Illegal miners posing Covid-19 threat to Yanomami


Yanomami community gathering in Brazilian Amazon state of Roraima. (Photo by Adriana Huber/Cimi)

The indigenous Yanomami people, whose vast territory straddles the border of Brazil and Venezuela, have launched a campaign to expel 20,000 illegal Amazon gold miners from their land amid an outbreak of Covid-19 among local community members.

The #MinersOutCovidOut campaign, supported by nine local and international advocacy nonprofits, began on June 2 with a goal of gathering 100,000 signatures for a petition calling on the right-wing government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to remove the miners immediately. As of June 22, it had collected 289,044 signatures, prompting organizers to set a new goal of 350,000. Advocacy groups also have called on the Venezuelan government to dislodge miners, getting no response, but the petition solely targets the government of Brazil, where most Yanomami live and where the bulk of the illegal mining occurs.

The 38,000 Yanomami possess an enormous territory comprising 94,191 square kilometers (37,367 square miles) in Brazil and 82,000 square kilometers (31,660 square miles) in Venezuela. They have called for the removal of wildcat miners since a gold rush in the 1980s; but their demands have taken on particular urgency now, amid a new influx of miners and concern that the intruders carry Covid-19.

“For decades the Yanomami have suffered and died from diseases brought by miners, from malaria to influenza and tuberculosis,” says Dário Kopenawa Yanomami, vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, a body that represents the Yanomami. “And now those invaders have brought Covid-19 to our villages. So if the government doesn’t expel them from our land once and for all, this new disease could kill many of our people and again threaten us with genocide, as other diseases they have brought have done in the past.”

Driving the latest surge of mining is lax rainforest-protection enforcement by the Bolsonaro administration and a rise in gold prices since the Covid-19 pandemic upended the global economy. Illegal gold mining in the northern Brazilian Amazon state of Roraima, where most Yanomami live, made gold the state’s second largest export in 2019 in dollar value (US$31.3 million), government figures show.

Covid-19 began spreading among Yanomami villages in April. As of June 23, four Yanomami in Brazil had died of the disease and 147 had contracted it, while figures from Venezuela were not available. A Yanomami teenager was Brazil’s first indigenous Covid-19 fatality. On three separate occasions over 23 days, Alvanir Xrixana had been examined at a Roraima state hospital and released without treatment. He died on April 9, two days after again being readmitted and receiving a positive result in what was his first test for Covid-19.

Particularly vulnerable
The disease, to be sure, is spreading faster among some other, less isolated indigenous communities—especially in Amazonas state, where the state capital of Manaus is a key hub of national and international travel to and from the Amazon region. Overall, more than 5,524 indigenous people in Brazil had contracted Covid-19 as of June 27, and 150 of them had died of it. Experts say those figures understate the true toll by orders of magnitude because they fail to account for city-dwelling indigenous people who contract the disease.

Yet epidemiologists and advocacy groups say that among indigenous groups, the Yanomami are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 because their relatively recent history of isolation has left them without strong immunity to contagious diseases.

“The Yanomami were only contacted by white people some 50 to 60 years ago, which means their immune systems are more vulnerable to infectious diseases brought from the outside world than most indigenous peoples in Brazil,” says Paulo Basta, an epidemiologist and physician who lived with the Yanomami for over a year. “Because the Yanomami live in such a remote region of the Amazon, far from indigenous health centers, many have not been vaccinated against contagious diseases, which are brought mainly by gold miners. The large, oval-shaped communal shelter of a Yanomami village [which can house up to 400 people] further facilitates the spread of such disease.”

The presence of miners among the Yanomami raises the risk, says Marcos Wesley, a specialist on the Yanomami at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian nonprofit also backing the referendum. Says Wesley: “As they move between cities and mining camps in Yanomami territory, they can catch the disease from city dwellers and bring it to Yanomami with whom they also come into contact.”

Mercury contamination
To refine gold, miners heat mercury, whose fumes condense into rivers and streams and concentrates in fish, an important local food source. This has resulted in over half of the Yanomami having elevated mercury levels in their blood, federal prosecutors say. Says Basta: “Contamination by mercury, a neurotoxin that compromises their immune system’s response to infectious diseases, could make them even more susceptible [to Covid-19].”

It remains unclear whether the government will dislodge the miners. Enforcement agents and Army troops in 2018 staged a crackdown that cut the number of miners on Yanomami land from 5,000 to 2,500, says ISA’s Wesley. But in January of 2019, when Bolsonaro became president, he effectively encouraged illegal logging and mining in indigenous reserves by reducing enforcement in the Amazon, denigrating indigenous people living in reserves and portraying reserves as an impediment to economic development. The number of miners rebounded, to 10,000 by June 2019 and 20,000 by January of this year.

Bolsonaro, under fire amid estimates that Brazilian Amazon deforestation was 55% greater in the first four months of this year than in the same period in 2019, put the military in charge of anti-deforestation efforts in May. (See "Brazilian military called on to fight deforestation" —EcoAméricas, May 2020.)

But thus far experts see few signs that the effort, called Operation Green Brazil 2, will be used to help the Yanomami people rid their territory of illegal miners. “Operation Green Brazil 2 has not announced either a short-term or long-term strategy for removing gold miners from Yanomami land,” says Paulo Moutinho, senior scientist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a Brazilian environmental research nonprofit.

- Michael Kepp

Paulo Basta
Physician and epidemiologist
Oswaldo Cruz Foundation
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tel: +(55 21) 98283-5346
Dário Kopenawa Yanomami
Vice President
Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY)
Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil
Paulo Moutinho
Senior Scientist
Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM)
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 2109- 4150
Antonio Oviedo
The Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA)
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 3035-1515
Marcos Wesley
The Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA)
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 3035-1515
Documents & Resources
  1. Health Ministry data on indigenous cases (in Portuguese): link

  2. #MinersOutCovidOut campaign (in English): link