Message to stop illegal mining on indigenous lands displayed at the Brazilian carnival

Carnival dancers took to Rio de Janeiro’s biggest stage Sunday night with their faces painted red in traditional indigenous style, while percussionists had “Miners Out” written on the skin of their drums.

It was part of the Salgueiro samba school’s tribute to the yanomamithe largest indigenous group in Brazil, with its giant floats, costumes and songs based on the group’s ancient culture and traditions.

“My Salgueiro is the arrow for the people of the forest,” the parade participants sang as they marched through the Sambódromo, delivering their message to more than 70,000 revelers at the Sambódromo and to millions of people who watched live on television. “The opportunity we have left is an indigenous Brazil.”

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is under pressure to deliver on his promises to eradicate illegal mining, particularly amid a recent setback in efforts. Sunday’s parade comes as Brazil celebrates one year since Lula declared public health emergency for the Yanomami people in the Amazon, who suffer from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria as a consequence of illegal mining.

“Ours is a cry for help from Brazil and the world in general,” said Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader and shaman who advised the samba school on how to be sincere with his people and paraded with Salgueiro. “My hope is that the world, hearing our call, will pressure the Brazilian government to eliminate all the miners, destroyers of our mother Earth, who pollute the water and kill fish.”

Kopenawa paraded with bracelets and feather headdresses, as well as a beaded necklace depicting a jaguar. He was joined by 13 other Yanomami who flew across the country to participate in the Salgueiro parade. One of the first floats consisted of a severed tree trunk, with an artist depicting a Yanomami mother seeking to protect her child as the invaders approached, and other floats featured enormous sculptures of the Yanomami people.

Through this tribute to Yanomami history and culture, Salgueiro sought to draw attention to the devastating effects caused by illegal mining within Yanomami territory, including widespread river pollution, hunger and disease.

Some 30,000 Yanomami live in Brazil’s largest indigenous territory, covering more than 9 million hectares (22 million acres) in the northern part of the Amazon rainforest, along the border with Venezuela.

Three weeks after assuming the presidency, Lula declared a public health emergency and sent in the armed forces, doctors, nurses and food. Still, More than 300 Yanomami died. for various reasons in 2023, according to the Ministry of Health.

Rio Carnival parade makes urgent call to stop illegal mining on indigenous lands. #Illegal Mining #Indigenous Lands #Amazon Rainforest

Lula quickly created an inter-ministerial task force dedicated to fighting illegal mining, and in 2023, Brazil’s environmental agency destroyed a record 33 planes found in or near Yanomami territory. Officers also vandalized or detained mining barges, fuel, chainsaws, Starlink internet units and campsites. Government officials say that since the beginning of the operation, illegal mining areas within Yanomami territory have decreased by 85% and that the health of the Yanomami has improved.

But after the initial success of the operation, prosecutors, authorities and employees of federal environmental agencies say the illegal miners are returning.

“There has been a significant reduction, but mining has not ended. We believe that the miners are exploiting as much as they can, because they estimate that eventually they will have to leave,” Jair Schmitt, head of environmental protection at Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, told The Associated Press.

Schmitt said miners have adapted to escape law enforcement and satellite detection by working at night, setting up camps under the forest canopy and choosing old mine shafts rather than clearing the forest to open new ones.

Humberto Freire, director of the federal police’s newly created environmental and Amazon unit, said officers also noted that miners have begun working in a much smaller, more artisanal way, and that government agencies need to take stronger action.

“We need, for example, for the air force to effectively control the airspace over Yanomami territory. We need the navy to control the flow of people in the rivers. We need the army to also do quality work,” Freire said. “The federal police can do more, the armed forces can do more, as well as Ibama and Funai (the indigenous affairs agency).”

One wing of the parade featured dancers dressed in the dark green attire of army uniforms. Behind it was a float with two giant military hats with skulls, an explicitly critical element of the parade.

Lula had said the armed forces would play a key role in the fight, providing logistical support and security to public workers and federal agents on the ground who say they increasingly fear for their lives.

But it is not the responsibility of the military to participate in direct combat, according to political scientist João Roberto Martins Filho. Still, the big question is why the army, which has three permanent bases within Yanomami territory, did not sound the alarm under Lula’s predecessor. Jair Bolsonaro.

“There was almost a massacre of an unprotected population. Why did the army allow this to happen instead of reporting it to the federal government or approaching the press?” Martins Filho, a professor at the Federal University of Sao Carlos, told the AP. “In a way, they were complicit. “

In a written response to the AP, the military said that illegal mining and the health crisis within Yanomami territory “are complex issues that involve the legal jurisdiction of various government agencies” and that the military “is always prepared to fulfill its strategic missions.” ”. “That includes providing support to federal agencies through logistics, communications and intelligence activities, such as those carried out in Yanomami territory, according to the statement.

Illegal aircraft are essential for transporting searchers and equipment to remote reserves, as they shown in a 2022 Associated Press investigation in the state of Roraima, where most of the mining affecting the Yanomami takes place. Without unauthorized planes, officials and experts have said illegal mining operations would collapse.

After a January 2023 presidential decree ordered the air force to close airspace over Yanomami territory, the situation on the ground improved significantly, authorities and indigenous people told the AP.

In a written response to the AP, Brazil’s air force said it has been patrolling the so-called Air Defense Identification Zone over Yanomami territory. Under this rule, an aircraft can be shot down for not obeying orders to change route. The force claims the measure led to a 90% reduction in illegal flights.

“It is very efficient. We would find landing strips, but no planes,” said André Luiz Porreca Ferreira Cunha, a federal prosecutor overseeing cases related to illegal mining in the western Amazon.

But some on the ground suggest that the military is no longer sufficiently involved in operations and that, as a result, illegal miners have begun to return.

In a joint statement last month, associations representing federal workers on environmental and indigenous issues accused the military of “failing to fulfill its mission to support and facilitate the work of other agencies” fighting illegal mining. The association alleged that the military denied the use of planes to transport personnel and equipment, has not collaborated in the destruction of mining machinery and landing strips and instead closed support points for the refueling of environmental agency planes. .

Ferreira Cunha, the prosecutor, said violent attacks against Ibama agents and members of the federal police are increasingly frequent, with some cases of attempted murder. Government health teams have also been attacked and are unable (or unwilling) to reach certain communities, said Júnior Hekurari, a member of the group and president of Condisi-Y, the local health board.

“Some are heavily armed, the health teams are scared,” he said.

“This state of emergency cannot solve the problem. We need something permanent, for all communities,” Hekurari added. “If they (government authorities) don’t stay, the miners will return tomorrow.”

Maisonnave reported from Brasilia.

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