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The displacement of the Yanomami: a struggle for human and biodiversity

By Lucrezia Santa Maria, MSc International Politics

In a vast area in the middle of the Amazon rainforest that stretches across Brazil and Venezuela, the Yanomami community has lived for centuries, following their autochthonous cultural practices in harmony with the surrounding nature. Yet, for the past four decades, they have been struggling for their survival, and as some of their land, formally recognized as an indigenous protected land under Brazilian law, was violently invaded by gold miners eager to put their hands on the gold lying under the territory. What was a peaceful cohabitation between the community and the surroundings became a real-world nightmare, a human tragedy and environmental degradation, for which criminal networks, with the full compliance of the Brazilian government, especially during the Bolsonaro administration, are to be held accountable.

‘What was a peaceful cohabitation between the community and the surroundings became a real-world nightmare, a human tragedy and an environmental degradation, for which criminal networks, with the full compliance of the Brazilian government, especially during the Bolsonaro administration, are to be held accountable.’

The Gold Rush

The Yanomami community is now at the centre of Brazil’s fourth Gold Rush, after the ones which occurred between the 1970s and 1990s. According to the journalistic report Yanomami Blood Gold series, conducted by the two media groups, Amazonia Real and Réporter Brasil in 2021, the Gold Rushes were sustained by a route controlled by criminal gangs, colluding with government employees and politicians that starts from mines operating in the territory and ends in luxurious jewellery stores. The Hutukara Yanomami Association counted the presence of 20,000 gold miners (known as garimpeiros) in March 2021.

Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, as the title of a Guardian article states, was ‘catastrophic news for Brazil’s indigenous tribes’. In his populist-neoliberal, anti-environmental and anti-indigenous political discourse, the indigenous population were an impediment to the development of the Brazilian nation.

 In what is a colonial logic of expropriation, his dehumanising rhetoric was a green light to exploit, with impunity, the Yanomami cultural heritage, land, and resources, on which the community relies for its livelihood. It also paved the way for the elimination of indigenous land rights and the empowerment of mining corporations, according to the Guardian.

Brazilian Law is ambiguous about gold mining in the Amazon, especially because there are different land statuses, each one of which presents its own regulations. It gives the government the power to grant permits and conditions to miners, even though these often violate International Law, according to Jasmine Plummer from Georgetown University Law Center. However, Law limits mining to fifty hectares for five years and requires the restoration of degraded land. Bolsonaro’s policies resulted in the systematic removal of constraints and facilitation of the authorization process of prospectors’ activities. This led to increasing deregulation of mining activities, in which illegal miners and criminal networks were free to operate in what was discursively constructed as a ‘no man’s land’.

According to the journalistic report, 2,430 hectares of land were destroyed by illegal mining. Large areas were deforested, rivers and air were contaminated by mercury, and the indigenous population is currently at risk of extinction due to diseases, hunger, and direct killings perpetrated by garimpeiros. CNN reported 5770 deaths due to hunger alone over the past four years. Women were raped, and social unrest was diffused, as attested by the UN. Cultural and natural destruction are deeply linked in the case of the Yanomami and other indigenous communities of the Amazon, who are facing the same struggles.

Yanamomi woman and children gathering leaves to make inot timbò, a substance used for fishing (Credit: Survival International).

Yanomami ethics

Yanomami people have a vital bond with nature. The forest has spiritual and religious value for the community: it is not only their source of livelihood but it is also assigned religious and cultural symbolism. Respect for nature and its diversity is an ethical responsibility as it is what permits the flourishing of their culture in every aspect. According to the UN, ‘nature and life are inseparable for indigenous peoples,’ and therefore, the protection of their cultural heritage is interlinked with the protection of the land they live on. This is why the Yanomami have been deemed ‘guardians of the Amazon rainforest’, an example of positive and respectful cohabitation with nature and its diversity that gave life and to which life must be guaranteed. Because of their beliefs, the human rights of the Yanomami people cannot be guaranteed unless those of their environment are respected too.

The policies of the Bolsonaro administration reveal the essence of a neoliberal idea of development, in which cultural distinctiveness, as well as biodiversity, are disregarded as an impediment in the path towards economic progress. The government, which should be the authority responsible for the safeguarding of its citizens’ rights, becomes their exploiter, yielding to the power of economic corporations, accumulating money over the blood of indigenous communities and devastating the Amazon rainforest: ‘the Earth’s lungs’.

The Lula administration’s attempts to restore harmony

The Lula administration has promised that it would act to preserve the Amazon’s natural richness and indigenous rights from what Lula has defined as a ‘genocide’ perpetrated by Bolsonaro against them. Two international indigenous activists were nominated ministers in the new government. Marina Silva was appointed as environment minister, while Sonia Guajajara now leads Brazil’s first-ever ministry for indigenous peoples. The new ministry is considered a great step towards the empowerment of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, The World reports. Also, the call for a ‘new democratic ecosystem’ recognizes both human security and natural preservation as cornerstones. The ministry will now have jurisdiction over ‘FUNAI’, Brazil’s government indigenous affairs department, which Bolsonaro threatened to close, while an executive order was also signed to relaunch a billion-dollar Amazon fund.

The new administration’s agenda was welcomed as, in the words of the activist Ingrid Sateré Mawé, ‘a historic moment to rewrite the history of the indigenous peoples of Brazil.’ It is, in fact, certainly a crucial responsibility of the government to act on what, for now, has been a situation of systematic exploitation and violence. The new government seems to be led by the conviction that development does not come out of exploitation, but, following Amartya Sen. Greater inclusion is necessary, not only between people but also between humans and nature. It is only the first step in what will be a long path towards the dismantling of the industrial complex that is responsible for a natural and humanitarian crisis in the Amazon.

Featured Photo Caption: An illegal mine on the Mucajaí River, Kayanau region – built on Yanomami territory (Credit: Chico Batata, Greenpeace).

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