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Opinion – Marcia Castro: Crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Land: health, environment, human rights


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In 1984, a model was proposed for studying the determinants of child survival in the first five years of life. I highlight three important points of the model.

First, under ideal conditions, about 97% of children should survive to age five. Death during this stage of life is mostly a consequence of the cumulative effect of adverse factors that progressively deteriorate health.

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Second, there are five categories of proximate determinants that directly affect survival. This includes maternal factors (such as the mother’s age), environmental contamination (air, food, water, insects), nutritional deficiencies, accidents and forms of disease control.

Third, socioeconomic variables modify proximate determinants and, through them, affect child survival. These variables are related to parents, home and the ecological, political and institutional context in which the child is inserted.

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The humanitarian crisis in Yanomami land, the largest in the country and located in Roraima, exemplifies this model. The crisis is not the result of a single, immediate event. Severe malnutrition among children, the worst ever reported among indigenous communities in the Americas, did not happen overnight. The crisis that gained the attention of Brazil and the world in January is a reflection of successive actions of negligence, denial of rights and changes in environmental legislation.

I highlight some events in this cumulative process that contributed to the crisis and that affected the proximate determinants I mentioned earlier.

Starting in the 1980s, when gold was discovered in the Yanomami indigenous land, illegal mining activities resulted in epidemics of tuberculosis and malaria. In addition, the use of mercury in mining activities contaminates rivers, fish, plants and the air. The consequences are numerous and can be fatal (leukemia, developmental delay, neurological complications, etc.).

After the dismantling of the Mais Médicos program, more than 80% of the doctors who provided care to the indigenous population lost their jobs and were not fully replaced. This has affected disease surveillance and control capabilities.

During the last four years, changes in environmental legislation favored deforestation and the expansion of illegal mining (gold and cassiterite extraction). The Yanomami Indigenous Land is the third in area mined, behind the Kayapó and Munduruku lands, both in Pará. In addition, it has the largest number of airstrips, 75 in all, 34% located less than 5 km from a mining area.

Malaria in that area has increased dramatically. In 2021, about 46% of malaria cases in indigenous localities were observed in Yanomami land. In Roraima, of the total number of malaria cases reported in 2017, 0.1% were in mining areas and 22.6% in indigenous areas. In 2021, these percentages were 26.4% and 54.9%, respectively.

The unbridled expansion of mining also brought violence (homicides and rapes) and affected the social organization of the Yanomami people due to the co-option of young indigenous people to work in the mining.

The humanitarian crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Land is an announced tragedy. There was no lack of studies, reports and warning letters sent to the Federal Public Ministry, Funai and the Army. All shamefully ignored.

The current government not only needs to respond to this health, humanitarian and environmental emergency, it also needs to reverse the damage of the last four years. Herculean task of reconstruction, already underway, fundamental for the survival of the forest and indigenous peoples.

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