Rio’s Carnival parade makes urgent plea to stop illegal mining in Indigenous lands

Percussionists had ‘Miners out’ written across the skins of their drums as participants marched through the Sambadrome on Sunday evening

Rio de Janeiro Carnival
Revellers from Grande Rio Samba School perform during the night of the Carnival parade at the Sambadrome, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil February 12, 2024.STRINGER (REUTERS)

Carnival dancers have taken the biggest stage in Rio de Janeiro to pay tribute to Brazil’s largest Indigenous group and pressure President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to deliver on promises to eradicate illegal mining.

Carnival has long been a platform for samba schools to protest. Percussionists had “Miners out” written across the skins of their drums as participants marched through the Sambadrome on Sunday evening, delivering their message to more than 70,000 revelers and millions watching live on television.

“The chance that’s left for us is an Indigenous Brazil,” they said as part of Salgueiro’s samba school’s tribute to the Yanomami — one year after Lula declared a public health emergency for the group in the Amazon. They 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. “My hope is that the world, upon hearing our call, will put pressure on the Brazilian government to remove all the miners, destroyers of our mother Earth, who are soiling the water and killing fish.”

Kopenawa paraded with feathered armbands and headdress, plus a beaded necklace depicting a jaguar. Thirteen other Yanomami participated.

Sônia Guajajara, who leads the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples created in 2022 under Lula, congratulated Kopenawa and Salgueiro on Monday for their efforts recounting the group’s long struggle, from colonization to more recent efforts to repeal Indigenous land rights.

Some 30,000 Yanomami live in Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory, spanning more than 9 million hectares (22 million acres) in the northern Amazon rainforest.

Three weeks after assuming the presidency, Lula declared a public health emergency over the effects of illegal mining there and sent the armed forces, doctors, nurses and food. Still, over 300 Yanomami died of various causes in 2023, according to the health ministry.

Lula also created an inter-ministerial task force to fight illegal mining and in 2023, Brazil’s environmental agency destroyed a record 33 aircraft found on or near Yanomami territory. The agents also wrecked or apprehended mining barges, fuel, Starlink internet units and campsites.

Government officials say that since the operation began, areas with illegal mining inside Yanomami territory have dropped 85% and health has improved.

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

“We reckon that the miners are exploiting as much as possible because they assess they eventually 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 detection by working at night, setting camp under the forest canopy and choosing old mining pits instead of clearing forest to open new ones.

Humberto Freire, director of the newly created Amazon and environmental unit of the federal police, said government agencies need to take stronger action.

“We need, for example, the air force to effectively control the airspace over Yanomami land. We need the navy to control the flow of people on rivers. We need the army to do a quality job, too,” Freire said.

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

It isn’t the military’s responsibility to engage in direct combat, according to political scientist João Roberto Martins Filho. Still, the big question is why the army, with three permanent bases inside Yanomami territory, didn’t sound the alarm under Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

“There was nearly a massacre of an unprotected population. Why did the army let this happen instead of denouncing it to the federal government or reaching out to the press?” said Martins Filho, a professor at the Federal University of Sao Carlos. “In a certain way, they were accomplices.”

In a written response to the AP, the army said illegal mining and the health crisis in the Yanomami territory “are complex issues involving the legal jurisdiction of various government agencies,” and the army is “always prepared to fulfill its strategic missions” including providing support to federal agencies.

Illegal planes are essential for transporting prospectors and equipment to far-flung reserves, as shown in a 2022 AP investigation in Roraima state, where most mining affecting the Yanomami takes place.

After a January 2023 presidential decree ordered the air force to close the airspace over Yanomami territory, the situation improved significantly, authorities and Indigenous people said.

In a written response to the AP, Brazil’s air force said it has been patrolling the so-called Air Defense Identification Zone over the territory. It claims the measure led to a 90% reduction in illegal flights.

But in a joint statement last month, associations representing federal workers in environmental and Indigenous affairs accused the armed forces of “failing to fulfill their mission of supporting and facilitating the work of other agencies” combating illegal mining. The association alleged that the military denied use of aircraft for transporting personnel and equipment and hasn’t collaborated in the destruction of mining machinery and airstrips.

Government health teams have been targeted by armed miners and are unable or unwilling to reach certain communities, said Júnior Hekurari, president of Condisi-Y, the local health council.

“This state of emergency cannot solve the problem. We need something permanent, for all the communities,” Hekurari said.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS