Indigenous People

Tragedy Strikes Indigenous People and Nature

The tragedy of the Yanomami people has been highlighted in the press. The problem, however, has been occurring for longer than that, in a real network of rights violations. In the article by Rosa Martins, people who live with the indigenous people present a crisis that is much deeper than what the cameras show. This article was a result of several interviews with contacts indicated by the SSpS community in Roraima. The translation to English is by Sr. Zelia Cordeiro, SSpS.

In the frenetic race for gold, indigenous people and nature are paying the price.

Since the 1970s, the Yanomami Indigenous Land (TIY) has been coveted for gold exploitation, despite the demarcation that took place in 1992. With almost 10 million hectares, the reserve in Roraima, with a population of about 20,000 indigenous people lives an unprecedented crisis that brings to light the neglect of the federal government in the periods 2019 to 2022, according to witnesses who have lived and laboured for years in defence of the rights of the Peoples and the forest. If in 2014 the sickness reached not more than 2 thousand, in 2022, this number has changed tenfold.

The extraction of mineral resources, such as gold, from the soil or water courses on an unlimited scale, – associated with criminal organisations -, by means of manual techniques or machines such as backhoe loaders and dredges has been the main cause of the humanitarian crisis that has settled among the Yanomami.

A study conducted by researchers from the Institute for Space Research (INPE) and the University of South Alabama, USA, reveals that almost all illegal mining (95%), takes place in three indigenous lands, Kayapó, Munduruku and the Yanomami, the most affected by illegality. Rich in gold deposits, it has a population of 26 thousand Yanomami and Ye’kwana, distributed in 321 villages.

It is not a difficult calculation to make for this mathematical, social, political and environmental problem. Whoever has the most resources and forces in the dispute comes out on top in this field. The miners, on the other hand, have a mega-structure that is favoured by economic powers, local elites and the increase in the price of gold on the international market, and also had the support of the previous government, which during its mandate favoured the passage through parliament of a bill to regulate and open up indigenous lands to mining, which is unconstitutional.

Bob Mulega

The Ugandan Consolata missionary in Catrimani since 2019, Father Bob Mulega (photo), 34, emphasises that the miners, too, are victims of a system of exploitation of peoples and nature. “Those who work in the illegal mines are the poorest who have no other option, because we know that in the mines the living conditions are terrible,” he says.

Like an open wound in the heart of the forest, a 10 km road that enters Yanomami territory for deforestation and the large open craters that strip the land in search of fortune, have drastic consequences on the life, culture and spirituality and physical health of the indigenous people and, on the other hand, an unprecedented contamination that devastates nature in its cleanliness.  “Health posts were left without basic medicines such as dipyrone, paracetamol, malaria treatment medicines. More than 500 children died of curable pathologies.

In an interview, Father Corrado Dalmonego, IMC, who is carrying out doctoral research on the impacts of mining in the territory, said.

As a network of human rights violations, mining not only damages health through the transmission of diseases and the denial of due care, preventing the entry of resources and the presence of missionaries, but also disrupts family life when it comes to issues of prostitution imposed on women in exchange for benefits.

Those who enter the forest have a vision of ambition for the natural riches with the objective of obtaining profit at the expense of the good life of the forest and of the people who live there in harmony with it. Garimpo affects this way of life. For Father Mulega, “the life of the people has worsened because of contact with diseases that come from outside, illegal extraction that destroys the environment, lack of assistance and adequate health care.  A serious consequence of this is the migration of young indigenous people to the city which, according to the missionary attracts them to the world of drugs and other counter values.

“Businessmen and politicians need to be held responsible for the mining tragedy”   

It is worth remembering that along with the original peoples and nature, the people who are with their hands in the dough extracting the gold, poor, marginalised, they too pay and will pay a high price for their actions, because as the old saying goes, “the rope always breaks at the weakest side”. But for the Catholic leader and member of the Indigenous Council of Roraima, Gilmara Fernandes, those truly responsible for the mining tragedy need to be held accountable and, on the other side, the government needs to pay attention to the poor miners who are leaving Yanomami land. “Those who are down there, working in the mines, the miners, are the tip of the iceberg. Those who provide the logistics, the maintenance, the food, who finance them – who are the businessmen and politicians -, they are the ones who need to be held responsible, to be investigated. Without this infrastructure the miners cannot live within the territory.

Still, according to Fernandes, it is necessary to ask about the life of these miners after leaving this financed work. In 1993, garimpeiros were taken off the indigenous land, however, they became farmers, gained access to land, entered land reform projects, but today, with the arrival of soybeans, land values have increased significantly. “Most of the land in Roraima is concentrated in the hands of politicians, businessmen, large soybean producers, and it is impossible to buy it. Where will they go, how will they maintain their families? The government needs to think about these people who leave the mines and go to the municipalities, who return to their homes or go to other mining areas”, he emphasises.

Yanomani’s life behind the cameras

What the cameras can’t capture, the Catholic Church missionaries who have lived with the Yanomami in the Catrimani area for over 50 years know about.  For Mulega, the Yanomami are a society structured in their own way, based on their beliefs, their way of conceiving life and creation. The way and times of eating, the rules for living well in society, caring for nature, the place of women and children, the role of men, everything has a specific organisation that is based on the values and beliefs of that society and which must be respected.

“Indigenous people are not a species in a research reserve”

Mulega appeals to society not to see indigenous people and not to treat them as poor wretches, but as an original people who share the same rights and duties, the same dignity, with the same needs. “We ask them to consider the indigenous people as people, not as a species in a research reserve and to provide public health policies, education based on their language. We need to understand that the forest is life and sacred place for the indigenous people.”

In this context, it seems fundamental the conversion of look and heart in an openness to the different, for an encounter, in fact. Otherwise, a relationship ‘a la la Europe,’ along the lines of the colonizers, whether of the government, of people of good will or of the owners of the mines, only tends to increase the damage to the lives of the native peoples, beyond the genocide and ethnocide that we can witness in broad daylight.