The Genocide We’re Allowing in Amazonia

The fact of the matter is that genocide against indigenous peoples in Brazil is widespread and affects all tribes in some way. Moreover, because of the animosity of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro toward Amerindians, stating they have too much land, has allowed for illegal mining and illegal logging on Native lands and all sorts of other atrocities, inclusive of indigenous murders. Nowhere is this worse than the Yanomami territory on the borderlands between Brazil and Venezuela, a tribal reserve park the size of Portugal (9.6 million hectares or 24 million acres) in which about 27,000 Yanomami live in approximately 360 villages.

The Yanomami are facing a humanitarian crisis, not known to them since the 1990s when these Natives were devastated by miner invasions on their lands. Now, again, there are at least 20,000 illegal gold miners (garimpeiros) on Yanomami lands bringing with them disease, malaria and COVID-19, and polluting the riverways of the Yanomami territory with mercury and other poisons from illicit mining operations.

Brazil has 566 indigenous areas, which occupy a territory of 1.17 million square kilometers – equivalent to the [Brazilian] states of Mato Grosso and Tocantins put together. According to data from the 2010 Census, the last one made by IBGE, 517.4 thousand out of the 817.9 thousand Brazilian Indians live in these reserves.”

In a recent report published by the Brazilian Instituto Socioambiental, “Xawara: Tracing the Deadly Path of COVID-19 and Government Negligence in the Yanomami Territory” (2020), outlines how unjust the Brazilian government’s response to COVID-19 and the gold miner incursions on Yanomami lands have been over the last couple of years since Bolsonaro took office.

In a statement by Yanomami and Ye’kwana leadership, they state:

But today our land has been invaded by 20,000 miners! They are bringing COVID-19 with them, and infecting our communities. This year [2020] they murdered two Yanomami! Again we see a huge mining invasion and with it come epidemics, as occurred in the past. It is illegal mining that is bringing this new xawara (epidemic) into the forest. Increasingly COVID-19 is infecting us, we see many people falling ill with coronavirus symptoms. But that is not all! The invaders also bring malaria, lots of malaria! Throughout the territory the communities are being infected, even where malaria had disappeared. Mining goes hand in hand with xawara and this is our overriding concern: COVID-19 and malaria are attacking people. This is why we are dying. If it continues like this, our population will shrink. This is very serious! …This COVID-19 xawara is a type of revenge wreaked by planet Earth, it is a warning to non-indigenous society that they are not caring for it. The Earth is crying for help. This is what the shamans say: mother Earth is angry and sick, she is asking non-indigenous people to stop destroying the planet.

In the last garimpeiro invasion in 1993, sixteen Yanomami were murdered by gold miners, known today as the Haximu massacre. The massacre was ruled a genocide by the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court and convicted four gold prospectors of the murder of sixteen Yanomami Indians. In the attack, the gold miners allegedly shot the elderly as well as women and children and struck a baby with a machete.

“Between 2019 and 2020, in the first years of the Bolsonaro administration, illegal mining and deforestation in the TIY [Yanomami Indigenous Territory] grew exponentially. According to the Imazon Deforestation Alert System (SAD), in the period August 2019 to July 2020, the TIY was among the 10 areas under most pressure from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Between August and September 2020, the TIY retained this grim ranking.” And while the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and the Federal Police (PF) have conducted operations in the Yanomami territories against illicit mining, it has not been enough to deter the enormous influx of illegal gold miners.

Such mining invasions are serious and this is why the threat of genocide is so severe. For example, “from mid-1987 to January 1990, the mining invasion and the spreading epidemic of malaria and respiratory diseases caused the death of around a thousand Yanomami, 14% of their population in Roraima.” Today, the Yanomami and Ye’kwana face a similar situation with COVID-19 and malaria infections. According to the Instituto Socioambiental report, there have been at least 949 cases of COVID-19 with 13 deaths out of a population of only 26,785 Indians.

Anthropologist Bruce Albert puts the situation among the Yanomami this way:
“The State’s negation of the Yanomami deaths and their dead from COVID-19, both in the epidemiological statistics and the secret biosafety burials, not only alludes to a sinister colonial experience, but also other more recent official strategies of collective amnesia in Brazil’s recent history, such as the ‘disappearance’ of bodies and the names of victims during the military dictatorship. In fact, seizing the dead of others to erase them from collective memory and negate the process of mourning by their family members has always been a mark of a supreme stage of barbarity based on contempt and the ethnic and/or political negation of the Other.”

In recent days, wildcat miners have become completely brazen by attacking Yanomami and Munduruku villages as well as federal police. While President Bolsonaro has openly called for legalizing mining on indigenous reserves, something which is currently unconstitutional. On the 14th of May, Bolsonaro told supporters: “It is not right to want to criminalize the gold miner in Brazil” (Não é justo querer criminalizar o garimpeiro no Brasil). Such comments has allowed gold prospectors to act with impunity on indigenous lands, burning villages, threatening indigenous leaders, and even in some cases murdering Natives.

In the Tapajos River Basin region of southern Amazonia in Pará State is the homeland of the Munduruku people who number nearly 14,000 and who have faced continual death threats from illicit miners. Like the Yanomami their rivers are being destroyed by the miners.

“On May 26, a major Federal Police operation to remove illegal gold miners from Munduruku Indigenous Territory turned violent, as armed miners first attacked a police outpost and then turned their fury upon the Munduruku themselves, attacking a village, firing shots, and targeting key leaders. Two houses were set ablaze, according to a statement from the Munduruku’s Ipereg Ayu Movement.”

It is clear from the rhetoric of President Jair Bolsonaro himself, the Bolsonaro administration is not interested in indigenous rights or the lives of Brazil’s small Amerindian population. Bolsonaro wishes to develop the Amazon at their expense. Bolsonaro has no issue with miners or loggers or others who wish to rape the indigenous lands of Brazil. To him, the Indians are just an impediment to Brazilian progress much like the motto of the Brazilian flag: Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progress), a positivistic anachronism of a bygone era.

Contrary to the thinking of Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Amerindian peoples have agency and they are fighting for their rights regardless if the federal government supports them or not. Because of this and because of the urgency of recent events, new massacres are bound to happen in Yanomami territories, on Munduruku lands, and elsewhere in Amazonia.

Likewise, as long as Bolsonaro is president nothing much will change for the Yanomami or the Munduruku and other Native peoples in Brazil. This is why it is so important to support organizations such as Survival International and Amazon Watch and others to put pressure on the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil for the sake of these remaining indigenous peoples.

Please support “Amazon Watch” and “Survival International”:

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J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).