Brazil: Crisis in Yanomami territory, one year after operation to remove goldminers

January 17, 2024

The Yanomami are suffering an acute health crisis, and hundreds of children are acutely malnourished. © Urihi

Experts have warned that an acute health crisis is ravaging the Yanomami people in Brazil’s northern Amazon, one year on from a major government operation intended to rid the area of illegal goldminers.

Figures from the official health service in the Yanomami area show:

  • The incidence of malaria increased 61% in 2023, with at least 25,000 cases.
  • Levels of flu have also increased dramatically, from 3,203 in 2022 to 20,524 in 2023 - an increase of 640%.
  • 308 Indigenous people have died (Jan - Nov 2023), most of them children under five.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has recently released a damning verdict on just how badly the situation in the Yanomami territory has deteriorated:

  • Health services in the area are barely functioning. Nine health posts that should have re-opened are still shut.
  • There is little safe drinking water.
  • Many illegal mining camps are still active.
  • “[There is a] continuing, extremely serious and urgent situation, inflicting irreparable damage to the lives and health of the Indigenous peoples.”
  • “There are still groups of armed miners belonging to organized criminal gangs that  remain in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, distributing weapons to the Indigenous population and seeking to control [them].”

Recent photos and video from inside the territory reveal appalling malnutrition among Yanomami children and adults, as well as illegal goldminers operating in the area with impunity.

An illegal airstrip built by goldminers, just inside the Venezuelan border, in the heart of Yanomami territory. Nine light aircraft are visible. © Globo TV

In one particularly shocking incident caught on video, three young Yanomami boys were tied up and held prisoner by miners.

Dario Kopenawa Yanomami, vice president of Hutukara Yanomami Association said: “Even with the emergency decree, the government has been unable to resolve the situation. The miners are still on Yanomami land. And today mining is more destructive than in the 1980s and 90s. Today there is mining by criminal factions, organized crime, the PCC (First Capital Command) and the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) in the Yanomami territory. This is a very, very serious situation and a very vulnerable situation for the Yanomami. Children are still dying of malaria and pneumonia, children are still dying from parasites and tuberculosis. The Yanomami and their land are still suffering from a humanitarian crisis. And we're going to keep fighting and keep criticizing the federal and state governments.”

Fiona Watson, Survival’s Research and Advocacy Director, said today: “Despite the promises of President Lula when he launched the operation to remove the miners a year ago, the current situation in the Yanomami territory is nothing short of catastrophic.

“Miners are flooding back into the area, and old mining sites are being re-established.

“The armed forces, who are involved in the operation to remove them, are dragging their feet. Many vital health posts and services that are so desperately needed are not functioning.

“The situation for the thousands of Yanomami people who live on the Venezuelan side of the border is dire, and receiving almost no media attention. Miners are working in new areas in Venezuela with the support of the Venezuelan military. There’s currently a malaria epidemic, and many Yanomami have died.

“The plight of the uncontacted Yanomami is especially concerning - we know that miners are still operating just a few miles from their communities.

“If this situation continues, hundreds more Yanomami people will die, and their land will become uninhabitable. It’s absolutely vital that the new measures just announced by President Lula are put in place immediately as part of a sustained, comprehensive operation to remove the miners permanently and provide the intensive healthcare that’s so desperately needed. It’s also vital that this activity is maintained - otherwise, this appalling story will be repeated over and over until the Yanomami have been decimated. It’s high time that all those profiteering from the illegal mining are brought to justice for their crimes.”


Notes to Editors:

The figures quoted in this press release almost certainly represent an underestimate of the true situation, as for their own safety health teams are not visiting the more remote areas of the territory where miners are active.

The PCC (First Capital Command) and the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) are two of the largest organized crime gangs in Brazil.