Yanomami Indigenous Territory: consequences of militarist Bolsonarismo for the Amazon rainforest


On the 30th anniversary of its demarcation, the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is experiencing one of the most critical moments in its history with expanded mining in the region.

This piece is a version of the article originally published in Portuguese on the OPEB (Observatory of Brazilian Foreign Policy and International Insertion) website, which can be found here.

The Yanomami Indigenous Territory extends nine million hectares between the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Roraima with over 28,000 people, distributed in eight Indigenous communities.

After 30 years of recognition of Yanomami Indigenous Territory, socio-environmental conflicts have only increased in the region. 

According to the report of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, more than 20,000 garimpeiros (illegal miners) are active in the area, searching for gold, cassiterite, and other minerals. The presence of this illegal gold mining has led to countless conflicts and intense issues that have long been foisted on Yanomami territory. Prospecting and mining is a well-known part of the illicit economy in Brazil, most related to the illegal extraction of gold and cassiterite by individuals, small groups, and even large-scale operations able to transport minerals by the ton. The miners who work in these small-scale mining camps are generally known as garimpeiros. 

Among the most urgent problems are the increased deforestation of Yanomami territory and extreme violence to the Yanomami people, especially sexual violence faced primarily by women and children. In addition, there is a great lack of public health services, the consequences of which are aggravated by diseases (such as malaria) brought in by the miners, whose work leads to the water and soil contamination by heavy materials, such as mercury. 

Illegal mining camp in the Uraricoera region - Photo: Hutukara Associação Yanomami

In addition to the attacks carried out by the invading miners, Indigenous communities are also being targeted by the Bolsonaro government. In 2020, the bill PL 191/2020 was presented to allow the exploitation of mineral, water, and organic resources on Indigenous lands. This draft, authored by the President, was brought back to the table after the government filed an urgent request, claiming that the demand was necessary given the current conflict in Ukraine and the potassium-based fertilizer crisis. However, this claim by the Executive branch does not hold up, as several researchers demonstrated, refuting Bolsonaro’s claims. 

The legalization of mining on Indigenous lands, especially in the Amazon, is one of the main objectives of the Bolsonaro government. Since the beginning of Bolsonaro's administration, illegal gold mining and gold exports have increased in the state of Roraima. Roraima has long dealt with these small mines and its local economy was even structured around these activities, which ended up forming the social, cultural, and economic basis of the urbanized society in that region. In 2019 alone, 194 kg of gold were exported to India with a value of over US$ 6.5 million, becoming the second most exported product by the state, behind only soybeans, according to data from the Comex Stat system of the Ministry of Economy.

Previously, the extracted gold used to be negotiated on illegal markets, and their source was not included in official accounts. Today, at least a portion of the transactions have been included in federal records. According to the BBC, investigators are working on the hypothesis that perhaps there could be a fraud scheme to falsify the origin of the gold mined from Indigenous areas as well as gold smuggled from Venezuela.

Although the legalization of extractive activities is in Bolsonaro's interest, it is not based on his initiative alone, but rather an legacy of the Brazilian military. The military's perspective on the Amazon is based in its analysis of the region as possessing valuable natural assets while representing somewhat of a scarcely populated ‘vacuum’ isolated from the rest of the country. The military sees this as a risk to national sovereignty and security since the Indigenous communities are not considered guarantees for Brazilian dominance over the region – in fact, on the contrary.

middle yanomami

In this sense, during the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and under the motto "integrate to not surrender", defended by General Golbery do Couto e Silva, the military carried out several projects for the occupation and 'development' of the Amazon, such as the opening of roads and the encouragement of mining activity and colonization, through settlement of small farmers, incentives to landowners to buy land, clear forests, and raise livestock. As an example, in 1983, the Figueiredo administration promulgated Decree 88.985, which opened the possibility for corporate mining on Indigenous lands. When Brazilian democracy was restored, mining on these lands was once again forbidden through the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) Decree 692, issued on June 10, 1986.

These productive ventures in the region, together with the concept of security and national sovereignty, have the common characteristic of rejecting Indigenous peoples’ rights to live on their traditional lands and furthermore prohibiting their right to the use of their own territories. Incentivizes for explicitly colonial enterprises are part of a broader history that encouraged the colonization of the Amazon by people from other parts of the country – bringing with them cultural values and ways of life distinct from the identity of Indigenous peoples, as well as other traditional peoples and communities inhabiting the region.

A history of violence

Violence against Native peoples is not new, even in its most extreme forms. From the 1940s-1960s, Indigenous people across Brazil were targeted through the deliberate spreading of diseases, burning of villages, and aerial bombardment, all with murderous intent. These crimes, committed by landowners and public functionaries from the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios e Localização de Trabalhadores Nacionais (SPILTN), were laid out in the Figueiredo Report, an over 7,000 page document written in 1967 by prosecutor Jader de Figueiredo Correia, which remained hidden until it a researcher rediscovered it in 2012.

In the case of the Yanomami, the brutality escalated with the 1970 Radam project, the first attempt to map minerals in the Amazon region. From then on, public development projects promoted by the military, began to subject the Yanomami to intense forms of settler contact due to the expansion of the regional economic frontier: roads, colonization projects, ranches, sawmills, and construction sites, and illegal mining camps.


Cassiterite illegal mining within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory - Photo: Olympio Barbanti

Between 1987 and 1990, at the height of the "gold rush", several clandestine airstrips were opened in the upper course of the main affluents of the Branco River to ease garimpeiros activities — soon after the publication of MME Administrative Rule 612/1986, when up to 40,000 miners invaded the territory. This invasion led to the death of over 15,000 Indigenous people and was the key factor in the surge of crime in the region.

Exacerbating this, 19 federal decrees were issued, in the sequence of Decrees 97.512 to 97.530 (16 February 1989), through which administration of then-president José Sarney approved the reduction of Yanomami territory from the previous 9.4 million hectares approved by Decree 1817 (FUNAI, 08 January 1985) to  just 2.4 million hectares. Mr. Sarney's decree — supported by the military — divided established Yanomami territory into 19 non-contiguous 'islands' which resulted in fragmentation of Yanomami culture and society.

In contrast to Professor Manuela Carneiro da Cunha who taught "socio-diversity is as precious as biodiversity," the military’s logic in the search for national integration demanded that Indigenous societies be integrated into the Western culture of the colonizers from European origin, among others, who came to Brazil. Indigenous peoples’ rights to their culture and identity were not accepted – after all, cultural and ethnic standardization is a desire that has been advocated throughout history by authoritarian, anti-democratic leaders.

In this sense, according to Bertha Becker, the Amazon region is a vivid example of the geopolitics of the 21st century, where different perceptions interact and confront each other at different levels. One of these spheres is that of international trends emanating from the financial system, information technology, and disputes between large countries for hegemonic power. Another sphere is that of the perceptions of organized social forces, corporations, religious organizations, social movements, etc.

A historical analysis of military strategy, present in the Brazilian military’s guidelines, shows that the Armed Forces have been primarily concerned with promoting a specific type of spatial integration of the Amazon based on the extraction of maximum material wealth across the region. This perspective also identifies the presence of other social forces in regional politics, highlighting concerns about the role of transnational non-state actors, such as NGOs. The notion that such actors have a mission that is contrary to patriotic Brazilian interests is not new, and its roots can be found in Brazilian military doctrine.

For example, in 2019 The Intercept revealed the "Barão do Rio Branco Project", created by the President’s Secretariat for Strategic Affairs and coordinated by retired Colonel Raimundo César Caldenaro. This project is described as the largest plan for the occupation and "development" of the Amazon and predicts large enterprises that will attract non-Indigenous populations from other parts of the country to settle in the Amazon and increase the contribution of the North region to Brazilian GDP.

Here, they mention concerns regarding the presence of foreigners in the Amazon, especially on the Surinamese border, a country that receives investment and immigrants from China. Furthermore, the military views the presence of environmentalists, NGOs and the Catholic church in the region with suspicion, since they supposedly want to facilitate an internationalization of the Amazon and thus imply the loss of Brazilian sovereignty over its territory. The military claims there is a risk that NGOs and other groups would advocate for the secession of Indigenous lands from the national territory. 

Private airstrip serving illegal mining logistics on a ranch near Yanomami Indigenous Territory - Photo: Yanomami Under Attack/Hutukara Associação Yanomami

Another recent document linked to the Brazilian military is the "Nation Project" launched by Army officers through the Sagres Institute, a think tank created by military officers linked to General Eduardo Villas Bôas. The “Nation Project” is likewise concerned with projecting "critical uncertainty" of control over the Amazon, a way to fearmonger over national disintegration. According to this view, other countries and international organizations could wrench Indigenous lands away from the national territory. This perspective also conjures the specter of losing Indigenous territories in the Amazon under the pretext of Brazil's inability to defend Indigenous peoples' human rights or to sustainably manage the rainforest provides global public goods such as climate regulation, biodiversity, and freshwater provisioning.

Considering this, the military officers argue, Brazil should, for the next decade, "remove the restrictions of Indigenous and environmental legislation, which are considered radical, in the attractive areas of agribusiness and mining” (SAGRES, 2022). In other words, the rationale for Bolsonaro’s confrontational, anti-Indigenous Amazonian policy — and that of his government, and the political and military forces that support him — is grounded in this distorted view of what the Amazon means for Brazil.

This perspective fails to consider human rights, especially the rights of Indigenous peoples, as fundamental and disregards Article 225 of the Brazilian Constitution, which states, "Everyone has the right to an ecologically balanced environment, which is a common good of the people and essential to a healthy quality of life, and it is incumbent upon the public authorities and the community to defend and preserve it for present and future generations". It is misinformed because it does not recognize that issues like climate change, biodiversity, forests, endangered species, among others, are addressed by international regimes ratified by Brazil. And finally it is a distorted vision because it fails to recognize that, over all areas, Indigenous people today control only 11.6% of a territory that was once entirely theirs.

The leniency towards garimpeiros in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is a direct effect of this perspective that privileges mining and agricultural activities as a way to promote "national integration" and the integration of Indigenous people’s labor power.

Therefore, the current situation in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is one more historical crossroads in Brazil of clashes between antagonistic social visions and projects. We detailed the military’s perspective regarding the occupation of Amazonian territory. On other occasions, the OPEB outlined ways to promote biodiversity initiatives and bioeconomic integration in the Amazon, prioritizing the principle of self-determination for Indigenous peoples.

Now 30 years after this Indigenous territorial demarcation, society owes Indigenous peoples respect and support for their social organizations and livelihoods. We must guarantee that the priorities of these peoples are recognized from the conception to the implementation of government policies and projects in the Amazon – as well as in other regions and Indigenous territories. This includes measures such as tackling illegal markets and providing alternatives in support of local economies. 

In the end, the most worrying question emerging from the social dynamics in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is: “Can this reality be transformed? Who will be on the Yanomami's side to realize this change?”

It is true that international concern is growing amid threats to Brazil’s Indigenous peoples and lands. For example, the influence of the global community was felt in the case of the disappearance of Bruno Pereira, Indigenous rights defender with the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), and British journalist Dom Phillips, in the state of Amazonas, last June 5, raising the alarm in the international press

While international influence rarely extends beyond discursive terrain, international pressure and support for these issues remain important, since they call attention to and potentially mitigate brutality. Allies abroad can cite, for example, the first case of genocide formally recognized by Brazilian law, the 1993 Haximu Massacre in Roraima, when illegal miners destroyed the Yanomami village of Haximu killing at least 16 people. 

In September 2021, during the opening of the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed "great concern" about the violence against the Yanomami people. Ms. Bachelet also called on Brazil to reverse "policies that negatively affect Indigenous peoples" and not to abandon Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention. 

Additionally, in May of this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also demanded action to protect the Yanomami people. The right to life, personal integrity, and health of the Yanomami, Ye`kwana, and Munduruku Indigenous peoples, based on respect for their cultures, were decisively demanded by the Commission.

Those who fear the loss of Brazilian sovereignty over Indigenous territories, and over the Yanomami in particular, can rest assured: the Brazilian state would only have to fulfill its own constitutional or international treaty requirements, and promote human rights and sustainable development.

The authors are members of the OPEB Working Group on Environment, Climate and Agriculture, from the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), Brazil.

Illustrations: Gabriel Silveira

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Catarina Vieira Bortoletto, Lucas dos Santos Rocha, Lucas Começanha, Luiza Zomignan, Rodolfo Vaz and Olympio Barbanti

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