Malnutrition, malaria and mercury contamination plague Yanomami communities in the Brazilian state of Roraima, bordering Venezuela. President ‘Lula’ da Silva described the situation as a “genocide” and promised immediate help for these indigenous people who depend on the natural environment for their sustenance.
“We have spent four years without health care in communities. We are 120 communities fighting for their lives. There are more than 20,000 miners in the indigenous Yanomami region, with weapons, threatening us. We live in fear. ” Junior Hekurari Yanomami, president of Boa Vista’s Indigenous Health District Council, speak thus. The city, capital of Roraima state, where 10 million hectares of the Yanomami reserve is located, welcomes dozens of indigenous people these days to receive 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 area from any form of exploitation. However, it is estimated that around 20,000 people work in illegal mines, especially gold. Armed and linked to illegal economic structures, they limit the movement of the region’s native inhabitants and destroy the forest and environment.
The consequences for indigenous communities and the environment are dire. And, above all, they are creating a health crisis that has prompted Brazilian President Lula da Silva to declare a state of health emergency in the region and investigate decisions made by his predecessor, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, who Let the situation 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.” Last year alone, 99 children between the age of one to four years had died.
What is the relationship between mining and health?
The presence of weapons and illegal mining in the area leads to the 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 at risk. This, in addition to the impact on healthcare, further isolates communities that are already far apart.
In the Yanomami region of Arathau, the number of health care visits declined by 75% in 2021 compared to 2020. In Homeoxy, the reduction was even more pronounced, with 83% fewer health visits. These figures are from the ‘Yanomami Under Attack’ report, which has been prepared by the indigenous communities themselves.
Another problem arising from illegal mining is mercury contamination. This element, widely used in the extraction of gold, is highly toxic to health. In addition to affecting the miners themselves, who are constantly in contact with the metal, splashes of mercury reach the water and thus contaminate the entire natural environment, as well as the Yanomami themselves, who drink from the river and catch their own fish. , They are also drunk.
According to the World Health Organisation, mercury seriously affects various organs and functions of the body. For example, it is corrosive and can damage the skin or digestive tract if swallowed. It also has an effect on the kidney and respiratory system. However, the best-known consequence of mercury consumption is damage to the nervous system: it can cause cognitive delays, difficulties with movement, concentration and memory in children and young people.
Another complaint of indigenous communities is the exponential increase in malaria cases. Without reliable data on this increase due to weak epidemiologic surveillance, many Yanomami areas lament that more and more infections are occurring, and Boa Vista hospitals confirm that the number of patients has increased.
The connection between malaria and illegal mining is not improbable: a study conducted in Venezuela concluded that this extraction activity contributed to an increase of between 23% and 27% of infections in the country’s Amazonian regions. Mining creates an imbalance of population in the areas, as thousands of people come from other areas and more are displaced from the indigenous communities.
This is one of the factors promoting malaria, apart from the fact that illegal mining usually leaves large pools of stagnant water, which is the perfect environment for breeding mosquitoes that later become carriers 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 up good defenses, such as measles, or during pandemics like COVID-19 itself.