Bolsonaro evades genocide blame amid Indigenous deaths by invaders, COVID-19

  • A Senate inquiry has opted not to call for genocide charges against President Jair Bolsonaro over his failure to sufficiently protect Brazil’s Indigenous population from the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating illegal invasions of their reserves.
  • The final report nevertheless accuses Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity, saying he took advantage of the pandemic to harm traditional communities.
  • The Senate’s backtrack on the genocide call comes a week after two Indigenous children in the Yanomami reserve were killed in an accident involving illegal mining machinery.
  • The Yanomami, like other Indigenous reserves across Brazil, has faced a rising influx of invaders under Bolsonaro’s watch, which prosecutors attribute in part to the president’s anti-Indigenous rhetoric and support for illegal mining inside these territories.

Brazil’s Senate has opted not to call for a genocide charge against President Jair Bolsonaro, a week after the death of two Indigenous children in an Amazonian reserve being invaded by illegal miners.

The move by members of the upper house of Congress was made public on Oct. 19, with senators citing “doubts” that any subsequent charge could be made to stick, according to the final report of a congressional inquiry into Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil.

“There were doubts regarding the characterization of the conduct and the concept of the crime [of genocide] itself,” Renan Calheiros, the inquiry’s rapporteur, said before reading the final report on the Senate on Oct. 20.

Despite the reversal on the genocide accusation, the final report found that Bolsonaro “commanded an anti-Indigenous policy that deliberately exposed the native peoples to neglect, harassment, invasion, and violence since before the pandemic.” According to the inquiry, Bolsonaro not only failed to protect the Indigenous population against COVID-19 — a disease to which they are more susceptible than the general population — but saw the virus as “an opportunity” to harm them.

“There is no disguise sufficient to cover up the president’s avowed willingness to target the Indigenous people,” the report said. “The hate speech and constant harassment reveal the hostile zeal against the Indigenous people, driven by greed and intolerance.”

Two Yanomami children died in an accident with a dredger used by illegal miners in the Rio Parimo inside the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in northern Roraima state. The reserve is Brazil’s largest and has reportedly been invaded by more than 20,000 illegal miners. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).
One week after the death of two Yanomami children, a Senate inquiry declined to press genocide accusations against President Jair Bolsonaro for his policies toward Indigenous peoples. Pictured is Renan Calheiros, the senator who serves as the rapporteur for the inquiry into the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of Edilson Rodrigues/Agência Senado.

The call for a genocide charge — the alleged attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group — was replaced in the final report by accusations of crimes against humanity. This is a broader category that, under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which Brazil has ratified, constitutes “an attack, widespread or systematic, against any civilian population.” The inquiry also accused Bolsonaro of eight other crimes, including “epidemic with resultant death” and “incitement to crime.”

That “incitement,” Indigenous rights activists say, is responsible to a large degree for the escalating illegal invasions of Indigenous territories across Brazil. Among the most affected areas is the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve, the country’s largest — stretching across an area the size of Portugal and straddling the states of Roraima and Amazonas, on the border with Venezuela. The territory is also home to seven other Indigenous groups, six of them living in voluntary isolation from the outside world. Yet the growing influx of invaders means that, today, there are nearly as many illegal gold miners, or garimpeiros, as there are Indigenous inhabitants: 20,000 against 26,780, according to recent estimates. “They are coming by the river, the roads, and the air. There are more than 100 planes and helicopters flying over our territory every day,” Hekurari Yanomami, who heads the Condisi-YY council that’s responsible for supervising Indigenous health care in the Yanomami reserve, told Mongabay in a phone interview.

The miners’ presence there has most recently led to the deaths of two Indigenous children, ages 5 and 7 years. The pair were playing in the Parima River, in the Makuxi-Yano community, on Oct. 12 when “they were sucked up” by a dredge used by the illegal miners to extract ore from the river, according to Dario Kopenawa Yanomami, head of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, in a statement the day after the accident.

But reports collected by the Federal Public Ministry in Roraima indicate the children drowned after their improvised boat, an empty fuel drum abandoned by the miners, capsized due to the strong undercurrent created by the dredger on board the miners’ boat, federal prosecutor Alisson Marugal told Mongabay.

It took two days to recover the bodies of both children, with rescue teams from Boa Vista, the Roraima state capital, called in to help, said Hekurari Yanomami, who followed the rescue. “The older child was found 5 kilometers [3 miles] away from the community. His body was covered in mud,” he told Mongabay by phone. “The community is very sad, everyone is crying nonstop.”

More than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of land inside the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve have been deforested by illegal miners. Federal prosecutors say the gold rush is the result of the rise in the price of gold and of President Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric in favor of illegal miners. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

The Federal Public Ministry said it’s investigating the deaths. Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, said in a statement that it has four bases inside the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve monitoring the territory. The Federal Police and the Ministry of Justice didn’t respond to Mongabay’s requests for information.

In July 2020, a federal appeals court in Brasília, the capital, ordered the Bolsonaro administration to present a plan to expel the illegal miners from the Yanomami reserve, arguing they posed a threat of infecting the Indigenous population during the pandemic. After several legal back and forth due to appeals by the federal government, the order was upheld in March 2021 by a federal court in Roraima. On that occasion, Judge Felipe Bouzada Flores Viana underscored that the massive presence of invaders makes it “very difficult to rule out the [possibility] of genocide” in the Yanomami reserve.

For Roraima federal prosecutor Alisson Marugal, genocide is already underway among some communities that have been entirely dominated by the garimpeiros. In these places, he said, the Yanomami’s traditional way of life has given way to alcohol and drug abuse, and prostitution. “It is a socioenvironmental disaster, which is happening silently and daily, and involves Yanomami culture and society,” Marugal told Mongabay by phone. “So the word genocide can refer to some communities as the result of the omission of the state to guarantee territorial protection.”

The illegal miners are also destroying the riverbanks in their search for gold, locals say, and contaminating the water with mercury to separate the gold from the ore. “They are taking out our only resources: the water we drink, our fishes and our animals,” Hekurari Yanomami said.

After the March ruling, the federal government initiated a series of operations against illegal miners in Roraima. In September, the federal environmental protection agency, IBAMA, destroyed 59 landing tracks used by illegal miners in the surroundings of the reserve. But the efforts are not enough, Marugal said. “What we expect is a complete withdrawal of mining from the Yanomami reserve, and this has not yet been achieved,” he said. “We need a more committed and permanent fight because the mining activity is widespread and has a very high capacity for re-articulation[following a police operation].”

According to a Greenpeace report, deforestation inside Indigenous reserves increased by 35% in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period last year. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

Escalating deforestation and violence

Deforestation caused by illegal mining inside the Yanomami reserve increased by 44% from December 2020 to September 2021, exceeding 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) — nearly 10 times the size of New York City’s Central Park — according to Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples.

Marugal said this new gold rush is the result of the rise in the price of gold and “the discourse of legitimization of illegal mining by the federal administration,” including a bill sent to Congress by the president to authorize mining inside Indigenous reserves. Hekurari Yanomami agreed: “Bolsonaro stimulates the invasion of our lands.”

The problem isn’t limited to the Yanomami territory. According to a report from Greenpeace published by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, deforestation inside Indigenous reserves increased by 35% in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period last year; the clearances for illegal mines alone jumped by 56%.

With the destruction has come an escalation in cases of violence against Indigenous populations throughout Brazil. On Oct. 19, attackers set fire to a prayer house of the Guarani and Kaiowá Indigenous people in the midwestern state of Mato Grosso — the seventh Indigenous prayer house destroyed in 2021, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church. In Pará state, illegal miners burned down the houses of Munduruku Indigenous leaders and expelled federal forces after a gunfight in May. One month later, an Indigenous protest was forcefully put down by police in Brasília; the protesters were opposed to a bill that would make it harder to demarcate Indigenous reserves.

Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous policies have already generated two denunciations of genocide in the International Criminal Court,the first filed in 2020 by the Arns Commission, a human rights body. The charge was also included in the first version of the recent congressional inquiry report, but was dropped after criticism from some members of the Senate commission.

The report now faces a vote in the Senate, after which it may be sent to institutions — including the Prosecutor General’s Office, the federal public ministries, and the Federal Police — that could open legal proceedings against the president.

Banner image: Illegal gold mining in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in Brazil’s northern Roraima state. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

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