Malnutrition, malaria and mercury contamination haunt Yanomami communities in the Brazilian state of Roraima, on the border with Venezuela. President ‘Lula’ da Silva described the situation as “genocide” and promised urgent help for this indigenous people who depend on the natural environment for their subsistence.
“We have spent four years without health care in the communities. We are 120 communities fighting for our lives. There are more than 20,000 miners in indigenous Yanomami territory, with weapons, intimidating us. We live in fear.” This is how Junior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the District Council of Indigenous Health of Boa Vista, speaks. The city, capital of the state of Roraima, where the 10 million hectares of the Yanomami reserve are located, welcomes dozens of indigenous people these days to give them much-needed health care.
In total, there are more than 30,000 Yanomami in the largest indigenous reserve in the country, a legal status that protects the territory from any type of exploitation. However, it is estimated that approximately 20,000 people work in illegal mines, especially gold. Armed and intertwined with illegal economic structures, they limit the movement of the original inhabitants of the region and destroy the jungle and the environment.
The consequences on indigenous communities and on the environment are profound. And, above all, they are causing a health crisis that led Brazilian President Lula da Silva to declare a state of health emergency in the region and investigate the decisions made by his predecessor, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, which allowed the situation to reach this point.
The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples estimates that “at least 570” Yanomami minors died between 2019 and 2022 “due to mercury contamination, malnutrition and hunger.” Just last year, 99 children between the ages of one and four died.
What is the link between mining and health?
The presence of weapons and illegal mining in the territory has a first consequence: the difficulty of movement. Without being able to move freely, a large part of Yanomami subsistence activities, such as farming or fishing, become a risk. This, in addition to the impact on healthcare, further isolates communities that are already far away.
In the Yanomami region of Arathau, the number of health care visits in 2021 fell by 75% compared to 2020. In Homoxi, the reduction was even more pronounced, with 83% fewer health visits. The figures are from the report ‘Yanomami under attack’produced by the indigenous communities themselves.
Another problem derived from illegal mining is mercury contamination. This element, widely used in gold extraction, is highly toxic to health. In addition to impacting the miners themselves, who are constantly exposed to the metal, mercury spills reach the water and thus contaminate the entire natural environment, as well as the Yanomami themselves, who drink from the river and catch their fish, also intoxicated.
The Mercury, according to the WHO, seriously affects various organs and functions of the body. For example, it is corrosive and can damage the skin or the digestive system if swallowed. It also has an impact on the kidneys and the respiratory system. However, the best-known consequence of mercury consumption is damage to the nervous system: it can cause cognitive delays in children and young people, difficulties with movement, concentration and memory.
Another complaint from indigenous communities is the exponential increase in malaria cases. Without reliable data on this growth due to weak epidemiological surveillance, several Yanomami territories denounce that there are more and more infections, and the Boa Vista hospitals confirm that the number of patients has grown.
The link between malaria and illegal mining is not unlikely: a study conducted in Venezuela concluded that this extractive activity in Amazonian areas of the country contributed to increasing infections between 23% and 27%. Mining generates an imbalance of population in the territories, as thousands of people arrive from other areas and tend to move more than indigenous communities.
This is one of the factors that drives malaria, in addition to the fact that illegal mining usually leaves large pools of stagnant water, the perfect environment for the reproduction of the mosquito that later becomes a vector of the disease.
This is not the first health crisis facing Yanomami communities. Since the middle of the last century, they have suffered outbreaks of diseases that come from abroad for which they have not built good defenses, such as measles, or Covid-19 itself during the pandemic.
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