students to explore a variety of relevant themes while developing their own writing and voice.