With the advance of mining and the coronavirus pandemic in their lands, indigenous people from the extreme north of Brazil remember the suffering of the “terrible period” of the late 1980s, when the region was the scene of violence, disease and death.
Leaders Sanuma and Yekuana recall the time: “About 40,000 miners entered our land and almost a fifth of the indigenous population died in just seven years with violence, malaria, malnutrition, mercury poisoning.”
These lines are from a letter addressed at the end of June to the Defense Minister, Fernando Azevedo, to demand the “immediate withdrawal of all invaders” from Yanomami land, which in Brazil stretches for 96,650 km2 and houses some 27,000 indigenous people. .
“The miners have powerful weapons to kill us, we fear genocide,” Mauricio Yekuana, in Auaris, a region bordering Venezuela, told AFP before delivering the letter.
Davi Kopenawa, the Yanomami leader with whom Yekuana has defended the indigenous cause abroad, met with the vice president, Hamilton Mourao, on July 3 with the same request: demand the expulsion of the miners.
Non-governmental organizations estimate that there are some 20,000 miners searching for gold in this land, encouraged by the projects of the president, Jair Bolsonaro, to “integrate” these areas to the “wonders of modernity”. For the government, they are around 3,500.
The presence of miners has environmental consequences such as mercury contamination of rivers, a source of water and food for communities; social, such as prostitution of indigenous people; and sanitary, such as the spread of malaria, which has been lurking in the region for decades for this activity.
But it brings other threats. Two Yanomami were killed in June, in a case under investigation. For indigenous people, this may trigger another massacre, such as the one in 1993, when 16 Yanomami were brutally murdered by gold diggers in the Haximú community.
– Contagion –
In times of a pandemic, the proximity of miners also threatens to spread the new coronavirus, which, according to official numbers, has already left more than 9,000 indigenous people infected and 193 dead.
This is the case of Waikás, a small community located in the Yanomami land, where 26 cases were confirmed, a consequence – some maintain – of the proximity of the mines.
“I was ten days with a fever and five days without being able to get out of the hammock. My head hurt, I didn’t smell the food, not even the onion,” says Marciano Rocha, an indigenous health agent for the Yekuana people, who works in this community of about 300 inhabitants.
“There is a young man here who traveled with the miners. He started to feel fever and we suspected. He did not isolate himself, here we live and work together. Everyone presented symptoms,” says Rocha, who has apparently recovered.
In the heart of Waikás there are little more than a dozen wooden constructions. The pharmacy that Rocha manages was reinforced with protective equipment and medicines, by an operation led by the Armed Forces, which also carried out rapid tests for covid-19.
In a first round, everyone tested negative, including him. But by redoing the tests, 22 people tested positive, adding to four previous diagnoses.
“Many miners come to seek care at the post,” says another health worker.
From Auaris, where Marcelo Yekuana lives, to Waikás there are about 40 minutes by helicopter. The dense green of the jungle is dotted by lapachos, hardwood trees coveted by deforesters, whose pink, yellow or purple foliage betrays them from above. Rivers meander through these endless postcards that minimize humans.
“Crossing the Amazon is equivalent to taking a flight from Moscow to Lisbon,” says Vice Admiral Carlos Chagas, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, to gauge the Amazon challenge.
Chagas highlights that the Armed Forces work in the region in environmental operations and providing logistical support to carry supplies during the pandemic.
More than 9,000 soldiers have been infected with covid-19, 2.2% of the active force. The high incidence rate (almost three times the Brazilian average) reflects the exposure of this contingent in these inspection and assistance actions.
Sources in the military sector rule out that the region is on the brink of a conflict between miners and indigenous people and maintain that on the ground the analysis cannot be binary.
“There is a social problem due to the years and years in which these illegal activities have proliferated,” says an officer who works in the region. The source defends the legalization of “some activities”, arguing that it will allow “better control”.
From the air, it is possible to spot a brown patch, an apparent remnant of a mine that leaves a scar on the green carpet as a reminder that the Amazon can be finite.
pr / js / dga