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Filipe DominguesFebruary 13, 2023
A Yanomami man is pictured in a 2019 photo standing near an illegal gold mine on Indigenous land in the heart of Brazil's Amazon rainforest. (CNS photo/Bruno Kelly, Reuters)

Communities of the Yanomami people in the Brazilian Amazon have for decades been threatened by illegal mining, narco trafficking, unauthorized air transport and other criminal activities, and their health and social conditions have long been precarious. But in January Brazilian Health Ministry agents surveying the region reported that the Indigenous communities were experiencing an unprecedented crisis. The agents’ photographs of clearly malnourished Yanomami women and children quickly circulated around the world.

On Jan. 20, Brazil’s national government declared a health emergency in the region.

Devastated by malnutrition and preventable diseases like flu, pneumonia, anemia, malaria and diarrhea, the Yanomami people have been called victims of a contemporary genocide by government authorities. Brazil’s bishops and missionaries agree.

“The genocide of the Yanomami should be a chapter never forgotten in the history of Brazil, so that similar crimes against the lives of our brothers and sisters will never be repeated,” Brazilian bishops said in a statement released on Jan. 31. The letter is signed by the senior leaders of the Brazilian National Bishops’ Conference. Brazil’s Indigenous people, “integrated with nature, have been contemptuously disrespected by greed, by the predatory exploitation of the environment, which spreads death in the name of money,” the bishops said.

Devastated by malnutrition and preventable diseases, Brazil’s Yanomami people have been called victims of a contemporary genocide.

In this instance, the bishops said, “the defense of human life is inseparable from the care for the environment.” The contemporary tragedy of the Yanomami people, they added, had been anticipated by Catholic missionaries and environmentalists, like members of the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples, who have accompanied them for decades.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office for the third time on Jan. 1, also described the current status of the Yanomami as a genocide, one accelerated by the policies and inaction of his predecessor in office, Jair Bolsonaro. In a message to Congress on Feb. 2, Mr. Lula said, “The genocide committed against the Yanomami people demands more drastic measures from us, in addition to emergency medical treatment, to combat malnutrition.”

Incursions by gold miners into Indigenous territories has long been a problem for the Yanomami, but by the end of the 1980s illicit mining operations had largely been eradicated. But the Bolsonaro administration encouraged the return of mining settlements, and the estimated number of gold miners in Yanomami territory surged, according to environmental and Indigenous rights groups.

Data shows that conditions among the Yanomami people have dramatically deteriorated during Mr. Bolsonaro’s term of office from 2019 to 2022. According to Health Ministry data obtained by independent local news website Sumauma, child mortality alone increased 29 percent from the prior four years.

Mr. Lula said that it is urgent “that we remove the 20,000 miners [known in Brazil as garimpeiros] who work illegally in indigenous territory, murdering children, destroying forests and poisoning rivers and fish with mercury.”

The Yanomami communities of Brazil are located in the Amazon Basin portion of the northern state of Roraima, near the border with Venezuela. Illegal mining contaminates the protected territory’s water with mercury and drives away animals that could be hunted and eaten by Yanomami, diminishing their diet to a few vegetables grown or found in the forest.

The Bolsonaro administration encouraged the return of mining settlements, and the estimated number of gold miners in Yanomami territory surged.

Yanomami leader and human rights defender Davi Kopenawa Yanomami told Brazilian media that more that 570 Indigenous children had died over the past four years because of illness caused by mercury contamination and malnutrition. “Garimpeiros are many and we are few. Half of my people have died [over the decades],” he said. “We are only a few Indians protecting lands for the entire world. Indians do not die alone. They will die with water, forest, culture. You will suffer, too.”

Environmentalists echoed Mr. Lula’s accusations of genocide against his predecessor, claiming that the Bolsonaro administration neglected the Yanomami as a matter of policy. The former president “deliberately opened the gates to the Yanomami territory and encouraged thousands of gold miners to flood in,” said Sarah Shenker, the head of the global movement for tribal peoples Survival Brasil, in a press release on Jan. 24. “He dismantled the indigenous health service; cheered on the miners invading indigenous territories; and ignored the desperate pleas for action” from Indigenous and other organizations, she said.

Mr. Bolsonaro left Brazil in late December, before Mr. Lula’s inauguration, and has been living in Florida. On Jan. 9, thousands of his supporters broke into Brazil’s Congress, the presidential palace (“Planalto”) and the Supreme Court, in attacks similar to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. capitol.

The Ministry of Justice and other public institutions are opening investigations to discern if the recent offenses against the Indigenous can indeed justify a genocide charge and if so who might be prosecuted. And on Jan. 31, complying with the presidential decree, the Brazilian Air Force ordered a halt to all air traffic over the airspace of the Yanomami reservation, finally putting a stop to the unauthorized aircraft transit that had been tolerated under Mr. Bolsonaro. Indigenous territories are vast—the reserve in northern Brazil is the size of Portugal—and often inaccessible except by air. Prohibiting the overflights should diminish the capacity of illegal miners and drug traffickers to support their operations.

The ancestral territories of the Yanomami were recognized by the Brazilian government more than 30 years ago. Together with Yanomami territory in Venezuela, the protected lands form the largest forested Indigenous territory in the world.

In these territories many Indigenous communities still live in relative isolation from Western society, inhabiting villages in mountains and rainforests. The Yanomami preserve much of their own cultural, religious and political organization. In total, the Yanomami population is estimated at about 40,000 people.

Public institutions are opening investigations to discern if the recent offenses against the Indigenous can indeed justify a genocide charge and if so who might be prosecuted.

A professor of bioethics and an advisor to the bishops’ conference, the Rev. Otávio Juliano Almeida, told America that the church’s concerns with the ongoing decimation of the Yanomami communities should be understood as a pro-life matter. A statement issued by the Bioethics Commission of the bishops’ conference said that, in view of its “non-negotiable defense, promotion and care for life, from conception to its natural end,” it needs to express “indignation and sadness” in face of the situation of Yanomami villages.

“The role of the church is always, as it has been since Jesus, one of denunciation of wrongdoing against the most vulnerable ones, but also of proclamation of the Kingdom of God. As we know, this is about announcing life in plenitude,” Father Almeida said.

The missionary presence of the church among the Yanomami is historically quite recent, and most of the Catholic missionaries who work with these people follow a stance inspired by the “Ad Gentes” decree of the Second Vatican Council—a style of mission different from that put into practice in colonial times, between the 16th and 19th centuries, and more respectful to native cultures and traditions. And the church in Brazil accompanies the Indigenous people, Father Almeida said.

An expert on the history of the church in the Amazon region and a diocesan priest of Roraima, the Rev. Raimundo Vanthuy Neto, explains that the first missionaries to record accounts of the Yanomami were the Benedictines, who between 1909 and 1948 reported the presence of groups of isolated Indigenous people in northern regions of Brazil. However, Catholics did not contact them until 1965, when two Consolata Missionaries decided not only to approach the Yanomami but also to live among them.

“Until then, the mission was primarily one of inter-religious dialogue, that is, the evangelizing methodology was not to convert them to Catholicism or Christianity, but just to live among them and put themselves at their service,” Father Vanthuy said. They were hitherto unknown peoples, both to the church and to society. “Explicit evangelization” began in the last 50 years, said Father Vanthuy, mainly on the part of Salesian missionaries.

“The church cannot be complicit with the death project” being perpetrated by illegal miners on Yanomami territory.

Today there are groups of Yanomami who are baptized Christians. Different groups of male and female missionaries have come closer to the Yanomami over the past few decades, particularly in the face of the many threats that the Indigenous communities have experienced since the military dictatorship during the 1980s, from construction of highways through their lands to invasions by miners and drug dealers.

Many of the incursions on Yanomami territory are begun by poor people themselves, who hope to find a living in illicit mining or harvesting of Amazonian natural resources. But organized criminal gangs also violate protected territories, often provoking violent confrontations and engaging in human trafficking and the sexual abuse of Indigenous minors and women. Such incursions can also lead to the rapid spread of infectious disease.

Kenyan-born Sister Mary Agnes Njeri Mwangi has been a Consolata Missionary in Brazil since 1996. Sister Mwangi told America that religious men and women in Brazil have been “denouncing that which was contrary to the Gospel in order to guarantee the dignity of these people.”

Over the years of her life as a missionary, she learned how deeply connected the Yanomami are to their ancestral traditions. “In this land, reciprocal generosity reigns, the land takes care of them and they heal the land. Everything is shared with the land, nothing is accumulated. When someone dies, everything they owned is burned,” she said. “The only inheritance the Yanomami dream of leaving to their children is the habitable forest. To invade Yanomami land is to touch the heart of the people, to unbalance their dreams and life, and to strike at their physical health with disease, hunger, malnutrition.”

The Yanomami are proud of their culture, including their religion, their traditional diet and, particularly, their language, she said. They like to teach others what they know about living in harmony with nature.

“We invited Mr. Bosolnaro to come see the reality of the Yanomami people, but he never came. He did not answer our leaders, but he went to visit and talk with miners.”

Despite many complaints about the exploitation of the Yanomami territories to the competent authorities of the country, requests for emergency aid were not taken seriously, she added.

A Yanomami leader, Junior Hekurari, told Brazilian TV GloboNews that his people sent more than 60 requests to the Health Ministry during the Bolsonaro administration that were insufficiently responded to or not responded to at all. About 120 communities under his care received no attention from the Bolsonaro government.

“We invited [Mr. Bosolnaro] to come see the reality of the Yanomami people, but he never came. He did not answer our leaders, but he went to visit and talk with miners, which made us very sad,” Mr. Hekurari said.

Sister Mwangi said that “the church cannot be complicit with the death project” being perpetrated by miners. She believes the solution to the crisis, beyond the immediate delivery of emergency aid, will be grounded in the protection and empowerment of younger Yanomami. Now many Indigenous young people are succumbing to the vices of modernity, becoming involved with drugs, guns and liquor, she said. As a result, some even end up collaborating with the criminals who are threatening their communities.

What might help restore balance is food sovereignty and security among the Indigenous communities, she said. That autonomy could be hastened by relearning ancestral farming techniques and the recovery and restoration of now-degraded land.

The Indigenous communities must also be able to access reliable public health services on a constant basis, Sister Mwangi said. In the meantime, she said, Catholic missionaries will be “tirelessly seeking constructive, liberating and transformative relationships with the Yanomami people.”

With reporting from The Associated Press

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