Journalism from the center of the world


“Don’t spit on the ground! Hold that catarrh!”. I woke up one morning in July 2001 to those cries. Woke up is one way of putting it. I was dripping wet, having shared a soaked hammock with my reporting partner, photographer Lilo Clareto. It was my first time in Yanomami territory, Lilo had already covered the Haximu massacre in 1993, the only genocide ever judged by the Brazilian legal system. The cries were from the nurse and nursing assistants at the Urihi Yanomami Health Association[M1] . The sun was still rising and they had to collect the first phlegm from the Yanomami in order to test for tuberculosis, one of the many diseases brought in by non-indigenous people. It was just another episode in the most spectacular health care that I had ever seen or would ever see again.

To get to that point, we first traveled by helicopter, then by plane, and then a day-long-trip by boat along the rivers of the indigenous land. When we at last reached the village, soaked from the rain and having been unable to eat, we found the group had moved to the camp near their plantation. We got back into the boat once again and finally arrived there late at night, which is never wise in the forest. With little cassava for themselves, the Yanomami were only able to share some roasted fire-caterpillars (manduruvás). Since there wasn’t any room in the communal hut and it was still raining, there were few places for us to fasten the hammocks, so Lilo and I had to share one. It gets cold at night in the territory’s highlands, and the rain just made it worse. Our reality was the same as that of the health professionals, with the difference that they spent hours collecting phlegm when morning came. The difference was that we accompanied the work in two other villages and then returned to the city of Boa Vista, while they carried on working. The health agents spent months trekking countless kilometers in order to attend and test the indigenous people in their own communal huts.

I had never seen anything like it, never seen dedication like that. I didn’t know that a service like this even existed, and I remember being very impressed, with the feeling that something that was so right was finally taking place in Brazil. It was the service created by Deise Alves and Cláudio Esteves, two young idealistic doctors, who could have been working anywhere else, with a lot more comfort and much better pay, but who had chosen to live and raise their daughters in the city Boa Vista, the capital of the State of Roraima, and, as the anthropologist Bruce Albert says, to revolutionize indigenous health.

The special report in this newsletter is about what happened after Deise and Cláudio created the best moment in Yanomami health since the invasion by the whites. Crafted by Malu Delgado, one of the most experienced journalists of her generation, the story tells in precise detail how the state destroyed the reputations and lives of these doctors. This is a story of one of the greatest public injustices ever committed. Nowadays, Deise Alves’ and Cláudio Esteves’ bodies bear the marks of the after-effects of the continuous process of destruction and owe 85 million reais to the public authorities. Without the money to pay for a lawyer, without any support from their peers, they were left to languish and (almost) perish alone. You can count on the fingers of one hand the few individuals who kept up any really effective support for these two Brazilians who should have a place of honor in the history of indigenous health.

After I left Yanomami territory and the State of Roraima, I only started writing about Urihi again when the process of destruction got underway. I did a one-page report on the beginning of the demolition job that was being done on them in Época magazine, where I was working at the time. In those years you virtually had to wage a battle against racism in order to get space to talk about indigenous people in the traditional press. The episodes of executive editors in various different media outlets making fun of indigenous people are well known to my generation of journalists, and are recounted in bars: one phrase that was often heard was “don’t talk to me about indigenous people”. Or: “indigenous people? You should stay away from that stuff”. It should be pointed out I am only selecting the least distasteful comments.

A couple of years later, it was after 7.00 p.m. on the day when the issue was finalized and I was sorting out a revision query in relation to my article when I caught sight of a page on which the word “Urihi” was written. Out of curiosity, I nosed around and found out that Deise and Cláudio were being treated like villains who had used the Yanomami to embezzle public money. Ever since 2001 there has been an offensive against non-governmental organizations (NGOs), particularly in the Amazon region, because these were in the way of those who wanted to exploit the minerals on indigenous land, as well as take out timber. It is true that there were problems with a few NGOs, but not with the great majority of them and certainly not with the Urihi Yanomami Health Association . However, detecting problems and improving the model, was never the intention of the various Congressional Investigative Commissions (CPIs) into the NGOs – and nor is it the objective of the one that is currently being put together by former president Bolsonaro’s supporters in Congress.

At the time when the Urihi Yanomami Health Association was targeted, it was the second offensive against NGOs. When Jair Bolsonaro made NGOs the enemies of his predatory project in the Amazon region, he was just following a playbook that had already been adopted by various different ideological spectrums. At that time, I went looking for the article’s editor and said: “I know the Urihi Yanomami Health Association’s work in the field, I have already written articles on it. This joint effort is to get them out of Yanomami territory and pave the way for Romero Jucá and his gang”. However, all I managed to do was to get Deise and Cláudio to be heard. Yes, they were annihilated in a number of articles in the press that launched a savage attack on NGOs without even giving them a chance to be heard. Listening to “the other side” is a basic tenet of journalistic reporting. Or at least it should be.

Malu Delgado, the journalist who wrote this exemplary article, has already headed up teams at a number of traditional media outlets, including the newspapers Folha de S. Paulo, O Estado de São Paulo and Valor Econômico. She was also a reporter for Piauí magazine. We are happy to announce to our community that Malu is now in charge of reporting and editing SUMAÚMA’s content. This was her debut article. Pulling apart the tendrils of the bureaucratic web in which Deise and Cláudio were captured and crushed like bugs, demanded tremendous dedication and patience. “I’ve had so many experiences and disagreements in relation to journalism that many have been forgotten with the passing of time. But writing this article about Urihi’s story gave me the shivers. And when you get the shivers, your soul is restless. Organizing facts and testimonies about the lives of Cláudio and Deise forced me to compartmentalize my reflections regarding journalistic ethics, humanity, politics and Brazil,” said Malu, at the end of weeks of diving headfirst into the hell to which the doctors had been subjected.

Deise Alves’ and Cláudio Esteves’ lives were destroyed. The story is told here. And those of us here at SUMAÚMA believe in the power of the stories that are told. But, without people or organizations having taken up their cause, the doctors who were destroyed because they dared to go up against the forest’s destroyers based on a broad vision of health and who were annihilated for coming to the conclusion that the Yanomami will only be healthy if the forest is healthy, are still left owing 85 million reais to the public authorities and with their own health impaired. As younger people say, that’s what it’s about.

Spell check (Portuguese): Elvira Gago
Translation into Spanish: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Mark Murray
Photography editing: Marcelo Aguilar, Mariana Greif and Pablo Albarenga


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