“Fora Garimpo” (“Mining Out”) is a message from 120 Yanomami leaders gathered at a meeting in November 2019, at the center of the Watoriki village, Yanomami Indigenous Land, Brazil. Photo credit: Victor Moriyama/ISA
February 8, 2023
Yanomami Face a Humanitarian Crisis in the Amazon
In recent weeks, one of the most serious humanitarian crises of our time has finally gained public attention in Brazil and around the world.
The total abandonment and lack of health care for Yanomami communities has been aggravated by growing invasions of their lands by wildcat miners (so called “garimpeiros”). This has resulted in hundreds of Yanomami deaths – especially affecting young children and the elderly.
Learn more about them below including ways you can support the Yanomami.
Who are the Yanomami People?
The Yanomami are an Indigenous Peoples who live deep in the Amazon rainforest along the border of Venezuela and Brazil. They are one of the largest recently contacted groups in the region. Recently contacted groups refers to Indigenous Peoples with permanent and/or intermittent relationships with segments of the national society.
There are approximately 30,000 Yanomami today, in a land that was officially recognized as indigenous by the Brazilian government in 1992. They are responsible for almost 10 million hectares (the size of the country of Portugal) of some of the most intact forests in the Amazon that have been their homelands since time immemorial.
Like many Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, they hunt, farm, and fish for food, and use water from rivers for drinking and bathing.
What is Happening in the Yanomami Indigenous Land?
Starting in the late 1980s, around 40,000 illegal miners began making their way into the Yanomami land, spreading illnesses like tuberculosis and malaria and polluting rivers with mercury – ultimately destroying rivers and forests in their search for gold and other precious minerals. Their situation changed after demarcation – national recognition of their land by the Brazilian government, when the invaders were mostly expelled from the territory. The situation remained relatively under control until 2015, when a new gold rush began.
While things weren’t perfect for the Yanomami after the land's demarcation, the situation deteriorated significantly under Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, who actively defended mining on Indigenous lands and weakened the protections of those territories against miners, loggers and other illegal invaders. The destruction of the Yanomami Territory is driven by criminal networks that fund gold mining and other illegal operations that lead to forest loss and threaten communities throughout the Amazon.
What we are seeing now is a humanitarian crisis. Studies show that among Yanomami communities, gold mining has been linked to increased cases of tuberculosis, malaria, mercury poisoning, and malnutrition. Almost 600 children under five years old have died over the past four years from what, under normal circumstances, would be treatable and avoidable diseases. That number, noted in a Sumaúma Agency News piece, sparked awareness and concern throughout the globe and led to the new federal government response to the crisis.
It is only now, under a new Brazilian President, a new Minister of Indigenous Peoples, a new President of the Indigenous Affairs Agency (FUNAI), a new Minister of Justice, and a new Minister of Health that we are seeing any response to this awful crisis.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, called this assault on Yanomami human rights a genocide. He visited the Yanomami Territory in early January and declared it a national emergency. He had already promised to remove illegal miners from Indigenous lands as part of his campaign platform. Since then, he has signed a new decree enacting concrete steps to promote joint efforts among several ministers, federal agencies, and security forces to respond to the crisis as soon as possible.
Over the last week, more than 1,000 Yanomami were rescued and taken to hospitals where they are now being treated but remain in critical condition.
Mining Exploded Under Brazil’s Ex-President Bolsonaro:
Ex-President Bolsonaro intentionally promoted plans and policies to open Indigenous lands for mining and other forms of exploration throughout his presidency from 2019 through 2022. This led to a massive destruction of forests – more than 80% increase in deforestation since he took office, and a 400% growth in illegal gold mining, which impacted lands like that of the Yanomami, as well as of the Munduruku and Kayapó peoples.
Any mining on Indigenous lands is illegal in Brazil. These criminal activities are now out of control and are impacting the lives of innocent Indigenous Peoples along with wildlife, polluting rivers and soils.
Bolsonaro purposely ignored the Brazilian Constitution where the state has an obligation to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples. He intentionally cut budgets, staff, and intelligence for enforcement activities to combat environmental crimes. He turned a blind eye to Indigenous Peoples, and actively encouraged exploration of their lands. He also cut and intentionally diverted budgets for the healthcare and support of Indigenous Peoples away from those most in need.
What Needs to Happen?
The Brazilian government must act in short-, medium-, and long-term measures.
In the short-term, Nia Tero and all Yanomami partners and allies expect the response to accelerate now that President Lula has declared the Yanomami crisis a national Emergency. The Yanomami People need the assurance of continued health care to support those who are suffering. The Yanomami communities also need doctors and other medical professionals, as well as funding for fuel, new field hospitals, equipment, and medical supplies.
The crisis requires massive resources to remove illegal miners from Indigenous lands. Illegal miners have already started to leave the land, in response to the government's reseizing control of the airspace, which has cut off the supply of goods (food, fuel, water, medicine) to illegal gold miners.
It isn’t currently possible to know the origin of gold from Brazil given the country's weak controls and inability to track the origin of gold. A moratorium on gold purchases must be established along with defunding investments in Brazilian gold until buyers and investors can prove that it isn’t coming from Indigenous lands.
Those responsible for this humanitarian crisis must also be held accountable. The government’s intelligence forces must work to dismantle the criminal networks funding and facilitating these invasions.
Medium- and long-term should include rethinking and reinstating the necessary structures to ensure that quality healthcare and food security is delivered to remote communities in the Amazon, like the Yanomami. Enforcement and protection of the Yanomami land must also be reinstated and maintained by the Brazilian government to avoid future invasions and threats to the Yanomami.
There is political will now, and Brazil is actively seeking support for its commitments to the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous Peoples. Nobody should undergo the pain and suffering that is impacting the Yanomami and other Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon. The Brazilian authorities must act and help them. And nobody should get away with committing crimes against humanity.
Davi Kopenawa, a spokesperson and very respected shaman and leader of the Yanomami people, has been saying that, “The Yanomami are holding up the Sky.” What he means is that the Yanomami are doing their part in protecting nature and forests on behalf of all living beings. The Yanomami see themselves as defenders of nature, and of all forms of life. They are true allies in global goals to curb climate change and avert further biodiversity loss. Assisting them in this mission is critical for the survival of our planet.
Here is How You Can Support the Yanomami:
1. The Hutukara Yanomami Association is receiving donations to support the distribution of food and medicine to Yanomami villages. Any contributions can be made directly and will make a huge difference.
2. Visit “The Yanomami Struggle” Exhibition at The Shed in New York City, Feb. 3 – Apr. 16, 2023
"The Yanomami Struggle” is a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the collaboration and friendship between artist and activist Claudia Andujar and the Yanomami people, one of the largest Indigenous groups living in Amazonia today. The exhibit includes new short films by contemporary Yanomami filmmakers Aida Harika, Edmar Tokorino, Morzaniel Ɨramari, and Roseane Yariana.
These works are presented alongside more than 200 photographs by Claudia Andujar that trace the artist’s experiences with the Yanomami over five decades and continue to raise visibility for their struggle to protect their land, people, and culture. The dialogue established between the contemporary Yanomami artists’ work and Andujar’s photographs offers an unprecedented vision of Yanomami culture, society, and visual art. The works by these contemporary Yanomami artists are on view in New York for the first time at The Shed, bringing together the most extensive presentation of Yanomami art in the US to date.