The Yanomami genocide in Brazil

By Mariana Taubemblatt

The Yanomamis are an indigenous group composed of several denominations in Latin America. In Brazil, they live in the States of the Amazon and in Roraima in a federal reserve of more than 9 million acres, there are around 30 thousand people within this group in several different communities. The Yanomamis live off of agriculture, hunting and fishing, meaning that they are dependent on the health of the land where they live. Back in the 1970s, new development projects started to advance within their territory as well as gold panning, negatively affecting the indigenous people in the region. The opening of new roads and the intensification of commercial activities such as mining, caused the Yanomamis to permanently live with activities that damaged their lands. Agropecuary and mineral extraction can be pointed as two of the main activities that damaged the environment, such problems were only intensified by population growth.

With the increase in economic opportunities and the development of cities, the search for gold in the region only grew during the 70s and 80s, leading to the number of miners being 5 times higher than the number of Yanomamis. The exploitation of indigenous land and violence against its population only decreased when in 1992 the President, Fernando Collor officially declared Yanomami land as a federal reserve. Such a decision was controversial and led to tensions between the President and military officers, who believed his actions were anti-growth and would damage the country’s economy. There are, however, good reasons to protect indigenous territory and the population within it, the increased competition among miners leads to disputes for territorial control among themselves and with indigenous people, increasing violence in the region, besides that, there is also the contamination of rivers and soil by chemicals and the spread of diseases indigenous people had to had contact with before

The former military member Jair Bolsonaro seems to share the same opinions considering that when he was a Deputy in Congress proposed to nullify the established boundaries for the Yanomami’s federal reserve. It is a common belief among the military that the creation of federal reserves is a conspiracy by NGOs and foreign governments to prevent Brazil from growing economically, by depriving them of exploiting natural resources. As a result, once he was elected and President he followed an anti-indigenous anti-sustainability political agenda. As soon as Bolsonaro took power he increased the number of military members in government posts, including the federal organ responsible for indigenous groups (FUNAI).

During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro gave a speech in Roraima where he declared that foreign countries could invade indigenous land, turning it into a different country, and defended the opening of reserves to commercial activity as a solution. In 2020, indigenous groups were already denouncing the illegal gold panning in their land, at the same time, Bolsonaro was complaining about federal reserves and their demarcations. He said that the Yanomami reserve was twice the size of Rio de Janeiro and that it had one of the richest subsoils in the world, and that no one turns poor subsoils into reserves. The former president appointed a man with similar views to be the head of  FUNAI (national foundation of indigenous people), Marcelo Xavier, who once the conflicts between the Yanomami and the miners gained traction declared that “miners are as much victims as the Yanomami”. Bolsonaro dismantled environmental and indigenous protections, causing deforestation to reach a 15 year high during his government, a 60% increase when compared to previous governments. According  to Mapbiomas, from 2016 to 2020, mining increased in Yanomami land by 3.350%.  Ultimately, miners were incentivized by the high value of the ore and Bolsonaro’s promises of legalizing mining in indigenous land. 

During Bolsonaro’s government two mining agencies received authorization to explore the mineral in Roraima, the only ones in the region, and both of them connected to people with ties to illegal mining. The first authorization was granted to Rodrigo Cataratas, who has been investigated by the Federal Police several times and is connected to illegal mining groups in the State of Pará. Cataratas runned for congress as a member of Bolsonaro’s party and was endorsed by the pro-mining group “Garimpo é legal” (mining is cool or legal). The second permission was given to Nikolas Godoy who is connected to mining lobbying groups and owns a mining exporter enterprise. Both of these mining lands are close to illegally exploited areas, which are frequently used to hide the origins of illegally extracted gold, as shown by an investigation by the Federal Police. This, however, is not the biggest scandal of Bolsonaro’s presidency in relation to the Yanomamis. The former president has been accused of being complicit in the starvation faced by this group, as well as withholding medication from them, ignoring their pleas for help and allowing illegal mining to spread.

Former officials responsible for indigenous health during Bolsonaro’s government are now being investigated for corruption and negligence towards the Yanomami. Besides that, Bolsonaro himself is being accused of genocide by the current President Lula and his Justice Minister Flávio Dino is actioning the federal police to conduct an investigation “into crimes of genocide, failure to provide emergency assistance, environmental crimes and other crimes, since there are reports of embezzlement, corruption and siphoning of public funds meant for Indigenous health care.”. The current minister for Indigenous People Sônia Guajajara said that 570 Yanomami people died due malnutrition during the last four years of Bolsonaro’s government, which further enforces the idea that his government was particularly negligent when it comes to indigenous issues. The federal police has already opened an investigation on alleged fraud and offset of medicine destined to indigenous communities. The investigation showed that around 10 thousand yanomami kids were deprived of medicine. The police are investigating two former coordinators of the Health Minister previously responsible for  indigenous health, who hired the enterprise Balme to supply 90 types of medicine, but that delivered 30% less than expected. It is estimated that the scheme made around R$ 600.000.  

In response, Lula removed 33 coordinators from FUNAI and declared a state of emergency in regards to health after 600 kids died and several others were diagnosed with malnutrition, malaria and pneumonia. According to data from the Children’s Hospital sent to the Federal Public Ministry in Roraima 262 kids were treated for malnutrition from the beginning of 2018 until 2021, with 80% of the kids being under 5 years of age. Lula also tweeted saying that “More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was a genocide. A premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government impervious to the suffering of the Brazilian people”. In Brazil the crime of genocide is defined as acting with the intention of eliminating a national, racial, ethnic or religious group. There has been only one instance in which people were convicted of the crime. In 1993 a group of miners killed 16 Yanomamis in their land; the incident is called the massacre of Haximu. The miners were convicted, with the decision being reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2006. 

The allegation of genocide against the Yanomamis is now being made due to his actions while acting as President. According to the Yanomami association, Hutukara, they sent 21 reports to the government over the period of 2 years detailing the situation the Yanomami people were facing, all of which Bolsonaro ignored. He also ignored several judicial orders demanding the removal of miners from indigenous land. The current investigation looks into the lack of basic medication, the lack of action by the government and corruption by government officials. Bolsonaro has dismissed the accusations as a left-wing psy-op.

Image by Dion Beetson from Unsplash