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Atrocities Crimes in Brazil Under Bolsonaro: The Yanomami Case

Fresh Perspectives

Lucas de Belmont of ECR2P examines atrocity crimes potentially committed under Jair Bolsonaro against Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami population.


The societal shock

In January 2023, Brazil was impacted by the publication of pictures of ill children living in extremely squalid conditions, alongside the information that at least 570 kids had died of treatable diseases over the past four years. The victims were members of the Yanomami people, a millenarian indigenous nation of approximately 30,000 individuals who live in a territory larger than Portugal, in the Brazil-Venezuela border region.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Yanomamis were confronted with the invasion of approximately 40,000 non-indigenous individuals in their traditional lands, which resulted in the death of almost one quarter of the entire Yanomami population. In 1992, after intense national mobilization and international pressure, the Brazilian government decided to remove the invaders and demarcate the Yanomami territory.

But what made it possible to see the situation repeated 30 years later?


The governmental strategy

In both circumstances, the invasions of the Yanomami territory were led by criminal miners, mainly seeking gold and cassiterite. In the 1980s, Brazil was emerging from  a military dictatorship that believed in the need to develop the Amazon and to exploit its resources. It resulted in framing the indigenous peoples that inhabited this territory as obstacles that had to be overcome or eliminated altogether.

In 2018, the same mentality returned. This time, it wasn’t dictatorially imposed by the military; it was chosen by the majority of the electorate in presidential elections won by congressman and former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro.

President Bolsonaro’s views on the Yanomamis were historically known: during 14 years, as a member of Congress, he tried to annul the decree that had recognized the Yanomami territory. His argument was that the Yanomamis could try to secede with international support, or that human rights violations committed against them would serve as pretext for a humanitarian intervention by countries interested in exploiting their resources (in fact, this is such a strongly held belief in military circles that, in 2019, the Ministry of Defence feared that France could invoke R2P to implement an intervention in the Yanomami territory).

During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro often mentioned the indigenous in his speeches. In 2015, he claimed that they had no culture and too much land; land which was an obstacle to mining and agricultural expansion. In 2016, he repeatedly affirmed that he would annul and reduce demarcated lands if he was elected President. In 2017, he vowed not to demarcate any indigenous land and to guarantee farmers’ access to firearms. He promised that he would strike a fatal blow to the Indian National Foundation (FUNAI), the federal agency in charge of dealing with indigenous land demarcation.

When Bolsonaro finally rose to power, backed by a coalition of military men, agribusiness and evangelicals, he implemented his campaign promises, in alignment with the interests of those who wanted to “develop” the Amazon. During four years, they proposed allowing exploitative activities inside indigenous territories, transferring the responsibility for land demarcation from the Executive to the Legislative branch, reviewing demarcated lands, limiting the recognition of indigenous lands only to those occupied by 1988 and withdrawing Brazil from the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples ILO Convention. On the policy front, Bolsonaro didn’t demarcate any indigenous land, cut the budget and staff of FUNAI, appointed military officers and evangelicals to key positions inside the agency, and eased legal access of landowners to firearms.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro incentivized land invasions, promoted contact with isolated indigenous peoples, played down the risks of the virus, disseminated misinformation, withheld available investments in prevention and treatment, distributed inefficient medicines, intimidated indigenous leaders who denounced the situation, and vetoed parts of a bill that guaranteed access of indigenous peoples to water, hygiene and healthcare.

Vulnerable and under attack, the Yanomamis asked for assistance from the government, the courts and international organizations in multiple circumstances. More than 60 requests were sent to the Bolsonaro Administration for health assistance, and more than 20 documents were submitted to federal authorities asking for protection from criminal miners. Nothing was done. During the pandemic, while FUNAI didn’t act to prevent the invasion by miners, it didn't allow a medical team to provide assistance in the territory. Even when there were court decisions – including by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – ordering the protection of the Yanomamis, the government disrespected them, letting the invasions continue. Fully aware of the grave food insecurity in the Yanomami territory, the Bolsonaro Administration removed them from a food distribution programme.


The tragic outcome

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and action had direct impacts on indigenous lives, empowering violent actors and leading to a level of destruction that hadn’t been seen since the military dictatorship. During his administration, the country saw record numbers in indigenous land invasions, killings, child mortality, fires, deforestation, water and soil contamination, and disease dissemination.

Regarding the Yanomamis specifically, the invasion of their territory by approximately 20,000 miners was the worst occurrence of invasion since the land had been demarcated 30 years prior. The invaded area increased 3,350% from 2016 to 2020, causing great damage:

  • The introduction of weapons and drugs in the region led to an increase in violence against and inside Yanomami communities, affecting more than 16,000 people. It included armed attacks, killings and sexual violence / enslavement: miners had been offering food to indigenous girls in exchange for sex, as well as raping them after intoxicating with alcohol and drugs. This impacted not only their immediate survival, but also their capacity to reproduce;
  • There was a sharp increase in deforestation rates, causing grave food insecurity and forced displacement;
  • The rivers used for water consumption were contaminated with mercury due to mining, which affected not only the water, but also the fish, a fundamental food source. Ingesting it causes neurological disorders and life-long disabilities;
  • Diseases such as malaria and STIs were disseminated by miners: over four years, there were around 80,000 cases of malaria in a population of approximately 30,000 people, and one third of the cases affected children under 10;
  • The child malnutrition rate was so severe that approximately 50% of the Yanomami children were affected by it, and they were the most likely victims of death by malnutrition in the country.


The accusations against Bolsonaro

Soon after the pictures of malnourished Yanomami children were published in the press in January, the word “genocide” started to circulate in public opinion. One of the first to accuse Bolsonaro of being involved in a genocide against the Yanomamis was President Lula da Silva, who had already accused Bolsonaro of committing a genocide during the COVID-19 pandemic. On this issue, a Senate investigation into the federal response to the pandemic indicted Bolsonaro and two of his ministers for crimes against humanity against the indigenous.

The Minister of Justice ordered a police investigation into the potential Yanomami genocide, the Head of the National Agency of Sanitary Vigilance compared the scenes seen in the pictures of the Yanomamis to those seen during the Holocaust, the Minister of Environment described it as an “unspeakable atrocity”, and the Minister of Human Rights and a Supreme Court Justice affirmed that there are elements that indicate genocide and deliberate omission by the previous administration.

The genocide debate reinforced petitions that had been submitted to the ICC Prosecutor, asking for the investigation of potential atrocity crimes committed against indigenous peoples during Bolsonaro’s term. They include documents produced by Greenpeace, AllRise, Arns Commission, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples from Brazil and Chiefs Raoni Metukire and Almir Suruí. In 2021, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide had also shared her concerns with the alarming situation of indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon.


What now?

To officially affirm that former President Jair Bolsonaro or members of his administration / coalition committed atrocity crimes during his term will only be possible after the conclusion of a thorough investigation, either by Brazilian authorities or in the case that the ICC Prosecutor accepts one or more of the petitions before him and starts his own investigation, which appears to be an urgent necessity.

Three more immediate issues arise from the present circumstances. Firstly, we need to observe if Brazil’s ongoing response to the Yanomami crisis will be sufficient to deal with the wide range of grave problems that have afflicted this people during the past four years. Secondly, Brazil and the international community need to explain why they didn’t act in due time and with sufficient vigour to prevent this tragedy, given that several alerts were issued as early as 2019 and that the history of anti-indigenous hatred in Bolsonaro’s career and in the coalition backing him was known. Thirdly, we need to engage in a lesson-learning process to understand what could have been done within the current national and international protection systems and what may need to be changed in order to improve them.

These reflections are necessary steps to fulfil the pledges made by Brazil and applauded by the international community: that there will be no more indigenous genocides and humankind’s historical debt with indigenous peoples will be paid.

Lucas de Belmont is a PhD Candidate at the University of Leeds. His research is focused on the international responsibility to protect the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian Amazon from atrocity crimes and is supervised within the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.


Image credit: Palácio do Planalto at Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.


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