BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil’s military should evict illegal gold miners who have caused malnutrition and famine in a region of the Yanomami Reserve near the Venezuelan border, Indigenous Health Minister Weibe Tapeba said Tuesday.
“It looks like a concentration camp,” Tapeba, a doctor appointed to this position by Brazil’s new government, said in a radio interview.
Tapeba said 700 community members are starving and there is no health care due to the presence of well-armed prospectors who chased medical workers away from the health post and prevented people from bringing in medicines and food.
Brazil’s health ministry declared a medical emergency on Friday in the Yanomami area, the country’s largest indigenous reserve, after reports of children dying from malnutrition and other illnesses caused by gold mining.
On Saturday, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited the state after the publication of photos showing Yanomami children and the elderly who were so thin their ribs were visible.
“It is an extreme disaster, many Yanomami suffer from malnutrition and there is a total absence of the Brazilian state,” Tapeba said.
An invasion by more than 20,000 feral prospectors has contaminated the rivers with mercury that has poisoned the fish the Yanomami eat, he said, citing children whose hair is falling out from the mercury used to separate gold from ore.
“Health teams cannot come here because of the heavily armed bandits. This can only be solved by removing the prospectors and that can only be done by the armed forces,” he said.
Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered the removal of the prospectors. But the previous government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro never complied. Yanomami leaders said their pleas for help were ignored.
In four years of Bolsonaro’s presidency, 570 Yanomami children died of curable diseases, mainly malnutrition but also malaria, diarrhea and deformities caused by the mercury in the rivers, the Amazon journalism platform Sumauma reported, citing data obtained by an FOIA.
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 indigenous lands and offering to legalize wild mining.
Justice Minister Flavio Dino said Monday there is “evidence of genocide” that is being investigated.
In December, Survival International warned of the magnitude of the crisis, citing a study by UNICEF and Brazil’s FioCruz biomedical research center that found that 8 out of 10 Yanomami suffered from chronic malnutrition and that deaths from preventable diseases were among children under five was 13 times the national number. average.
“The Yanomami rarely suffer from malnutrition under normal circumstances. Their forests are bountiful and they are experts at growing, gathering and hunting whatever they need, and they enjoy excellent health,” Survival International director Fiona Watson said in a statement.
“This is a deliberate man-made crisis fomented by President Bolsonaro, who has encouraged the massive invasion and destruction of the Yanomami’s land,” she said.