Shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami furrowed his brow as he stared out at the skyscrapers and buildings looming through the window of his oak-panelled hotel room in New York City. “I’m here, in the city of stone, and mirrors and glass… but in my heart, I’m in mourning,” he told CNN.
Davi has been an activist for Brazil’s Yanomami people, one of the largest relatively isolated indigenous groups in South America, for nearly 40 years – braving threats on his life for his work. Last week, he was invited to Manhattan for the opening of a group exhibition of Yanomami artists and Brazilian photographer Claudia Andujar at cultural center The Shed, which counted among its guests United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
Despite the glamor of the surroundings, Davi’s mind was more than 2,000 miles away, deep in the forests of Brazil, where a health crisis has gripped his people. “I’m in mourning…for my people, who I’ve lost,” he said, referring to recent images that emerged from the territory showing emaciated Yanomami adults and children, some with swollen bellies from hunger.
Disease and malnutrition have torn through Yanomami villages over the last four years – a crisis that experts lay at the feet of the scores of illegal miners who have set up camp in their sprawling territory, spurred by the high price of gold.
Yanomami children are dying at a disproportionate rate from preventable diseases, like malaria and malnutrition. At least 570 Yanomami children have died from preventable causes since 2018, Brazil’s health ministry told CNN.
Fiona Watson, research and advocacy director at indigenous human rights group Survival International, said high malaria rates – spread by miners – have left many Yanomami adults too unwell to hunt or fish, as they rely entirely off the forest and rivers for food. “That means the food’s not coming in, hence you get so much malnutrition (that) has led to this terrible catastrophe,” she said.
Their predicament is exacerbated by water pollution and environmental destruction from the mines, and sometimes violent encounters with the intruders. In January, Ariel Castro Alves, Lula’s National Secretary for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, said a federal government delegation were told in January that at least 30 Yanomami girls and teenagers had been abused and impregnated by miners.
Government health workers, who might have mitigated the crisis, have been intimidated and even driven out of the area by miners who took over health facilities and airstrips, Junior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the Urihi Yanomami Association, told CNN.
The emergency is the latest test for Brazil’s newly inaugurated President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has made environmental protection a priority for his term in office. In January, he launched a crackdown on illegal mines in Yanomami territory, and the country’s military, environmental agencies and police forces are currently sweeping through the area to clear it of miners.
Lula’s administration has brought hope, says Davi, especially through his appointment of the country’s first minister for indigenous people, Sonia Guajajara.
“But he’s going to need a lot of support,” the activist said of Brazil’s bitterly polarized political landscape.
A gold rush emboldened by Bolsonaro
Yanomami territory, which spans the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas, is supposed to be a protected reservation where mining is illegal. But miners have flooded the area over the last several years as gold prices boomed, stripping the natural environment and in some cases driving away vital health workers.
While it is hard to get an accurate number of mines in the sprawling territory, which equals the size of Portugal, a report by Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), based on satellite imaging, found that mines on Yanomami land had risen from four in 2015 to 1,556 by the end of 2021.
As hunter-agriculturalists, the Yanomami maintain a symbiotic relationship with their environment. Some 30,400 Yanomami live in the territory, and as they are largely isolated from the outside world, they are more vulnerable to common viruses. Exploitation and encroachment in the forest by extractive industries has proven to be fatal for the indigenous group and their traditional way of life.
The building of the Trans Amazonian highway, started in the 1970s by the Brazilian military dictatorship who were keen to develop the Amazon basin, introduced measles, malaria and the flu that decimated Yanomami communities, said Watson.
A goldrush in 1986 later saw an estimated 20% of the Yanomami community die in a seven-year period, according to Watson. Many of those miners were driven out in 1992, when the area was demarcated by the government of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello.
Davi says he noticed a shift when former President Jair Bolsonaro was in power. Miners felt emboldened to enter the territory armed “with a lot of heavy equipment, the mechanised dredgers, and they were using petrol, mercury, and then they… used planes and small landing strips and helicopters,” Davi said.
The arrival of new miners brought misery, said Davi, including reported threats and attacks against Yanomami communities. In May 2021, a half-hour shootout with miners left four dead, including two Yanomami children – a video of the incident showed women and children running for cover as a boat passed the riverbanks of their village.
“It’s his fault. He let the illness of mining in,” Davi says of Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro has called accusations that he turned a blind eye to the Yanomami plight a “left-wing farce” on his official Telegram channel on January 21. Having visited the region before, he shared pictures of him with indigenous people on his Telegram account as well as government press releases from his presidency, including one saying the World Health Organization praised the vaccination rate of Brazil’s indigenous people under his government in 2021.
During his term from 2019 to 2022, Bolsonaro signed an environmental protection decree to raise fines for illegal logging, fishing, burning, hunting, and deforestation. His administration also saw Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) – a government agency that oversees policies related to indigenous communities – invest $16 million in surveillance of indigenous lands to combat illegal activities there.
However, the far-right leader also supported legislation to open indigenous protected areas to mining, reduced funding or dismantled agencies tasked with monitoring and enforcing environmental regulations, and repeatedly claimed that indigenous territories are “too big” – all of which emboldened trespassers, experts say.
Brazil’s Supreme Court has ordered an investigation to determine whether the actions of the Bolsonaro government amounted to “genocide” of the Yanomami. Ahead of Lula’s meeting with President Joe Biden on Friday, he reiterated to CNN that Bolsonaro could be “punished” by courts for “the genocide against the Yanomami indigenous people.”
On January 30, Brazil’s Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship (MDHC) also released a report on alleging that its previous administration disregarded numerous alerts made about the Yanomami’s deteriorating situation.
CNN has reached out to Damares Alves, who led MDHC at the time. When asked about the claims by a Brazilian reporter on February 1, Alves responded: “The Yanomami have been living in a calamitous situation for decades. It’s time for the people (the Senate) to change the union’s budget so that we can take better care of the Yanomami Indians. As for the accusations, I will only speak when cited by a court”.
Brazil cracks down on illegal mining
There has been momentum since Lula’s intervention in the territory. Speaking from Boa Vista in late January, Lula pledged to eliminate illegal mining, saying he was “shocked” by the Yanomami’s poor health.
More than 1,000 unwell indigenous people have been evacuated from the Yanomami territory, and the Justice Ministry announced a major offensive against the miners, and closed the territory’s airspace as it tackles their supply routes.
On Monday, Brazilian security forces began their enforcement operation to expel the miners, many of whom may have already left the area. Videos have emerged on social media of miners fleeing from the territory or imploring the government to help them leave the area. Last week, Justice Minister Flavio Dino said he expected 80% of the illegal miners to have left the first week of February.
A miner, who was seen leaving the area, told Reuters that the Yanomami were desperate for food parcels dropped by Air Force planes. “The day the parcels arrived, they were gone,” Joao Batista Costa, 65, told Reuters, while holding up a food parcel.
But resolving the crisis will be a long road, and Lula is likely to face resistance among parts of the sizeable number of Brazilians who support Bolsonaro’s policies. Nor are all politicians on a regional level as enthused about indigenous protections; Roraima state governor Antonio Denarium, a Bolsonaro ally, for example, appeared to downplay the Yanomami crisis in an interview to Folha de S. Paulo newspaper in January, saying it was time for them to adapt to urban living and “leave the bush.”
In a later statement to CNN, Denarium’s office said the quotes were “taken out of context,” adding that “the desire for people’s lives to improve is the desire of anyone who values the dignity of indigenous or non-indigenous people.”
For Davi, there has been little evidence that authorities valued Yanomami dignity in recent years.
“We indigenous peoples are badly treated, as are our rivers, the animals – but it’s not just indigenous peoples who are dying, the city people are suffering as well,” Davi said from his hotel room. “These two worlds really need to come together in a big embrace and not let our world be ruined.”
CNN’s Marcia Reverdosa contributed to this report.