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Lula visits the Yanomami peo. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva traveled to the State of Roraima on Saturday morning in order to assess the health situation in the Yanomami Indigenous Land, where in the last four years 570 children under the age of five have died because of a lack of medical care, as revealed by SUMAÚMA. The Ministry of Health has issued a decree declaring a public health emergency of national importance in the territory. This is a measure that is adopted in situations similar to epidemics, such as Covid-19. There will be a situation room with specialists, and the country’s Unified Health System’s (SUS) National Force will be sent to the region, along with doctors and nurses.

Photos and stories published by SUMAÚMA depicted the humanitarian tragedy in the territory: children and elderly people who are just skin and bone and barely able to stand up straight, can be seen throughout the Indigenous Land’s villages. A medical file that we had access to sheds some light on the horror: a three-year-old child who was attended to weighed 3.6 kilos, the same as a newborn baby. “I had access to some photos this week that really shook me. We cannot understand how a country with the conditions Brazil has can abandon its indigenous people like they have been abandoned here,” said the president in Boa Vista. “If someone had told me that here in Roraima there were people being treated in the inhumane way that I saw the Yanomami people being treated, I wouldn’t have believed it.” On Friday afternoon, after the report was published, the president had already spoken out about the situation of the Yanomami. “We will take action to ensure the lives of Yanomami children,” he posted on Twitter.

Lula arrived in Boa Vista, which is the capital of the state that shares the Yanomami Indigenous Land with Amazonas, late in the morning. He was accompanied by the Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sonia Guajajara, the president of the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI), Joenia Wapichana, the Health Minister, Nísia Trindade Lima, the Minister of Justice and Public Safety, Flávio Dino, the Minister of Development and Social Assistance, Family and Fight Against Hunger, Wellington Dias, and the Minister of Human Rights, Silvio Almeida. The importance and political clout of the members of the delegation sent a strong message, as if part of the government had moved from Brasilia to be present where it is most needed. The message was this: the country’s government has changed and we are here in the Amazon region to protect nature and its people.

The delegation visited the Indian Health Center (Casai), where sick indigenous people stay in the capital after being taken out of their villages inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. It’s very clear that conditions are very precarious and that the health center is overcrowded. Due to the lack of flights, indigenous people sometimes spend several months waiting to return to their villages after being cured and often end up catching other diseases.

In Boa Vista, the president also met with Davi Kopenawa, the main Yanomami leader, who for years has been denouncing the invasion of his people’s territory by illegal miners. Together with the destruction of the health infrastructure, mining is one of the key factors behind the health emergency: the criminals spread malaria among the villages and make it impossible for the medical teams to do their work, going so far as to burn down health clinics. “We are going to treat this matter of ending illegal mining very seriously,” Lula told the press after his visit.

The decree declaring a public health emergency sets up a Public Health Emergency Operations Center to coordinate the response to the humanitarian crisis. It will be the Special Office of Indigenous Health’s (Sesai) responsibility and will have the technical support of the Department of Public Health Emergencies. The Emergency Operations Center allows for the expansion of the health teams, including hiring temporary staff as well as the acquisition of goods and services.

“Yesterday, President Lula took the decision to issue a decree that defines this problem as a humanitarian crisis and designated ministers to get to work and find solutions. Here at the Health Ministry, we defined this situation as a health emergency, a national emergency similar to an epidemic. As a result of this we will be able to move more quickly to cope with the situation,” said the Health Minister, Nísia Trindade Lima. A task force has been working since January 16 in the most affected villages in order to attend to the most critical cases and to make a diagnosis of the situation. This task force will also assess whether the health figures in the government’s official system, Datasus, are correct or underreported. There are reports of deaths that have not even been accounted for.

Humanitarian Crisis

The situation in Yanomami territory has become worse in recent years, during Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government. The former president, who has always spoken out in favor of mining on indigenous lands, weakened the inspection and indigenous aid agencies, such as FUNAI, and this enabled thousands of miners to invade the protected area. In some of the 350 villages in the territory, where almost 30,000 indigenous people live, the criminal activities are close to the areas where they live and this has affected the indigenous people’s food sovereignty. Game animals have fled and the fish, as well as the water, have been contaminated by the mercury and other toxic products used by miners to separate the gold. With the arrival of the swarm of criminals, malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes that have become contaminated by biting contaminated people, has skyrocketed in the region: the number of cases jumped from 2,928 in 2014 to 20,394 in 2021, as SUMAÚMA revealed in a report last September. More than half of the Yanomami children under the age of five are malnourished, with some being in a critical condition.

In some parts of the territory, the miners have also taken over the health centers where the indigenous people received care, driving doctors and nurses out. In the story published in September, we reported that since July 2020, on 13 occasions health centers operating inside Yanomami territory have been closed due to the actions of criminals, leaving the indigenous people without medical care. All this has led to an alarming 29% increase in the deaths of children under the age of five from so-called “preventable causes” during Bolsonaro’s four years in office. There were 570 children who ceased to exist because they did not receive basic assistance, a right established in the Brazilian Federal Constitution.

Translated by Mark Murray

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