BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s health ministry has declared a medical emergency in Yanomami territory, the country’s largest indigenous reserve bordering Venezuela, after reports of children dying of malnutrition and other diseases caused by illegal gold mining.
A decree issued Friday by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s new government said the declaration aimed to restore health services for the Yanomami people that had been dismantled by his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.
In four years of Bolsonaro’s presidency, 570 Yanomami children have died from treatable diseases, mainly malnutrition, but also malaria, diarrhea and malformations caused by mercury used by feral cat gold miners, Amazon’s Sumauma journalism platform reported, citing data , obtained through FOIA.
Lula visited a Yanomami health center in Boa Vista in 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 by a government insensitive to suffering,” Lula said on Twitter.
The government has announced food packages will be airlifted to the reserve, where some 26,000 Yanomami live in an area of rainforest and tropical savanna the size of Portugal.
The reserve has been invaded by illegal gold miners for decades, but incursions have multiplied since Bolsonaro won power in 2018, promising to allow mining on previously protected lands and proposing to legalize mining with wild cats.
There are also signs that organized crime is involved. In recent incidents of violence, men on speedboats on rivers have fired automatic weapons at local villages whose communities resist the entry of prospectors.
Some gold miners have begun to leave, fearing coercive operations by Lula’s government, and appear to be heading to neighboring Guyana and Suriname, said Estevao Senra, a researcher at the Instituto Socioambiental, a non-governmental organization that defends the rights of indigenous peoples.
Lula said the new government would end illegal gold mining while cracking down on illegal deforestation in the Amazon, which has reached a 15-year high under Bolsonaro.
“We must hold the previous government accountable for allowing this situation to deteriorate to the point where we find that adults weigh as much as children and children are reduced to skin and bones,” said Sonia Guajahara, the first indigenous woman , who was a cabinet minister heading a new ministry of indigenous affairs.
(Reporting by Anthony Bowdle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)
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