Brazil calls for ‘genocide’ probe as indigenous Yanomami face hunger, disease

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Brazil’s justice minister requested an investigation into potential crimes of genocide against the Indigenous Yanomami people Monday, as the country sent further aid and personnel to respond to a crisis of malnutrition and disease that officials have directly linked to illegal mining.

On Monday, days after the government declared a medical emergency in Brazil’s largest Indigenous reserve, Justice Minister Flávio Dino said he had requested that federal police open an investigation “into crimes of genocide, failure to provide emergency assistance, environmental crimes and other crimes, since there are reports of embezzlement, corruption and siphoning of public funds meant for Indigenous health care.”

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who traveled to the Yanomami territories in the north of the country Saturday, has blamed the previous government for the crisis.

“More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was a genocide,” the president wrote of his visit on Twitter. “A premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government insensitive to the suffering of the Brazilian people.”

Sônia Guajajara, an Indigenous leader and head of the recently established Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, said there was a need to “hold the previous government accountable for allowing the situation with the Yanomami people to get worse, to the point where we find adults weighing as much as children, and children reduced to skin and bones.”

Brazil’s right-wing former president Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed the latest criticism as a “left-wing farce.”

Bolsonaro, in office from 2019 to 2023, based his presidential campaign on pledges to increase development of the Amazon. During his term, he moved to allow mining in Indigenous territories, while deforestation in the Amazon reached a 15-year high.

Deforesters are plundering the Amazon. Brazil is letting them get away with it.

Lula, who made his visit after a local independent news outlet published photos of emaciated children from the Yanomami community, described seeing “children dying of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and other diseases.” He added that the limited data available indicated that at least 570 children younger than 5 had died of preventable illness in the area over the past four years.

The Brazilian air force medically evacuated 21 Indigenous people Sunday. It has also continued to deliver tons of food to the Yanomami territory, which is home to about 30,000 Indigenous people.

A presidential decree in 1992 recognized the Yanomami people as the owners of the reserve — roughly the size of Portugal — in Brazil’s northern Roraima and Amazonas states.

According to the report “Yanomami Under Attack,” published last year by the Brazilian nonprofit Instituto Socioambiental (Socio-Environmental Institute), the total area of Yanomami Indigenous land destroyed by mining increased from just over 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) in October 2018, when monitoring began, to 3,272 hectares (8,085 acres) in December 2021.

The report said illegal mining in the region has been associated with an increase in infectious diseases, such as malaria, as well as mercury contamination in water supplies. There had also been complaints that medicine intended for the Indigenous community had been diverted, the report said, while some health posts had been abandoned and airstrips taken over by armed miners.

Sofia Diogo Mateus contributed to this report.

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