Understanding the new case of indigenous genocide in Brazil
On 21 January 2023, President Lula visited Yanomami territory and declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people
Brazilian law establishes the protection of the country’s original peoples, meaning that the various indigenous tribes must be respected and preserved. However the beginning of the year 2023 in Brazil seems to have been turbulent not only in the political sphere — with attacks on democracy with invasions of the buildings of its institutions on 8 January in the federal capital, Brasilia — responsible for the largest indigenous land in territorial extension in the country, the Yanomani people face serious cases of malnutrition and malaria spread throughout the community, which lives between the states of Amazonas and Roraima. The health crisis has already resulted in the death of 570 children from malnutrition and preventable causes in recent years, according to the federal government.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Minister of Health, Nísia Trindade, classified the situation of the Yanomami as a type of genocide. After visiting the indigenous land, in the state of Roraima, the president criticised what he called the “neglect” and “abandonment” of the previous government — Jair Bolsonaro — towards the area and said he saw a “genocide” in place. “More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was a genocide. A premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government insensitive to the suffering of the Brazilian people,” the president posted on Twitter. In an interview, the Health Minister said: “I see abandonment as a form of genocide and this population was unassisted. Genocide can also occur by omission”.
Would this be a case of genocide like the one that occurred during the colonisation of Brazil? The answer is no, but this would be another form of the same crime. The genocide of indigenous peoples in Brazil has existed since the time of Portuguese colonisation, according to specialists. With the implementation of sugar cane cultivation on the Brazilian coast, the extermination of the indigenous populations began, both through violent conflicts and diseases brought by the Europeans. In current times, this genocide would persist with the neglect of the rights of the remaining indigenous populations in the country.
According to the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI), the indigenous population in Brazil in 1500 was equivalent to approximately 3 million inhabitants, of whom around 2 million were settled on the coast. By 1650, this number had fallen to 700,000, and in 1957 it reached 70,000, the lowest recorded number. From then on, the indigenous population began to grow. According to the last demographic census, carried out in 2010 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), there are 896,900 indigenous people in the country, equivalent to 29.9% of the population estimated for 1500, when colonisation began.
However, what led President Lula to declare a ‘health emergency’ in January 2023? On 21 January 2023, President Lula visited Yanomami territory and declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people. In addition to the increase in infant mortality, 11,530 confirmed cases of malaria were recorded last year alone, hunger, violence and mercury contamination accentuated by the negligence of the Bolsonaro government have been fatal. Recent data from the Ministry of Health show that in the last four years, 570 children under 5 years of age have died from preventable diseases and at least 21 letters requesting help were ignored by the former president’s administration.
Finally, who are currently responsible for hunger, violence and contamination? At this very moment, around 20,000 illegal miners are inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory (TIY) polluting rivers, destroying forests and threatening the existence of an ancestral people, with clear impacts on the health and way of life of this population. The humanitarian crisis that ravages the largest indigenous land in the country — victimising mainly children — is nothing new and has been ongoing since the 1970s. In recent years, there have been more than 60 warnings issued by the Yanomami and Ye’kuana Indigenous Health District Council. Illegal mining is an old enemy of the Yanomami people, but due to the pro-mining discourse and the actions and omissions of the Bolsonaro government, the activity has expanded in a devastating way. According to data raised by the Illegal Mining Monitoring System of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, between 2019 and 2021, the area mined irregularly in TIY increased by 1,963% compared to the previous ten years, leaving a trail of destruction and deaths.