By Diane Jeantet and Fabiano Maisonnave | Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO — Carnival dancers took to Rio de Janeiro’s biggest stage to pay tribute to Brazil’s largest indigenous group and pressure President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to keep his promises to eradicate illegal mining.
Carnival has long been a platform of protest for samba schools. Drummers wrote “Miners out” on the heads of their drums as participants marched through the Sambadrome on Sunday evening, delivering their message to more than 70,000 revelers and millions watching live on television.
“The chance we have left is an indigenous Brazil,” they declared as part of the tribute paid to the Yanomami by the Salgueiro samba school, a year after Lula declared the state of public health emergency for the group in the Amazon. They suffer from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria as a result of illegal mining.
“Our cry for help is a cry for help from Brazil and the world in general,” said Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader and shaman who advised the samba school. “I hope that the world, hearing our call, will put pressure on the Brazilian government to eliminate all the miners, destroyers of our mother Earth, who contaminate the water and kill the fish. »
Kopenawa paraded wearing armbands and a feathered headdress, as well as a beaded necklace depicting a jaguar. Thirteen other Yanomami participated.
Sônia Guajajara, who heads the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples created in 2022 under Lula, on Monday praised Kopenawa and Salgueiro for their efforts recounting the group’s long struggle, from colonization to more recent efforts to repeal indigenous land rights.
Some 30,000 Yanomami live in Brazil’s largest indigenous territory, spanning more than 9 million hectares (22 million acres) in the northern Amazon rainforest.
Three weeks after assuming the presidency, Lula declared a state of public health emergency over the effects of illegal mining in that country and sent in armed forces, doctors, nurses and food. Yet more than 300 Yanomami died from various causes in 2023, according to the Ministry of Health.
Lula also created an inter-ministerial task force to combat illegal mining, and in 2023 Brazil’s environmental agency destroyed a record 33 planes found on or near Yanomami territory. Agents also destroyed or apprehended mining barges, fuel, Starlink internet units and campsites.
Government officials say that since the operation began, areas of illegal mining inside Yanomami territory have decreased by 85 percent and health has improved.
But after initial success, prosecutors, law enforcement and employees of federal environmental agencies say illegal miners are coming back.
“We believe the miners are mining as much as possible because they believe they will eventually have to leave,” Jair Schmitt, head of environmental protection at Brazil’s environmental agency Ibama, told the Associated Press.
Schmitt said miners have adapted to evade detection by working at night, setting up camp under forest cover and choosing old mines instead of clearing forest to open new ones.
Humberto Freire, director of the federal police’s new Amazon and environment unit, said government agencies needed to take stronger action.
“We need, for example, the air force to effectively control the airspace over Yanomami territory. We need the navy to control the flow of people on the rivers. We also need the military to do quality work,” Freire said.
Lula had said the armed forces would play a key role, providing logistical support and security to federal officials and agents who say they fear for their lives.
It is not the responsibility of the military to engage in direct combat, according to political scientist João Roberto Martins Filho. Still, the big question is why the army, which has three permanent bases in Yanomami territory, did not sound the alarm under Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.
“There was almost a massacre of an unprotected population. Why did the military let this happen instead of reporting it to the federal government or going to the press? said Martins Filho, professor at the Federal University of Sao Carlos. “In a way, they were complicit.”
In a written response to the AP, the military said that illegal mining and the health crisis in Yanomami territory “are complex issues involving the legal jurisdiction of various government agencies,” and that the military is ” always ready to fulfill its strategic missions”, in particular by providing support to federal agencies.
Illegal planes are key to transporting prospectors and their equipment to distant reserves, a 2022 AP investigation shows in Roraima state, where most mining affecting the Yanomami takes place.
After a January 2023 presidential decree ordered the air force to close airspace over Yanomami territory, the situation improved significantly, authorities and indigenous peoples said.
In a written response to the AP, the Brazilian Air Force said it was patrolling the so-called air defense identification zone above the territory. She claims that this measure has led to a 90% reduction in illegal thefts.
But in a joint statement last month, associations representing federal environmental and indigenous affairs workers accused the armed forces of “failing to fulfill its mission to support and facilitate the work of other agencies” fighting mining. illegal. The association said the army denied using planes to transport personnel and equipment and did not collaborate in the destruction of mining machines and airstrips.
Government health teams have been targeted by armed miners and are unable or unwilling to reach some communities, said Júnior Hekurari, president of Condisi-Y, the local health council.
“This state of emergency cannot solve the problem. We need something permanent, for all communities,” Hekurari said.
Maisonnave reported from Brasilia.
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