BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s health ministry has declared a medical emergency in the Yanomami area, the country’s largest indigenous reservation bordering Venezuela, following reports of children dying from malnutrition and other illnesses caused by illegal gold mining.
A decree released Friday by the incoming government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the purpose of the statement was to restore health services for the Yanomami people dismantled by his far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.
In four years of Bolsonaro’s presidency, 570 Yanomami children died of curable diseases, mostly malnutrition, but also malaria, diarrhea and deformities caused by mercury used by wild prospectors, the Amazon journalism platform Sumauma reported, citing data obtained by an FOIA.
Lula visited a Yanomami health center in Boa Vista, Roraima state, on Saturday after the publication of photos showing children and elderly men and women so thin their ribs were visible.
“More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was genocide: a premeditated crime against the Yanomami committed by a government impervious to suffering,” Lula said on Twitter.
The government has announced food parcels that will be flown to the reserve where some 26,000 Yanomamis live in an area of rainforest and tropical savanna the size of Portugal.
The reserve has been invaded by illegal prospectors for decades, but raids have increased since Bolsonaro took office in 2018, promising to allow mining on previously protected lands and offering to legalize wild mining.
There are also signs that organized crime has become involved. In recent violent incidents, men on speedboats on the rivers have fired automatic weapons at indigenous villages whose communities are resisting the entry of prospectors.
Some prospectors have begun to leave, fearing enforcement operations by Lula’s government, and appear to be crossing the border into neighboring Guyana and Suriname, said Estevao Senra, a researcher at Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO advocating indigenous rights.
Lula said the new government will end illegal gold mining as it takes steps to tackle illegal deforestation in the Amazon region, which has risen to a 15-year high under Bolsonaro.
“We must hold the previous government accountable for allowing this situation to worsen to the point where we find adults weighing like children, and children reduced to skin and bones,” said Sonia Guajajara, the first indigenous woman to be a cabinet minister . a new Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)