Images projected by the NGO Instituto Socioambiental on the National Congress building in Brasilia, on 3 December 2020.
(EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images)
— São Paulo — Catholic and indigenous organizations in Brazil have denounced the deteriorating living conditions of the Yanomami people, who are under attack from illegal miners and suffering lack of healthcare assistance from the government.
According to Luis Ventura, a lay missionary at the Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (known as CIMI), there have been at least two firearm attacks against Yanomami communities in the Amazon since March.
“The indigenous peoples are in the middle of an escalation in conflicts over the past four years, with more brutal aggressions against them lately,” he told the Catholic Herald.
The most recent case occurred on May 10, when a group of miners on boats fired on members of the Palimiú community, one of the settlements located in the Yanomami territory – a vast area of 37,000 square miles inhabited by 27,000 people.
Part of the attack was recorded by cellphone.
The video shows members of the community, including women and children, running as gunshots are heard coming from the nearby river. A few Yanomami men allegedly shot back. Four illegal miners and a member of the Yanomami were wounded.
“They couldn’t sleep since then. More boats attacked Palimiú over the next days and threats have been constant,” Yanomami healthcare officer and community leader Junior Hekurari told the Herald.
Ventura said that there’s an estimated number of 20,000 illegal miners operating in the Yanomami land, something that’s illegal but has been historically tolerated by the Brazilian authorities.
According to Hekurari, the current conflict in Palimiú started because the community has established a “healthcare barrier” around its territory five months ago, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It has made the miners’ movements in the area more difficult. They want a free pass. That’s why they’re attacking,” he explained.
Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, the invasion of indigenous lands by illegal miners and loggers has increasingly become a matter in the public discourse. In 2020, his administration introduced a bill to to allow the exploitation of mineral resources in indigenous territories. It hasn’t passed yet, but indigenous leaders say its consideration in Congress has reinforced the illegal miners’ sentiment of legitimacy.
Ventura affirmed that Bolsonaro had expressed the intention to visit illegal miners in the Amazon a few days before the Palimiú incident.
“The local political elite, which supports Bolsonaro, has notorious ties with illegal mining in indigenous territories,” he said.
Hekurari affirmed that federal police agents have been to Palimiú in three occasions after the first attack, but only for visits lasting a couple of hours. In one of them, the policemen were shot by illegal miners.
A number of legal decisions issued by courts over the past few years determined that the government must protect the indigenous peoples and their territories, including a May 24 ruling from Supreme Court’s Justice Luis Roberto Barroso.
“Judges ordered the reactivation of monitoring bases implanted in indigenous territories and the removal of illegal miners, but nothing has been done yet,” Ventura said.
The impunity has led illegal miners all over the Amazon to strengthen their operations and to raise the level of violence against the indigenous peoples, he added.
A malaria pandemic has hit several Yanomami villages in the past few months, causing deaths particularly among children. Vermin and diarrhea also have been attacking babies. Malnutrition became endemic among kids under the age of 5, according to a recent survey. Last week, a one-year-old toddler weighing 6 pounds died.
“Children die and nobody investigates the cause. The Yanomami healthcare system collapsed. There are no medicines, no equipment, no food. The government is treating us like animals,” Hekurari said.
He sent several memoranda to the government over the past few months, reporting the terrible conditions of the Yanomami – the last one concerning the toddler’s death – but says he never received an answer.
“Five of the healthcare clinics in the Yanomami territory have been closed. Children are paying with their lives for that situation,” Hekurari affirmed.
After a two-day virtual meeting, the Amazonian bishops released on May 19 a letter on the worsening environmental and social circumstances in the region.
In their document, the bishops say that the indigenous populations have been facing a “regression” concerning indigenist policies in Brazil.
“They have been facing the invasion of their lands, [which are] incentivized by political strategies to favor their exploitation by illegal miners, mining companies, loggers, destroyers of the forest, agribusiness agents and many others, generating multiple violence and human rights and nature violations,” the letter reads.
The bishops blame the government for that and other social problems that they mentioned in the document, including the growing urban violence and human trafficking.
“We know that the government leaders have a constitutional duty to act in order to avoid the destruction of the natural wealth and to implement public policies that soften the situation of inequality and poverty, but in the Amazon that is not happening,” the letter says.
“We are seeing an administration that turns its back to such calls, opts for the militarization of its cadre, spreads strategies of criminalization of [community] leaders, and provokes conflict among the little ones,” it continues.
According to the Italian-born Bishop Flavio Giovenale of Cruzeiro do Sul, in the Amazonian State of Acre, the region’s bishops used much of their debate time during the meeting to talk about the several social and environmental problems in the Amazon.
“We held a meeting of pastors, not of theological theorists. Our letter reflects our worries about the concrete reality,” he told the Catholic Herald.
Since the Pan-Amazon Synod, in 2019, the general situation in the region has deteriorated even more, Giovenale said.
“The Amazon is still seen as a kind of no man’s land, a giant storehouse where anyone can go and take something out. It’s a colonial view of the forest,” he declared.
The bishop said that the mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Amazon – in large Amazonian cities the healthcare system has collapsed at the beginning of 2021 and even a new coronavirus strain emerged in Manaus – has shown that the people from the region are treated as second-class citizens by the country as a whole.
“The situation of the indigenous is even worse. There’s a general prejudice against them,” he concluded.
Eduardo Campos Lima holds a degree in journalism and a PhD in literary studies from the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Between 2016 and 2017, he was a Fulbright visiting research student at Columbia University. He has written for several international religion outlets, including Crux, Religion News Service, Sight Magazine, and Réformés.
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