The Yanomami are an indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforest, mainly in the border area between Brazil and Venezuela. They are one of the largest indigenous groups in the Amazon, with an estimated population of around 30,000 inhabitants and on the Brazilian side they live in an area of approximately 9.6 million hectares, distributed between the states of Roraima and Amazonas.
In recent years, the indigenous Yanomami have become victims of Brazil's largest humanitarian crisis this century. The lands where they live have been invaded by miners who operate illegally and have led to hunger, violence, disease and even death among adults and children.
Official figures show that between 2019 and 2022, 570 Yanomami children died, many of them victims of hunger. Furthermore, more than 70% of the approximately 30,000 indigenous people contracted malaria in 2022 alone.
What caused this tragedy?
The most critical point, at the moment, is located in the western part of the state of Roraima, as shown in the following map:
The Yanomami live from agriculture and forest fishing, but in recent years, according to the Federal Public Prosecutor, some 20,000 men have invaded indigenous lands in the service of enterprises dedicated to the illegal extraction of precious minerals (mainly gold).
Mining – carried out with heavy machinery – has caused, among other problems, the contamination of the soil (making the land unproductive for agriculture) and rivers, with the consequent death of fish.
Mining has also caused health problems for the Yanomami. Diseases include mercury infections, severe cases of diarrhea, pneumonia and hair loss in children. Breastfeeding is also risky, as the infection is passed from mother to child through breast milk.
There were also reports of rapes committed against children and women, and of indigenous people being forced to work for garimpeiros as slave labor.
What has the government done and what hasn’t it done?
Indigenous peoples’ advocacy bodies (such as FUNAI) have filed numerous complaints against illegal mining during Jair Bolsonaro’s tenure, but the government has systematically defended the interests of invaders of indigenous lands.
Bolsonaro has always been in favor of greater exploitation of the Amazon’s resources and has even gone so far as to visit an illegal mining site. As president, Bolsonaro approved the granting of at least two mines, through the National Mining Agency, to people linked to illegal mineral extraction.
In December 2022, the area affected by illegal mining reached 5,000 hectares. This is a 300% increase from the end of 2018, before Bolsonaro took office.
Today there are about 3,000 malnourished children, but only in recent weeks has this dramatic situation come to the fore. For years there was a shortage of food and medicines and finally the Ministry of Health declared a public health emergency in the Yanomami territory.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva created a committee to address the health situation in the Yanomami territory.
The Yanomami people
The Yanomami are known for their unique culture and way of life. They traditionally live in large communal houses called yanos, built with local materials such as wood and straw. The Yanomami are also known for their intricate body painting, which they use to represent their connection to the natural world.
The Yanomami rely on the forest for food and other resources, such as medicinal plants. They practice swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture, which involves clearing small plots of land and growing crops for a few years before allowing the forest to regenerate. Hunting and fishing are also important sources of food.
For the Yanomami ”urihi”, the earth-forest, is not a mere inert space of economic exploitation (what we call “nature”), but a living entity, inserted in a complex cosmological dynamic of exchanges between humans and not human.
For more information on the Yanomami people:
And the link to some photos of the beautiful photographic exhibition “A luta Yanomami” by Claudia Andujar, hosted in 2019 by the Instituto Moreira Salles in São Paulo: