Yanomami Mission struggles to heal an abused territory

In January, accusations about the situation of the Yanomami Indigenous Lands in the Amazon Rainforest spread throughout Brazil, gaining space in the mainstream media and becoming the focus of discussions inside and outside the social networks, but, in July 2022, indigenous entities had already reported this concern. To better understand the gravity of these accusations, it is necessary to contextualize the history of the struggle of these peoples

Located between the states of Roraima and Amazonas, Yanomami Indigenous Land covers 9.6 million hectares. There are approximately 300 ‘difficult access’ communities with more than 30,000 inhabitants. The territory was demarcated in 1992 after a combined government-Armed Forces operation removed almost 40,000 miners from the land. However, over the years, the miners re-organised and returned greater force, even if in smaller numbers. Currently, the information is that there are at least 20,000 miners in the region – who count on the support of organised crime, which finances drug trafficking in the region. The illegal activities of miners have intensified in the last four years. They are looking for gold and cassiterite - a mineral that contains tin and is used in the production of paints, plastics and fungicides. Mining contaminates drinking water with mercury, also affecting food production and fishing.

In addition to water contamination which is the main cause of malnutrition among the Yanomami, illegal miners also spread malaria. In 2021, 50% of recorded malaria cases were in indigenous lands. There is also an increase in intestinal parasites and onchocerciasis, also known as "miner's disease", a parasitic disease that affects the skin and eyes and can cause blindness; sexual violence, threats and drug and alcohol trafficking are also on the list of crimes to which the indigenous communities are subjected.

The mission to save indigenous peoples

In 2022, leaders of the struggle against miners wrote the report "Yanomami under attack: illegal mining in Yanomami indigenous land and proposals to combat it", with the proposal to describe the growth and consequences of illegal mining on indigenous lands. The current Brazilian government has committed itself to once again expelling illegal mining and to this end an Operation on Yanomami lands has been organized. The COE - Centre for Emergency Operations, co-ordinated by SESAI - Secretária Especial de Saúde Indígena (Special Secretary for Indigenous Health), outlined the steps necessary to succeed in the mission.

The objectives of the Operation are: surveillance to end mining; short, medium and long-term health assistance for the peoples of the region, and evaluation of the social and environmental impact of mining activities in recent years. All were described in the report 'Operation Yanomami’ published in January 23. On the 22nd of February, a Report was published, which demonstrated that 53.2% of those that received medical attention were children under 14 years old. The report also listed the diseases treated:

Graph showing treatments offered during Operation Yanomami. Image taken from the 22/02 report
Graph showing treatments offered during Operation Yanomami. Image taken from the 22/02 report

On the ground: A statement from those that took part in the Operation

Professor, researcher and nurse, Marcelo Carvalho da Conceição is a specialist in urgent and emergency care, intensive care, pre-hospital care and haematology. He has been a nursing professional for 29 years, mainly in critical care areas such as intensive and emergency services. In addition to being a union leader of SEESP – the State of São Paulo Nurses’ Union

Marcelo is registered with the National Public Health System Team since 2018.
Marcelo is registered with the National Public Health System Team since 2018.

On January 31st, Marcelo was invited to participate in Operation Yanomami. He travelled to Boa Vista – RR, a few days later on February 3rd. Marcelo was part of the first group to arrive on Yanomami lands. His group was composed of 40 medical professionals; nurses; nursing technicians; psychologists; nutritionists and pharmacists. On the first day, the group focused on organising supplies and medicines to be used during the mission and, on the second day, they took part in a preparatory workshop given by anthropologist Marcos Pellegrini on Yanomami culture and way of life. Later, they took part in another workshop with psychologists for emotional preparation on the experience they would be living for the next few days.

The professionals were divided into 10 teams, which were spread across the Surucucu, Auaris and Catrimani sites. Marcelo's team and two others were assigned to the Surucucu site, which is almost 2 hours flight from Boa Vista and is also home to the army base which houses the Brazilian army's 4th border platoon. Marcelo and his team headed to the Kataroa subpole, made up of 14 communities, a 20-minute flight from Surucucu, where they stayed until almost the end of the Operation.

Marcelo says that one of the main difficulties was to keep the patients hospitalised in the UBSI unit (Basic Indigenous Health Unit), "This unit, which is a two-storey wooden construction, also has an annex, which can be described as a roofed area with no walls, where indigenous people are hospitalised. Sometimes they also build small buildings, which they call Tapiri, which is a little hut in the middle of the forest with a banana leaf roof. So, they are treated in the unit and sleep in that place". Other difficulties mentioned by the nurse were language/interpretation which was resolved with the support of indigenous translators with an understanding  of Portuguese. He also highlighted the complexity of performing exams through touch, conversation and patience. Although fearful, both adults and children authorized the medical team to perform the tests.

Personal file photo: wooden building located in front of UBSI-Kataroa
Personal file photo: wooden building located in front of UBSI-Kataroa

By the time Marcelo’s team arrived, those suffering the most critical cases of malnutrition and pneumonia had already been transferred to Boa Vista. In the community, children and adults suffered from cases described as "lighter", which the medical team, including a nutritionist, could treat locally. Cases of pneumonia, acute respiratory failure, ascariasis, malaria, tungiasis, cystitis, trauma from falls and acute diarrhoea were also treated by Marcelo's team in Kataroa. For two days, the professionals carried out active searches by going to the indigenous communities, walking for up to 5 hours in the closed forest, guided by the ASI's - Indigenous Health Agents, who are indigenous people with basic health training and who speak Portuguese.

On February 14th, after ten days, Marcelo's team returned to the Surucucu site. On that day, indigenous patients wounded with firearms were treated. Marcelo explained that cases like this are common when indigenous people confront the miners. Two days later, the professionals returned to Boa Vista and held meetings to evaluate the activities with all the teams and exchange experiences.

Marcelo says that he considers himself a professional prepared for critical situations, but the mission with the indigenous people exceeded his expectations, particularly in terms of preparation because, "we were very susceptible to material difficulties in providing care, being in the forest you have no access to other materials. We had a reduced stock of medicines, for various diagnoses. But it was a unique experience, 14 days that were worth 14 years". Marcelo also mentions that the contact with the Yanomami culture provided him with a previously unimaginable cultural immersion.

The work to heal the wounds caused by the mining activities is not finished! Other professionals like Marcelo will still be needed to provide care to the Yanomami people. This mobilisation is only possible, however, because of the existence and resistance of the Public Health System and the entities that are part of it - including the National Force that called for the necessary professionals and the COE - Centre for Emergency Health Operations, which is coordinating the Operation, and or course, a government that is committed to public and universal health care for all throughout the country.

The essential work of nurses and other health professionals became clear to everyone during the Covid-19 pandemic. PSI works with our affiliates to guarantee that all health professionals who participated in the Operation are recognized for their work, especially nurses who are currently engaged in a national fight for the implementation of the National Nursing Minimum Wage in Brazil.

The daily reports of Operation Yanomami are available on the federal government's website.