Environment Opinion Perspective Reporter's Notebook Top

Brazilian mining interests trample on Indigenous lives

Nicole Luna/YJI

“See that we Yanomami are really suffering … The rivers where we drink water are dirty! And so are the ones where we fish! There are always bodies of dead miners floating in the river! … We want to live in peace!” – a Yanomami leader in July 2021 to Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian Indigenous rights non-profit, as reported in the book Yanomami Under Attack.

Maringá, BRAZIL – How would you feel if a group of strangers arrived in your neighborhood at midnight and knocked on everyone’s door? Would you open it for them? Suppose they look friendly, but suddenly, after you refuse their entrance, they attack you and kill your brothers because they don’t like you and want your territory. This sounds creepy, doesn’t it?

Let’s imagine you escaped and called the police, but got no answer. You’re frightened, exhausted and sad.

You saw everyone you love die and everything you knew was devastated in a few seconds. But you keep looking for some help. You desperately need a friendly hand, but there is no one. 

This sounds like a dystopian story, but, unfortunately, it’s the reality of many Brazilians. Indigenous people in Brazil have been under this stressful and inhuman situation since the year 1500 when Brazil was “discovered” by Pedro Alvares Cabral, a famous Portuguese navigator.

After Portugal and Spain started exploring Brazil, the number of Indigenous tribes plummeted. According to a 1998 report in the scientific Brazilian magazine FAPESP the Indigenous population in Brazil dropped from almost 5 million in the country’s earliest years  to 250,000 individuals today. These people are spread over 200 ethnic groups.

Conflicts over territory are one of the reasons – if not the main reason – for this revolting decrease in the Indigenous population.

But why does their land encourage invaders? The answer is economic interests.

First Nations tribes are usually established in fertile soil, close to rivers and with dense vegetation because this environment provides them with a way to live.

Of course, there are a diverse number of Indigenous tribes across Brazil that have different lifestyles, but their main source of income comes from fishing, hunting, and planting.

But these abundant natural resources also attract big landowners and miners who want to explore their potential and use it to become more wealthy. 

According to data from the specialized Brazilian research center MapBiomas, mining inside Indigenous territories grew 495% in the period between 2010 and 2020.

The Amazon and Atlantic forest biomes concentrate around 87% of the mining hectares of the country, which most of these tribes inhabit, according to MapBiomas. 

Since 1940, the Yanomami people have been suffering from invaders interested in their lands, according to Survival International, an NGO that works for the protection of Indigenous people. The land of the Yanomami people – an ethnic group who migrated from Asia to the Americas about 15,000 years ago – is about twice the size of Switzerland.

During Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1981, the government led dozens of expeditions into indigenous lands and onto established conservation zones. They sought more natural resources and to build enormous infrastructures, such as Transamazônica, the unfinished roadway crossing northern Brazil, including the Amazon forest.

According to Survival International, in 1980, around 40,000 miners invaded Yanomami’s land and brought more destruction to their culture. Brazil adopted its current Constitution in 1988, which included the important Article 231 which recognized Indigenous people and defended their rights.

In 1992, the government finally created the Yanomami Park (Parque Yanomami in Portuguese), an area designated for their protection and residence.

Under the common law, Indigenous people are equal to non-indigenous people, but the reality is far more harsh.

The recent heartbreaking news that 570 Yanomami children had died of malnutrition shocked both Brazil and world.

It is hard to lie down and calmly sleep when you know that this genocide happened in your country.

The Brazilian Environmental Magazine SUMAÚMA discovered an alarming reality. They found that the cases of malaria, a viral disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes in tropical regions, had skyrocketed among miners and others in the Yanomami zone. Malaria cases numbered about 3,000 in 2014, but by 2021 more than 20,000 people had the disease.

In the same period, the Brazilian environmental NGO Imazon pointed out that deforestation in the Amazon rainforest increased from 2,026 hectares, or about 7.8 square miles to 10,476 hectares, or about 40 square miles.

At the beginning of 2022, SUMAÚMA found that more than half of little Yanomami children were facing an extreme level of food insecurity and preventable illness. 

Yanomamis have been screaming, but the authorities didn’t want to listen to their voices. Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro favored invading the Indigenous lands, saying that indigenous people shouldn’t live in poverty on lands with such rich potential.

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a shaman of the Yanomami tribe, told Survival International that the land is a patrimony that should protect them. But this is not happening.

In 2020, the Brazilian government proposed a law allowing natural exploration on Indigenous lands with their permission. Legislators continue to debate it, despite the risks of approving it and widespread public opposition.

While Yanomami lives are threatened and kids die, Bolsonaro tweeted this week about new contracts to build railroads.

Brazil has never reconciled with its past.

Our government never publicly took responsibility for the crimes committed against Indigenous and Black people during colonization, or reconciled the murders of innocent people during the dictatorship that happened 42 years ago.

From cuts in education and the dismantlement of public policies to attacks against the press, government officials only spread more hate and injustice. And this disturbing pattern is killing dreams and lives.

A graphic presenting the biomes where mining is more frequent, according to the Brazilian research center MapBiomas. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

Nicole Luna is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

Read more about an Indigenous activist in Brazil:

Indigenous Brazilian works toward higher education


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