Yanomami Indigenous Territory:

Chilling increase in child mortality

Four years of uncontrolled gold mining in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Brazil has led to malnutrition and death among the indigenous population.

POLLUTION: Illegal gold mine in Yanomami territory. Illegal miners pollute the rivers and soil, and they spread diseases.

UPDATE 1 February 2023:
Today, Lula starts Operation Yanomami Shield, a coordinated action to control airspace over the Yanomami territory. In practice, all of the Yanomami territory covered by illegal gold miners is now considered a “red zone”, meaning only military aircrafts or aircrafts directly engaged in the operation are allowed. Areas adjacent to the Yanomami land are also monitored.

Control over air traffic is regarded as one of the most effective ways of strangling the garimpo supply chain, as it constrains access to fuel, food supplies and machinery.

"Finally, the authorities in Brazil are taking effective measures to evict the 20,000 gold miners in the Yanomami territory, who have caused a serious humanitarian crisis among indigenous peoples and massive destruction of the rainforest. Preventing gold diggers from flying in and out of the area is likely to stop the business and indigenous people can get the rainforest back,” says Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro, head of the Rainforest Foundation Norway's Brazil program

26 January, 2023

Recent figures released by the Brazilian government reveal that 570 children from the Yanomami people died from curable diseases during the tenure of Brazil’s previous president, Jair Bolsonaro. The number of deaths among children under the age of five increased by 29 % in the four years of his presidency. Brazil's new president Lula calls it a genocide and has launched a crisis response.

“Although this situation is known to Rainforest Foundation Norway, the latest figures are still shocking in their scale. The actual death toll is probably much higher. The recently published images of emaciated children in the middle of the rainforest are heartbreaking. These are gross human rights violations, and they could have been avoided,” says Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro, head of the Rainforest Foundation Norway's Brazil program.

Could have been avoided

Pictures and accounts from health personnel who have previously not been able to share them for fear of reprisals are now coming to light. The information has been compiled in a report prepared by the organization Sumauma, an indigenous-led journalism platform.

The report refers to children aged three who weigh just 3.5 kg, no more than a small, newborn child. Health personnel have shared heartbreaking photos of malnourished children with the permission of the Yanomami. They are reminiscent of images of famine disasters in areas where food and water are generally in short supply.

“This malnutrition and these deaths could have been avoided. This situation did not happen by accident,” says Ribeiro.

SPOKESPERSON: Davi Yanomami Kopenawa is a prominent spokesperson for the Yanomami. He has spoken out against the treat of illegal gold mining in Yanomami land for many years. Photo: Vincent Rosenblatt/RFN

Illegal gold miners: violence, rape and poison

Thousands of illegal gold miners have invaded the Yanomami indigenous land, emboldened by the Bolsonaro administration’s disregard for indigenous rights and lenient policies towards environmental crime. They have polluted the rivers with mercury, which they use to extract gold, and thus destroyed the livelihood of the indigenous people who are dependent on fish from the rivers and food from the rainforest. Stagnant ponds from the mining operations have led to a large increase in malarial mosquitoes, and the gold miners spread infectious diseases to the indigenous population.

The Yanomami lack both natural resistance and access to health services to deal with infectious diseases. Illegal gold miners have also prevented the indigenous population from accessing health services. A month ago, gold miners burned down a health center in the village of Homoixi.

“The violence and the hunger in parts of the Yanomami indigenous land is grotesque. Our partners report incidents of violence, rape and threats from gold miners and other criminals,” Ribeiro continues.

She says that the situation has gradually gotten worse over the past four years.

In April 2022, the Yanomami organization Hutukara published the report "Yanomami Under Attack". The report documented widespread attacks by illegal gold miners and how these and other invaders destroyed the rainforest inside Yanomami territory.

Brazilian government initiates crisis response

President Lula da Silva received the report on his way to Boa Vista, the largest town on the outskirts of Yanomami territory. He initiated immediate health measures after the trip.

“It is good to see that the new Brazilian government initiated a crisis response and took immediate health measures this week. It is important that money and security measures now reach the most vulnerable groups quickly so that we can limit the extent of this acute crisis,” says Ribeiro and adds:

“It is important that the international community does what it can to ensure that Lula can carry out his plans.”

VULNERABLE: Indigenous groups are vulnerable to outside diseases. This picture was taken during an epidemic in a Yanomami community in 1990. Photo: Charles Vincent/ISA

Justice for the victims

“The authorities in Brazil must investigate these gross human rights violations and prosecute the perpetrators and thus bring justice to the victims among the Yanomami people,” says Ribeiro.

During the visit to Boa Vista, President Lula accused his predecessor of genocide against Indigenous peoples. The information that has emerged is now being added as evidence to one of several criminal cases against Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where our indigenous partner APIB is one of the plaintiffs.

Former President Jair Bolsonaro was aware of the situation in Yanomami territory, but chose not to intervene. It is expected that this may sharpen the indictment against the former president.

Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro

Team Leader, Brazil Program
(+47) 402 81 386