Yanomami indigenous crisis: Lula’s challenges

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Yanomami indigenous crisis: Lula’s challenges

Sunday, 04 February 2024 | Makhan Saikia

Yanomami indigenous crisis: Lula’s challenges

The Yanomami people in Brazil’s Roraima province face a dire threat to their existence, marked by severe malnutrition, malaria, and encroachment by illegal miners. President Lula, who declared their plight a ‘genocide,’ blames his predecessor, but the crisis is rooted in years of exploitation, including Lula’s own policies, making urgent action imperative for this indigenous community.

The Yanomami people of Brazil are confronting a significant threat to their lives and livelihoods. They reside in the northernmost province of Brazil, known as Roraima, which is one of the 26 states in the country and is the most logistically and geographically isolated from the rest of the nation. This region constitutes the largest indigenous territory in the country, comparable in size to Portugal in Europe. Currently, nearly 30,000 Yanomamis live in Roraima, and some also reside in southern Venezuela.

Ironically, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the current Brazilian President, popularly known as Lula, assumed power for the third time in January 2023 as the 39th President and visited the province of Roraima. During his visit, he declared that the Yanomami indigenous group is facing ‘genocide.’ Lula promptly attributed the situation to his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, and committed to addressing the issue urgently. This response was prompted by a series of publications in the Brazilian media that quickly disseminated photos of malnourished children in December 2023.

The reports have genuinely shocked the entire nation, raising awareness about the current situation of the Yanomami community in the distant province. Many argue that it poses an existential threat to this group of indigenous people.

The crisis has unfolded, leaving many questioning how and who is responsible for it. For centuries, the Yanomami community sustained their way of life through hunting, farming, and gathering food from the bountiful rainforest provided by the Amazon. Each year, they moved from one place to another, allowing their lands to regenerate. Their ancestral lands and the surrounding forests were their sole sources of sustainability. However, with the ascent to power of Bolsonaro, a far-right and populist leader who served as the 38th President from 2019 to 2022 in this Amazon-rainfed state, things quickly took a turn for the worse.

It must be clearly stated that the deterioration of the health and environment of the Yanomami continued for an extended period, not specifically during Bolsonaro’s tenure. However, it is notable that he openly encouraged miners and other forest contractors to operate in the region, aiming to enhance employment opportunities and the nation’s wealth. The exploitation of the Yanomami was well underway during the two terms of President Lula from 2003-2010 and his protégé Dilma Rousseff from 2011-2016, until her impeachment. The conditions of the Yanomami group came to public attention primarily during the last few months of Bolsonaro’s presidency.

Lula has completed one year in office, promising Brazilians high hopes and commitments. The primary entities responsible for the Yanomami genocide are the Brazilian State, mega business corporations, illegal miners, and loggers, all with the knowledge of the government. Specifically, illegal gold miners inundated the region in the 1980s, but were largely expelled thereafter. However, with the rise in gold prices and an invitation by the Bolsonaro Government, these miners returned to the region. Environmental and media reports suggest that around 20,000 of these miners came back to Roraima during Bolsonaro’s presidency. They are encroaching on the indigenous lands of the Yanomami group, forcing many to flee from their homelands. Unfortunately, despite a year of lofty promises by the newly elected Lula in January 2023, many illegal miners and loggers have indeed returned to the Amazon rainforest, continuing their age-old exploitation of the local Yanomami.

Currently, severe malnutrition and malaria are actively decimating the Yanomami. For years, stern warnings have been issued to the Federal Government in Brasilia, but no serious measures have been taken to halt the slow killing of the Yanomami. On record, the Federal Administration has declared a “public health emergency” regarding the conditions faced by the Yanomami.

How do miners and other outsiders pose a threat to the Yanomami? Primarily, all the miners substantially destroy the animal habitat that these people rely on for their food. Secondly, these miners gradually occupy their fertile lands, which the community uses for farming.

Thirdly, these miners use mercury during mining, directly releasing poison into the local rivers upon which the Yanomami have depended for generations to catch fish and fetch water for their daily livelihoods. Fourthly, years of mining have contributed to the creation of hundreds of water pools, providing fertile grounds for mosquitoes to breed. This, in turn, causes a massive malaria epidemic among the locals. Finally, these miners continually search for new lands and grounds for profitable mining each year. This leads to the spread of illness, disturbances in normal lifestyle, and instability in the entire Roraima province. The Yanomami people, mainly living in isolation, have been exposed to outsiders for years, posing significant threats to their well-being.

It is worth discussing here why genocide is an existential threat and what it entails. The term “genocide” was first coined by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in his book titled “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”. The term genocide is composed of the Greek prefix genos, meaning tribe or race, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. Lemkin developed this term for two purposes: one against the systematic killing of the Jewish people under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime during the Second World War and also for earlier instances of targeted killing of a particular group or section of a community. Genocide was first recognised as a crime by the UN General Assembly in 1946 under international law (A/RES/96-I). To date, 153 countries have ratified the Genocide Convention.

Clearly, genocide is defined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also known as the Genocide Convention. It is an instrument of international law that, for the first time, codified Genocide as a crime. On December 9, 1948, the Genocide Convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly as the first human rights treaty. This Convention once again reiterated the international community’s commitment to “never again” after experiencing the loss of massive economic resources, grave hostilities, and heinous crimes, including the infamous “Holocaust” in Germany during the Second World War. The adoption of this Convention is a watershed moment in the modern history of humanity as it underscores the importance of universal human rights and condemnation of such acts by all civilized nations. The Convention, in its Article II, defines Genocide as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:

A. Killing members of the group;

B. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

C. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

D. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

E. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Brazil, being a signatory of the Genocide Convention, is fully responsible for protecting and preventing the menace against the Yanomami community in this northwestern part of the country. Brasilia must put in place all available legal instruments to hold the perpetrators of the crime accountable as early as possible.

Under Lula da Inacio, Brazil is rapidly witnessing a severe crisis, encompassing both environmental and humanitarian hazards for the Yanomami indigenous people. There is widespread belief that genocide is being perpetrated against the Yanomami group. Lula’s two terms of presidency in the 2000s were also marked by policies directly impacting the lives of indigenous people. For instance, he permitted the construction of the Bel Monte Dam on the Xingu River, which was later completed during the tenure of his successor and Worker’s Party (PT) President, Rousseff. This dam resulted in the flooding of about 500 square kilometres, displacing over 20,000 people, devastating the livelihoods of indigenous communities, and creating another deforestation zone in the Amazon, widely known as the “Lungs of the Planet”.

Furthermore, Lula’s administration allowed land rights for squatters, leading to the legalisation of land grabs in the Amazon Forest. It offered amnesty to all those responsible for encroachment and deforestation of the lands of indigenous communities in the Amazon areas. Lula also favored the agri-business industry, equally responsible for exploiting indigenous communities. His permission for the meat lobby to expand their business directly impacts the lands of local people. Hence, Lula cannot simply blame Bolsonaro for the current environmental and humanitarian wreckage affecting the Yanomami people.

The current crisis is not of recent origin; it has been escalating over many years. In 2020, a study conducted by UNICEF and Fiocruz, the Brazilian State Health Research Institute, confirmed that eight out of every ten children aged five or under suffered from chronic malnutrition. Lula, often hailed as a champion of social reform with economic growth, must reflect upon the tragedies unfolding against the disadvantaged and indigenous people of Brazil, particularly the Yanomami. Before he chairs the much-talked-about global conference summit called COP-30 next year, it is his responsibility to address one of the worst humanitarian and environmental catastrophes that has been occurring right under his nose.

In March 2022, Junior Hekurari Yanomami, the President of the Yanomami Local Health Council, wrote on Twitter (Now X): “The miners are destroying our rivers, forests, and our children. Our air is no longer pure, our game is disappearing, and our people are crying out for clean water. We want to live; we want our peace back and our territory.” So, the writing on the wall is clear. Lula is well aware of the tragedy. It is time for action, not to exacerbate the Yanomami tragedy!

(The writer is a Senior Faculty at the Department of Political Science in the School of Liberal Education, Galgotias University, Greater Noida.)

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