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Demini Village, in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Photo: Pablo Albarenga

Indigenous people of three ethnic groupings, living in areas only reachable by helicopter, are in danger of being erased from the next Brazilian census. As the data collection period draws to a close, the required aircraft had not been hired, making the work of the census takers impossible and negatively impacting knowledge of the exact numbers of indigenous people in Brazil, as well as their health conditions and level of vulnerability. It is the latest violation against the country’s native peoples, who have been severely neglected during the four years of Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

One affected group is the Yanomami, who in recent years have seen their territory in the states of Amazonas and Roraima invaded by illegal mining activities, leading to an increase in disease, violence, hunger and, as a result, mortality. There are even areas where health teams, responsible for the collection of statistical data, have been expelled by criminals, as SUMAÚMA reported in September. Both the medical teams and the associations that work in the region have said that because of the ongoing violence, current statistics do not reflect the current reality. If the 2022 Census is not completed, the Yanomami will suffer a form of statistical erasure for the second time. The Yanomami Indigenous Land is also home to the Ye’kwana, who will suffer the same fate, while another affected area is the Wajãpi Indigenous Territory, in Amapá, a region invaded by illegal miners and hunters. In total, it is estimated that 15,000 indigenous people across the three ethnic groups are likely to be excluded from the Census.

Incomplete data prevents comparisons with statistics from the last census, carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, or IGBE, in 2010, and makes it impossible to know how this population has changed over the last ten years, or understand the impact of criminal activity within their territories. It is not known, for example, how many individuals died and were born, how many left their villages, the cultural richness that has been lost, or whether the mercury from illegal mining, which pollutes the region’s rivers, has created a public health problem. The questionnaire applied amongst the indigenous population comprises 76 questions relating to the characteristics of their homes, their family structures, religion, disabilities, autism, migration to work or study, education, income and mortality.

The failure to collect these data is a clear violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, as IBGE itself admits in a document seen by SUMAÚMA. “The failure to collect data in these localities due to the unavailability of transport means submitting the indigenous people to statistical invisibility for more than a decade, as these indigenous areas do not form part of ongoing statistical surveys [such as the Brazilian National Household Sample Survey]”, the agency admitted in a statement issued by the Directorate of Research, Directorate of Geosciences and the General Coordination of Census Operations, dated November 30. “This results in major obstacles for the promotion of rights that form the backbone of the Brazilian social state, and frustrates the constitutional objectives of socioeconomic development, and the reduction of social inequality,” the statement continues. The Census is the only survey that provides official statistics on the indigenous peoples of Brazil, which it has done since 1991. According to 2010 data, 896,900 indigenous peoples of 305 ethnic groups live in the country, speaking 274 different languages.

The helicopter imbroglio has dragged on since the start of the year. IBGE documentation states the agency sought help from the federal agency of indigenous affairs, known as Funai, and the Special Office of Indigenous Health, or Sesai, which have contractual arrangements with air taxi firms in the areas in question, as well as the Brazilian Army, which carries out airborne patrols of these border regions. “IBGE sought to explore every option for obtaining logistical support from other authorities with the necessary expertise,” the agency said, in another document sent to the Brazilian Attorney General’s office, in which it sought approval for the direct procurement of the flight hours necessary to complete the survey on an emergency basis – in other words, without a tendering process.

The request for help from the Army was made in May 2022, but was refused. In the same month, the IBGE asked Sesai about the possibility of the health authority providing the required flight hours, but the request was denied two months later, in what the IBGE describes as an “untimely” manner. In June, the statistics agency requested similar support from Funai, whose reply one month later stated the authority did not have a current contract under which it could provide the helicopter flight time needed, but would be able to provide some assistance. Faced with these setbacks, the IBGE sought approval from the Attorney General’s office to directly procure the necessary air transport, as there was no longer sufficient time to carry out a tendering process. The application was made in September, but at the end of November the request was denied.

Data collection for the 2022 Census began in August, and is scheduled to end in December. In the previous census, in 2010, the IBGE was supported by the National Health Foundation, which provided air access and logistical support in the Yanomami and Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous territories, ensuring a total of 43,722 indigenous people in these areas were registered.

The IBGE estimated that around a thousand flight hours would be required to undertake the Census in indigenous lands, distributed across 11 of the 34 Special Indigenous Health Areas.

Most of these locations – representing a total of 692 flight hours – are reached by fixed-wing aircraft, such as single-engine planes, which were provided by Funai. The rest – to villagers without landing strips – require helicopters. But Funai was only able to provide part of the necessary helicopter flight hours in the territory of the Kayapó, in Pará, stating it did not have the necessary contracts in place in the Yanomami and Wajãpi territories.

Meeting at the Demini Village in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in August this year. Photo: Pablo Albarenga

In the region of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory located in the state of Amazonas, most of the census tracts can be reached along the region’s rivers, with the remaining areas accessible by air. As a result, 84.4% of census tracts have already been visited. The missing 15.6% can only be reached by plane (four tracts) and helicopter (another four tracts). Part of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in the state of Roraima has fewer areas with river or land access, meaning only 32.8% of its sectors have been completed. Of the 229 missing sectors, 175 can only be reached by helicopter, according to IGBE documentation.

In the Wajãpi Indigenous Territory, in Amapá, collection began in communities with land and river access, and by October 24, 74% of census tracts had been covered. After that, however, collection ceased due to the lack of helicopters. In this Indigenous Territory, 175 households, or 1,165 people, were surveyed (giving an average of six residents per household). The IBGE calculates there are a total of 281 households to cover.

In addition to providing an important snapshot of the Brazilian population, census data are used to calculate population estimates over the next decade. The distribution of federal government resources to states and municipal districts is based on population counts, which are also, in the case of indigenous people, the main source of data through which Funai and Sesai plan public policies. Statistics are collected every ten years, with the current census, initially scheduled for 2020, delayed by two years, first because of budgetary issues and then the pandemic. “If the 2022 Demographic Census does not guarantee coverage of all Indigenous Territories and, within them, every village and community (…) [there will be] impacts on the execution and monitoring of the National Policy for Health Care for Indigenous Peoples, the National Policy for the Management of Indigenous Lands and the National Policy for Indigenous School Education,” stated the November 30 IGBE statement.

Through its press office, the IBGE claimed it had not yet exhausted its options for obtaining the necessary flight hours to complete this year’s census. But a source from the Census planning department told SUMAÚMA that, due to the operational complexity of carrying out surveys in remote areas, obtaining the missing data in the time remaining will be extremely difficult without the creation of a federal task force. The situation is further complicated by the disbanding of census teams in December, and the absence of a budget for activities in 2023. SUMAÚMA asked both the Army and Sesai why they refused to help carry out the Census, but at time of going to press, neither had responded.

Translated by James Young

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