Yanomami children die of malnutrition and disease in tragedy for Brazil's Indigenous people

Yanomami people are attended in a hospital in Boa Vista | Photo: Felipe Medeiros/Amazônia Real

This article was written by Felipe Medeiros, in collaboration with Kátia Brasil, and originally published on Amazônia Real's website on January 28, 2023. It is republished here, with edits, under a partnership agreement with Global Voices.

Pediatrician Ricardo Frota noted the alarming weight of a sixteen-month-old baby girl from Brazil's Yanomami Indigenous group: “She weighs 4.3 [kilos]. That's the weight of a two to three-month-old child.” She should weigh at least double.

The child is severely malnourished – resulting from hunger which has caused the greatest tragedy in the Amazon's Indigenous peoples’ recent history.

At the Santo Antônio Children's Hospital, in Boa Vista, capital of the northern state of Roraima, Indigenous children up to 5 years old recover from treatable diseases such as acute diarrhea, respiratory diseases, pneumonia, and malaria, among others. These diseases endanger the lives of children who were rescued from the health-humanitarian crisis in the Yanomamis’ land – the largest Indigenous territory in Brazil, which has been invaded by illegal miners. 

“This child was admitted here with malnutrition, an underlying condition associated with gastroenteritis, diarrhea, and conjunctivitis,” the pediatrician explained to Amazonia Real (AR).

The hospital is the only one in the state to attend to patients up to 12. Among the patients are Indigenous children and Venezuelan immigrants. In late January, when the report was being made, the wards were crowded with Yanomami children. 

The baby was accompanied to the ward by her father, also with malnutrition, as well as his eldest daughter. The man does not speak Portuguese and the Yanomami language interpreter was not present at the time of the report. The girl's mother died on January 27 in another hospital, also as a result of severe malnutrition. She was 33. 

“We used to have an incidence of malnutrition [among the Yanomami children] that was considered mild. A few years ago, the number of severe malnutrition cases and hospitalizations began to increase a lot,” the pediatrician Frota commented.

In 2022, according to a survey by the Municipal Health Department of Boa Vista, 703 Yanomami children were admitted to the Santo Antonio Children's Hospital, 58 of them due to malnutrition. 

In the first 25 days of 2023, the hospital treated 27 Yanomami children with severe malnutrition and two died from related complications. In the same time period, 45 Yanomami children were admitted to the hospital with various diseases, eight of whom were in serious condition in the Intensive Care Unit. Data on hospitalizations and deaths of Yanomami children were not provided by authorities for 2019 to 2022. 

In addition to severe malnutrition, the Yanomami children hospitalized in January had recurrent and treatable conditions. Authorities reported 47 cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), 20 dehydration cases, 15 acute gastroenterocolitis cases, and 9 malaria cases. 

“Some of the patients had more than one illness at the time of admission,” a statement from the children's hospital said.

Why are Yanomami children getting sick?

On January 20, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT, Workers’ Party) declared a health and humanitarian emergency in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which has suffered an unprecedented invasion of illegal miners in the last four years, under Jair Bolsonaro's government (PL, Liberal Party). According to the Yanomami, the number of illegal miners reached almost 30,000.

Davi Yanomami explained to the report that the Indigenous land is facing a more intense gold rush than that of the 1990s, when the territory of 9,664,975 hectares was demarcated and approved, with its boundaries between the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Roraima and with Venezuela. At the time, 40,000 illegal miners were expelled.

“Illegal mining kills any person, any animal, the life in the river. There are 577 Yanomami Indigenous children who died in four years,” he told Amazônia Real.

In an interview with Amazônia Real, the Indigenous leader blamed former president Bolsonaro for the deaths among his people: “In the four years that he sided with the illegal miners, this spread disease, coronavirus, malaria, flu, dysentery, worms, and other diseases. He's the one who killed [them].”

The hunger and malnutrition of the Yanomami are linked to illegal mining. Mining impacts the waters, soil, and forest. Mercury, used in illegal activities, contaminates the water consumed by the Yanomami. It also poisons animals, which are food sources for the Indigenous people.

In 2021, Yanomami mothers reported that their children were being born with malformations as a result of illegal mining. Others risk losing their pregnancies. Breastfeeding has become a risk.

A complaint made at the Second of Yanomami and Ye'kwana Leaders, not answered by Bolsonaro's government, also detailed other cases of treatable diseases, such as malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bolsonaro government distributed chloroquine to the Yanomami people as treatment for the new coronavirus, which is known to be ineffective. At the time, this was described as a violation by Dario Kopenawa Yanomami, vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY), while speaking to Amazônia Real:

Por que o próprio presidente ficou fazendo campanha da cloroquina na Terra Indígena? Falta respeito às lideranças locais, falta consultar, falta dialogar com os representantes do povo Yanomami.

Why did the president himself kept advocating for chloroquine in the Indigenous Territory? There is a lack of respect for local leaders, a lack of consultation, a lack of dialogue with the Yanomami people's representatives.

After Lula's election, Yanomami women sent a new alert in the form of a letter written in November 2022. An excerpt reads:

Nossas crianças já estão sofrendo os efeitos do que está acontecendo agora. Lula, os olhos dos peixes estão mudando. Parece que os olhos estão soltos e até os animais são diferentes, parecem magros e doentes. Estamos com medo de comer os peixes doentes. Estamos com medo de que nossas crianças fiquem deficientes.

Our children are already suffering the effects of what is happening now. Lula, the fishes’ eyes are changing. It seems that their eyes are loose, and even the animals are different, they look thin and sick. We are afraid of eating sick fish. We are afraid that our children could develop health problems.

Inside the Yanomami ward

Amazônia Real had access inside the ward, with authorization from the Santo Antonio Children's Hospital. In Block G, in a ward only for Indigenous people from various groups, the report met Yanomami boys and girls. The ward is adapted to their socio-cultural traditions, and the beds have hammocks.

A nurse who works in the Intensive Care Unit, but asked not to be named, said “there is not a single day where our ICU doesn't have its 15 beds occupied and more than half [of the patients] are Yanomami.”

She has been working at the hospital for seven years. She explains that the Indigenous people are taken in by the Yanomami indigenous Health Facility (Casai), a body linked to the Ministry of Health, but “in the last three years the demand has increased a lot.”

Among the Indigenous families passing through the hospital's corridors, one cannot help notice the malnutrition among the children, mothers, and fathers.

Many mothers are unable to even produce breast milk because of malnutrition. The medical team has to supplement the babies’ diet with a catheter. Children show symptoms such as hair loss, scars, and wounds on their skin.

The hospitalized Indigenous children receive food in line with their socio-cultural traditions, according to nutritionist Pedro Oliveira, with foods such as sweet potato, pumpkin, and cassava. The problem is that they are not always able to continue their treatment after leaving the facility due to lack of resources.

Emergency situation

The head of the Department of Indigenous Health (Sesai), Ricardo Weibe Tapeba, said in late January that over a thousand Yanomami people had been “rescued” from the Indigenous territory because of the diseases.

Podemos presenciar realmente o estado de calamidade que o território vive. É um cenário de guerra. A nossa unidade de Saúde Indígena, nosso povo lá de Surucucu, assim como a unidade de saúde aqui em Boa Vista são praticamente campos de concentração.

We can really see the state of emergency that the territory is facing. It's [like] a war scenario. Our Indigenous Health Unit, our people there from Surucucu, as well as the health unit here in Boa Vista are virtually concentration camps.

In early February, Davi Yanomami and his son Dario reported the disastrous situation faced by their people by illegal mining to the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Li Junhua. They said they had seen no response from the past federal government.

The current federal government, in place since January 1, began an operation to remove 20,000 illegal miners from the Indigenous territory on February 6.

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