‘This is genocide’: Brazil’s Lula says predecessor Bolsonaro starved and poisoned indigenous tribe

Members of the Yanomami tribe have been airlifted from the Amazon in order to receive medical treatment
Members of the Yanomami tribe have been airlifted from the Amazon in order to receive medical treatment

Brazil has airlifted starving and poisoned indigenous tribespeople from the Amazon as President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accused his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro of “genocide”.

A total of 16 Yanomami Indians needed emergency treatment for malnourishment and poisoning as a result of water contamination from illegal logging and gold mining in a remote jungle region of Roraima, on the Venezuelan border.

Declaring a state of emergency in the Yanomami reserve, Brazil’s largest protected indigenous territory, Lula visited the area by helicopter over the weekend to distance himself from what he and human rights activists regard as Mr Bolsonaro’s racist rhetoric and policies and the impact they have had on native Amazonians.

The president later tweeted: “More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was genocide: a premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government insensitive to suffering.”

“In addition to neglect and abandonment by the previous government, the main cause of the genocide is the invasion by 20,000 illegal miners, whose presence was encouraged by the former president. Gold miners poison rivers with mercury, causing destruction and death.”

The Yanomami are the largest surviving tribe in the Brazilian Amazon and first came into regular contact with outsiders in the 1950s. Nearly 30,000 now live in the reserve, practising ancestral slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and fishing.

But they have been repeatedly violently targeted by criminal gangs coveting the timber and gold in the reserve, with reports of massacres perpetrated principally by illegal miners. In 2020, miners were even accused of opening fire with machine guns on one Yanomami community.

Lula says the main cause of the genocide is the invasion by 20,000 illegal miners, whose presence was encouraged by the former president
Lula says the main cause of the genocide is the invasion by 20,000 illegal miners, whose presence was encouraged by the former president
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits the Yanomami Indigenous Health House in Boa Vista, Roraima state - Reuters/Ricardo Stuckert
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits the Yanomami Indigenous Health House in Boa Vista, Roraima state - Reuters/Ricardo Stuckert

Sarah Shenker, head of the Brazil branch of the indigenous rights group Survival, said that Mr Bolsonaro had permitted the criminal activity with his anti-indigenous rhetoric and actively undermined Yanomami communities.

“He dismantled the indigenous health service; cheered on the miners invading indigenous territories; and ignored the desperate pleas for action from indigenous organisations, Survival and many others when the scale of the crisis became clear,” Ms Shenker said in a statement.

“The miners - the diseases they’ve brought in, the mercury they’ve poisoned the rivers and people with, the forests they’ve destroyed and the violence they’ve unleashed - are the clear and obvious cause of this disaster.”

According to Survival, 570 Yanomami children under five died of preventable diseases since Mr Bolsonaro took office while eight out of 10 Yanomami children in the two areas most affected by the miners have chronic malnutrition.

During his time in office, the hard-Right former army officer, nicknamed the “Trump of the Tropics” was repeatedly accused of undermining Brazil’s democratic institutions, glorifying Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and Covid denialism that unnecessarily cost the lives of thousands of people.

He also pushed to open up the Amazon to ranching, plantations and damming, ignoring concerns about both the human rights of rainforest communities and massive carbon emissions from deforestation. Mr Bolsonaro once even suggested that indigenous peoples were not “human”.

After Lula’s swearing in on Jan 1, Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed government buildings in the capital, Brasilia, in events echoing the Jan 6 2021 storming of the US Capitol. The former president remains in Florida amid growing talk of him facing arrest and prosecution, if he returns to Brazil, for allegedly encouraging the rioters.

Survival is now calling for the miners to be forcibly removed and those in power who allowed them to invade the Yanomami reserve, potentially including Mr Bolsonaro, to be prosecuted.