Why Lula has failed to address the Yanomami genocide

The humanitarian and environmental crisis in Indigenous lands in Brazil has deep roots and cannot be resolved with half-measures.

A Yanomami child is fed while receiving healthcare in an accommodation used to shelter the sick, at the healthcare unit of the Auaris Base Hub, in Yanomami Indigenous land, Roraima state, Brazil, January 10, 2024. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
A Yanomami child is fed while receiving healthcare in an accommodation used to shelter the sick, at the healthcare unit of the Auaris Base Hub, in Yanomami Indigenous land, Roraima state, Brazil, on January 10, 2024 [Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino]

In December 2022, Brazilian media published photos of malnourished Yanomami children which shocked the nation. The Indigenous peoples of the Amazon had long lived off of hunting, farming, and gathering food and resources from the bountiful rainforest. But the encroachment on their lands by the Brazilian state, corporations, illegal loggers, and illegal miners has now doomed them to starvation and disease.

Soon after taking office in January 2023, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva rushed to address the crisis. He visited the Yanomami community in the northern Roraima state and declared that a “genocide” was happening against the Indigenous people, blaming it on his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. He vowed to take action and put an end to the suffering of the indigenous people.

Today, a year after Lula made his promise, the Yanomami are yet to see a radical change in their lives. Despite the measures the Lula government undertook, expelling thousands of illegal miners, the crisis in Roraima state has persisted. Many illegal miners have returned and the Indigenous people continue to suffer from diseases and malnutrition.

In an audio message to the press, Indigenous leader Dario Kopenawa from the Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY) said, “We have seen many operations to root out the miners from Yanomami land and also on the humanitarian and sanitarian crisis. However, precariousness still lies in the Yanomami territory.”

Indeed, the Lula government’s efforts have not improved the situation much because the roots of the crisis go much deeper than the disastrous policies of Bolsonaro’s presidency. Addressing it would necessitate radical action.

A history of victimisation

Like other countries in the Americas, Brazil was founded against the backdrop of a genocidal campaign led by the European settlers against the Indigenous population. Successive Brazilian rulers and governments have oppressed and dispossessed the Indigenous communities throughout the past two centuries.

One of the worst episodes of violence in recent history took place during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964 – 1985). Indigenous peoples were subjected to forced labour, torture and acts of extermination at the hands of the state which sought to take over their lands to build federal highways and exploit its resources.

The dictatorship forces and big landowners introduced the smallpox virus into communities and distributed sugar laced with poison, killing many. Army aeroplanes dropped napalm on villages, devastating whole communities.

Although these atrocities stopped after the end of the dictatorship, the marginalisation and dispossession of the Indigenous peoples of Brazil continued into the democratic era. During his first two terms in office in the 2000s, Lula, too, was known to pursue policies which harmed the rights of the Indigenous people of Brazil.

Case in point: the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon. Lula played a key role in pushing through the project, which was completed under his successor, Dilma Rousseff, also a member of the Workers’ Party (PT).

The dam flooded some 500 square kilometres (193sq miles), displacing more than 20,000 people, destroying the livelihoods of fisherfolk, devastating Indigenous communities and creating a deforestation hotspot in the Amazon rainforest.

Lula’s environmental wreckage did not stop at Belo Monte. In 2009, he decided to grant land rights to squatters on Amazon land, basically legalising land grabs and giving an amnesty to people responsible for deforestation and encroachment on Indigenous territories.

He also had friendly relations with the big agribusiness sector, another enemy of Indigenous rights. He gave the meat industry – known as a major driving force of deforestation – access to cheap loans, allowing it to expand meat production and export exponentially, growing its appetite for cleared land.

Bolsonaro’s policies – although widely condemned by the PT – were merely an extension of the decades-old Brazilian state policy of complete disregard for Indigenous people’s rights and wellbeing.

A crisis decades in the making

Bolsonaro’s open disdain for the Indigenous communities encouraged further encroachment on their land. Illegal loggers and miners tied to organised crime flooded the Amazon, terrorising Indigenous communities, including the Yanomami.

They killed Indigenous activists and rangers trying to protect the forest, prevented people from hunting and growing food, poisoned the water resources with mercury and other harmful substances, spread diseases such as COVID-19 and malaria and even prevented healthcare workers from reaching the communities.

This devastated the Yanomami people, who hold one of the largest Indigenous territories in the country, with almost 10 million hectares. It is estimated that 28,000 Indigenous people reside there, so the following numbers paint a disturbing picture.

Undernourishment, famine, pneumonia and mercury poisoning killed 570 Yanomami children between 2018 and early 2023. Just in 2022, at least 99 Yanomami children aged five and below died.

In January 2023, the Health Ministry reported that almost 10 percent of registered malaria cases in the country were found in Yanomami communities, although they represent just 0.013 percent of the Brazilian population.

While Bolsonaro’s actions undoubtedly made the situation much worse for the Yanomami and other Indigenous groups, he was by no means solely to blame for this disastrous state of affairs. The systematic disregard of Indigenous rights had long had deadly consequences for Indigenous communities.

For example, within a year of the construction work on the Belo Monte Dam commencing, the number of seriously underweight Indigenous children jumped by 53 percent; within the first two years, the cases of intestinal parasites increased by 244 percent.

Indeed, the present crisis with the Yanomami people also did not happen overnight. Lula has tried to manage it by cracking down on illegal mining, launching a special task force to tackle the issue. Many people suspected of criminal activities were arrested and their mining equipment and aeroplanes were destroyed or confiscated as seen.

Emergency healthcare units were also dispatched to the Yanomami territories, as well as supplies of medicine and food.

In May 2023, the Health Ministry announced that in the first four months of the public health emergency for Yanomami territories Lula had announced, 67 of the 122 registered deaths of Yanomami people were children and teenagers; most of them had succumbed to curable diseases, such as pneumonia and diarrheal infections.

By October 2023, the death toll had reached 215, surpassing the total for 2022. More than half of the deaths were of children up to the age of four; 29 of them were due to malnutrition and 90 due to infectious disease. Shortly after this grim statistic was made public, the government stopped releasing official reports – perhaps an indirect admission that it had failed to resolve the crisis.

In statements released to the press, HAY has also said that illegal mining on Yanomami land continues, with 5,432 hectares (13,423 acres) devastated by such activities in 2023.

Stopping a genocide

Lula’s efforts to address the Yanomami crisis are clearly not enough. And as the Yanomami are no longer in the media spotlight – government officials and celebrities having ceased their PR visits to the communities – they run the risk of being once again forgotten and ignored.

One of the main problems is that the government does not appear to be consulting with the Indigenous people on ways to address the crisis. A case in point is the allocation of 1.2 billion real ($240m) and the construction of a “Government House” in Roraima state where all federal institutions involved in protecting, securing, and developing the region will be located. The government has said that the house will help implement an “action plan” to address the crisis, which, the HAY says, it has not been consulted on.

In his audio message to the press, Kopenawa explained, “We haven’t sat with them, nor the government has consulted us, the local leaders … We don’t see this money being invested in the Yanomami land but in the Roraima State government, so the money won’t be used for the specific Yanomami needs … [it] won’t solve the deaths, malnutrition, malaria cases, the health care structure.”

The second serious problem is that the government is upholding the interests of people and industries that fundamentally threaten Indigenous communities.

In an interview with me, the coordinator of the Indigenous Council of Roraima, Edinho Batista from the Macuxi people, said, “The state and federal governments are in league with plans that have been directly affecting the Indigenous communities. Construction enterprises, thermal and hydropower stations, and soy culture have been affecting the Indigenous peoples’ lifestyles and territories that are already disturbed by organized crime and mining. The Yanomami land is one example where criminal acts are killing people; meanwhile, the government is tight with businesses, merchants, politicians, and other economic players that have been financing mining in Yanomami land.”

In other words, for the crises in Yanomami lands and all Indigenous territories to be resolved, the Brazilian government has to start listening to the Indigenous people and has to completely overhaul its economic policies. It cannot continue to favour big agribusiness, the meat industry, oil and gas extraction, and export of raw materials, produced at the expense of nature and the Indigenous people.

It cannot continue to implement “half-measures” – sending security forces to clear the forests of illegal miners and then withdrawing them. Sending some food and medical supplies, but not establishing permanent health care infrastructure to ensure the wellbeing of the Indigenous people.

It cannot continue to treat the Indigenous people as if they are second-class citizens.

“It is also important that the government pays compensation to the Yanomami who have lost half of their people and that the criminals are investigated, identified, and punished. So, there will be justice, and then these people will be truly respected and seen as part of the society, not as a group that doesn’t belong to Brazil and is undeserving of respect,” Batista told me.

At the UN Climate Conference in Dubai (COP28) last year, Lula, who is trying to style himself as a global climate leader, was accompanied by a large delegation headed by Sonia Guajajara, minister of Indigenous peoples.

In a statement after the end of the conference, Guajajara, a lifelong advocate for Indigenous and environmental rights set hefty goals – including Indigenous rights protection and zero deforestation – for COP30, which Brazil will host in two years.

If Lula and his government are indeed committed to delivering on major climate commitments, they do not have much time to waste. They need to overhaul their economic policies immediately with Indigenous rights and sustainability in mind. Otherwise, come 2025, they will be presiding over a COP amid a climate catastrophe and an Indigenous genocide.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.