The Yanomami woman sits on a wooden bench, swatting away relentless mosquitoes. A necklace of long yellow beads crisscrosses her naked breasts and drapes over her pregnant belly. As her four-year-old snuggles up, she laments how skinny he is. “He’s been eaten away by malaria,” she explains. In a forest invaded by mining interests that now control the area, children like him die of disease after days or weeks of high fever and persistent vomiting. Malnutrition has been a reality for several years, and it has worsened in a number of villages. In territories under the control of illegal mining, Yanomami children vomit out worms. Medicine is slow to arrive, if it arrives at all. Then the woman starts telling us what she fears more than hunger or malaria, even more than children throwing up worms. She tells us what the miners do to the women.
The body of the world’s largest tropical forest, a major regulator of the planet’s climate, has been violated and invaded by some 20,000 illegal miners in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, an area of over 37,000 square miles (96,000 square kilometers) between the states of Roraima and Amazonas in northern Brazil, close to the Venezuelan border. The invaders open craters in the ground, dig up riverbeds with their huge dredges and dump vast amounts of human waste, mercury, gasoline and diesel fuel into the forest waters. Some miners are equipped with military-grade weapons, and organized crime factions are involved in some of the regions’ narco-mining. Moreover, the miners are advancing, since under right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president from 2019 to 2022, they were given plenty of room to expand their exploitation of Indigenous lands.
In March 2022, 100 miners in search of gold reached the vicinity of this Yanomami woman’s village and anchored their six barges an hour from her home. A young man from the community went to the mining site with his wife. Their eyes on the wife, a group of miners goaded the man into drinking so much that he fell down drunk. “He was drunk, passed out. That’s why they screwed her,” the woman on the wooden bench says. And the raping went on. A seventeen-year-old girl was enticed to one of the barges by another young Yanomami man, who was working there as a boatman. “He told her ‘We’re going to get a rifle for your father [to hunt with]; I want to get a motor [for a boat]!’” When the two of them reached the barge, the miners gave the girl some cachaça liquor—and one of them raped her. And then another did. And then another. “There were so many, like this,” she continues, gesticulating a quantity she cannot count.
After this collective rape, the teenager’s family was given packages of rice, black beans, pepperoni, flour and sardines. There is no one to report the crime to. Even if a formal complaint were filed, locating men who move in and out of the forest illegally, when and how they want, would be problematic. In a territory demarcated over 30 years ago and now under the constitutional protection of the Brazilian state, there are nonetheless regions controlled by illegal mining forces where mining bosses have supplanted the state. During the nearly four years that Jair Bolsonaro was in office, the situation deteriorated further, as public authorities failed to take any consistent or truly efficacious action. Under international pressure, the government engaged in ostentatious one-time operations, during which they spent two weeks destroying machinery and aircraft. This yielded good photo opportunities but changed nothing. Three such operations were conducted in 2021. Only one was conducted in 2022, in early August, and shortly after, the miners returned.
The woman eventually asks us in her language, pain and outrage in her voice: “Why do the miners screw Yanomami women?”
Why? How do we respond to this question, asked by a woman who has been witnessing the destruction of her world ever since the first napëpë (white, foreigner, enemy) set foot in the forest? Where do we start?
My team from Sumaúma went to the Yanomami communities to investigate the oral reports we’d heard of the rape and exploitation of Indigenous women. We wanted to understand what the Yanomami people are experiencing, in their own language. Because we were after precise words, we asked the Indigenist expert and anthropologist Ana Maria Machado to accompany us. She is among the few translators and interpreters of one of the six languages spoken by the Yanomami and has maintained close relations with some of their communities for 15 years. But even Ana Maria was not prepared for what she heard and witnessed. Young girls she has known since they were toddlers have been raped and abused; teens she knew when they were growing up lure their friends into prostitution in return for cell phones. It is a world that is falling apart, and Ana knows these marks will remain even if the miners leave, because what is changing is a way of being forest and of being in the forest, as the great shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami makes clear. Like the Amazon rainforest, the Yanomami may be approaching the point of no return. This ongoing process of extermination is not merely physical, produced by guns, disease and contamination; it is the extermination of a way of life that planted part of the forest that is now being trampled.
We knew it would be extremely hard to reach the regions dominated by illegal mining interests because criminals control not only the ground but also the air. They have information on everybody who arrives, and even health-care teams have trouble providing services. The forest has become a territory controlled by a kind of militia, similar to what has happened in favelas and communities in Brazil’s big cities, such as Rio de Janeiro. We have seen Indigenous adolescents ensnared like the Black youths in urban communities, first by drug trafficking and then by militias, composed of former members of the public security forces. This is happening now. Given the meager response on the part of the authorities, the main resistance has come from leaders like Davi Kopenawa, organizations such as the Hutukara Yanomami Association and socioenvironmental activists.
Data we obtained under Brazil’s Access to Information Law indicate that health-care hubs inside Yanomami territory have had to close their doors 13 times since July 2020 due to threats to providers or armed conflicts, often instigated by miners in the territory. In Homoxi, miners kicked the health-care team out and turned the place into an aviation fuel storage facility. When Bolsonaro took office, 90 percent of Yanomami children were receiving regular medical care, compared to just 75 percent at the close of his term. Four in every 10 Yanomami children suffer from malnourishment, and 570 died from 2019 to 2022 of causes that health care could have prevented.
When in urgent need of help, the Yanomami who have cell phones are forced to ask the miners’ permission to hook up to their internet hubs, installed by the criminals themselves. In despair, they turn to the Special Office of Indigenous Health (SESAI) for aid. The only helicopter assigned to provide the Yanomami with health assistance is sometimes out of commission, according to health-care providers; meanwhile, dozens of miner-owned aircraft fly illegally through the skies without any trouble. In the Xitei region, where the local health-care post was closed for five months in 2022—for the third time since mid-2020—official data show that 11 children died from a lack of medical care in 2022. In the Yanomami territory as a whole, 99 children under age five lost their lives in 2022 due to the lack of diagnosis and treatment.
After the price of gold shot sky-high, criminal factions added this commodity to their illegal business portfolio and are advancing in regions like the Yanomami territory. They often count on the complicity of public employees as well as the support of a portion of the local elites whose relationship with the forest is marked by predatory extractivism. While the Indigenous number around 30,000, there are some 20,000 invaders–according to estimates by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—and the figure for the miners is trending upward. Their weapons are capable of taking on the Federal Police and the National Public Security Force. The Illegal Mining Monitoring System, maintained by the Hutukara Yanomami Association within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, has detected the presence of miners in areas affecting 273 of the 350 villages, impacting regions occupied by 56 percent of the Yanomami population.
Talita Bedinelli is a Brazilian journalist and a winner of the IAPA Excellence in Journalism Award. She worked for the newspapers Folha de S. Paulo and El País and is a co-founder of SUMAÚMA, a trilingual journalism platform, which aims to place the Amazon rainforest at the center of global journalism.