Survey led by the INPE and Fiocruz, in partnership with InfoAmazonia, was conducted based on satellite images of indigenous land and analyzes the impact of territorial change on rivers and communities, including mining, degradation and deforestation. Over 62% of the Yanomami population live in areas under the influence of invaders.
A new survey reveals the alarming distribution of damage caused by invasions and illegal mining in the rivers and villages of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Roraima. The results show that 59% of inhabited rivers, meaning those that are home to nearby communities, show strong signs of contamination.
The analysis was conducted by the Geo-Yanomami Working Group, comprised of researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Veiga de Almeida University (UVA), the University of Brasília (UnB), the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM) and others in exclusive partnership with InfoAmazonia. Techniques of geoprocessing: According to the Institute of Forest Research and Studies, geoprocessing refers to the various techniques used in the collection, storage, processing, analysis and representation of data with spatial expression, in other words those that are possible to be referenced geographically (georeferenced). were employed and remote sensing: Remote sensing is the technique of obtaining information about an object, area or phenomenon located on Earth, without having physical contact with it., which allow continuous and remote monitoring – the methodology does not include the collection of samples from rivers or people in loco. The scientists chose to use the limit of the federal government’s actions in indigenous healthcare, the Special Indigenous Sanitary District (DSEI), to determine which areas have been most impacted by the activity of illegal miners since 2015.
Maurício Ye’kwana, director of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, had access to the survey and states that, although there were invasions by illegal miners before Covid-19, it was during the pandemic and under the Bolsonaro administration that the situation intensified: “The inspections stopped and illegal mining increased dramatically.” He goes on to explain the important role that experts play in understanding the real situation in the territory:
“For indigenous people, a river whose color has gone muddy is polluted. It’s already contaminated. We have no way to measure whether there’s mercury, whether there’s been a fuel spill. We don’t know. That’s why we ask the specialists, especially Fiocruz, to conduct their analysis. But, looking at the whole thing, we know it’s contaminated.”
Illegal mining in inhabited rivers
The researchers looked at three factors that are very relevant to indigenous people’s survival: the rivers, the territory and the villages. They took into account the hydrological network, which covers about 25,000 kilometers within the Special Indigenous Sanitary District (DSEI). Of these rivers, approximately 1,900 kilometers have indigenous communities within a one-kilometer distance of their banks.
As such, it was possible to understand which rivers were inhabited and then begin to understand the factors of interaction with the reality of the indigenous people. The initial question was: what is the territory like in the vicinity of the inhabited rivers and villages?
To respond, the authors relied on data from Deter: A tool from the federal government that generates quick alerts of evidence of alteration in the forest cover in the Amazon and the Cerrado., a system of the INPE that conducts a quick survey with alerts of evidence of alteration in the forest cover. They identified which rivers had an area of exposure to the alerts and thus came to the following data: 59% of the rivers usually inhabited by the Yanomami are currently under the effect of mining and invasions, with a high probability of mercury contamination, impacting biodiversity and Yanomami life.
Diego Xavier, a doctor of public health at Fiocruz and one of those responsible for the study, says, “this is a conservative estimate.” In addition to possible inaccuracies in the data and a lack of specific studies on the ethnicities that make up the people and the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, he points out another factor: indigenous people circulate in the territory a lot in order to complete hunting, fishing and agriculture activities, as well as inter-community visits and rituals. In other words, the 1,900 kilometers of inhabited rivers analyzed consider only the set location of the villages, but the problem is probably even bigger, since with circulation throughout the territory, the indigenous interact with other rivers potentially affected by illegal miners and invaders.
Nathália Saldanha, an anthropologist and PhD in Healthcare Information and Communication at Fiocruz, explains that “the basis of life of these indigenous populations is in the forest and rivers, influencing their relationship with the space, food, community and between communities. Therefore, the river and the forest become central elements in the indigenous social organization. They engage in a pendulous movement of approaching and distancing themselves from the permanent contact points and, as such, make use of second residences, where they go to the river and back to the interior of the forests,” he explains.
Saldanha emphasizes that this displacement throughout the territory between rivers, villages and denser forests takes place “in search of hunting, fishing and other foods that are part of their nutritional base. Whenever there is a presence of invaders and miners in the area, the indigenous populations flee and try to get as far away as possible.”
Carlo Zacquini, a Catholic missionary from the Consolata Missionary Institute, dedicated decades to the struggle for Yanomami rights during the military dictatorship and experienced firsthand the catastrophe that was the mining invasion in the 1980s. “The Yanomami have nowhere to run. They have to eat what’s there. With the illegal prospecting, the amount of fish in the area has decreased dramatically. This is not so much due to the mercury, but more because of the mud that’s injected into the river, with these bombs that break up the lands in the ravines, and this removes the oxygen. The Yanomami say that the fish float by on the water’s surface.”
The scale of the destruction is so great that Zacquini says he finds it difficult to compare what is currently happening in Yanomami territory with what he witnessed 40 years ago. According to him: “We keep talking about prospectors, but I think that’s wrong, because there are big companies, expensive machines and the number of planes and helicopters that circulate there is extraordinary. Even after the destruction of dozens of planes and helicopters, the illegal mining continues. ”
Collective life at risk
Though the conclusion that “over half of the inhabited rivers are affected by illegal mining and invaders” is alarming in itself, the analysis was complemented by considering the “living areas” in each indigenous community in the Yanomami DSEI — the researchers focused on calculating the percentage of villages at risk and determining the proportion of the population subjected to the influence of territorial problems.
As such, an area of five kilometers (direct living area) was established around each community, taking into account the Yanomami’s locales of circulation. At the same time, another area of up to one kilometer was also created around the sites identified via Deter as having had changes in forest cover, including mining, deforestation and burning.
The overlap between living areas and problems related to invaders showed that about 62% of the Yanomami population lives in risk areas.