Bolsonaro’s government removed health monitoring of Yanomami after a record of child malnutrition


Figures obtained by SUMAÚMA show that the reduction in health monitoring began in the second year of the far-right administration, after officials learned that half of young Yanomami children were underweight. The state’s retreat helps explain the deaths of at least 570 children in four years.

The government of Jair Bolsonaro reduced health monitoring of Yanomami children when half of them were suffering from malnutrition, according to data obtained by SUMAÚMA. This reduction left already fragile children without regular access to doctors. During Bolsonaro’s four years in power, at least 570 Yanomami children died from causes that could have been prevented with proper health care (an increase of 29% over the previous administration). Malnourished babies are nine times more likely to die from diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea.

Data show that in 2019, the first year of the Bolsonaro administration, at least 2,875 Yanomami infants aged five years or younger (49% of the total) were underweight for their age—and of these, 1,601 were extremely underweight. That year, 90% of the territory’s children were monitored for health, and the malnutrition data were the highest detected since 2015, when the current data collection system began. Faced with such a high level of malnutrition, the obvious course of action would have been to invest in care and food and prevention. Bolsonaro’s government did exactly the opposite. The following year, the number of Yanomami children whose health was monitored began to decline, reversing the trend of previous years. By 2022, the last year of Bolsonaro’s term, the proportion of infants whose health was monitored had fallen to 75%. As a result, the rate of malnutrition (at least according to the statistics) also dipped, with 38% of 5,861 Yanomami infants classified as underweight. This is what is known as a “statistical blackout.” It is therefore based on these dramatic figures that Bolsonaro and the ministers concerned (including controversial evangelist Damares Regina Alves) could be prosecuted for crimes.

Between the first and last year of Bolsonaro’s government, the number of children regularly monitored dropped. However, NGOs reported that in 2022, 2,205 of 5,861 Yanomami infants were underweight, with 1,239 of them significantly underweight. However, due to lack of surveillance, the government ignored the nutritional status of 1,494 children. Health surveillance is where children are weighed, measured, and their general medical condition assessed. It allows malnutrition to be identified early on, so that health professionals can take immediate action to reverse the situation. Without this, children can become severely malnourished and must be rushed by air from Yanomami territory to Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, where a hospital is. Late last year (2022), emergency evacuations in part of the Yanomami area were suspended for two weeks when the helicopter, the only way to reach some areas, broke down! NGOs report at least eight deaths during this ten-day period, which shows how dependence on emergency transfers has increased in the region due to the instability of health structures.

Mining is one of the main factors in the health crisis. Under the government of Bolsonaro (a supporter of illegal activity on indigenous lands) the invasion of criminal gold miners has increased, triggering an explosion of malaria. The invasion of miners has not been hindered by the state and has made the work of health teams more difficult. Data released in September by SUMAÚMA showed that medical centers that provide care to indigenous people in the territory have closed 13 times since 2021, due to conflicts caused by criminals.

The health center in the Homoxi region was one of these facilities. Stormed by garimpeiros [illegal gold diggers] in July 2021, it was turned into a fuel depot, and its health team was forced to flee.

The center remained in this state for more than nine months, with no attempt by the government to dislodge the criminals and regain control of the building, which nevertheless belongs to the Brazilian state. Early last year, an operation to prevent illegal mining was carried out, but soon after the government agents left, the criminals returned and burned down the center. The reason why no children at the health center are listed as malnourished in the government’s 2022 data is that none were followed by health professionals! Prior to the invasion of the gold miners, 41 of the 47 children in the community were being monitored and 82.9% of them were malnourished. The health center remains closed, eighteen months after being taken over by criminals…

Calls for help ignored by the Bolsonaro administration

There are other regions where mining has caused a health tragedy. In Paapiu, one of the areas most affected by criminal activity, 82.6% of children five years old or younger who are monitored suffer from malnutrition, but only 23 of the 45 children in the area are monitored in 2022. In Aratha-U, another invaded area, 77.9 percent of children in the same age group are underweight, but 43 of them are not included in the statistics. In Surucucu, 68.8% of children are malnourished, but 239 of the 566 children were not monitored in 2022.

It was in Surucucu that the new Brazilian government installed a special team early last week to provide urgent care in a situation of health collapse, following a call for help from the president of the Yanomami District Council for Indigenous Health, Hekurari Yanomami. He said he had formally asked the Bolsonaro government for help on several occasions, but never received a response. Another source who worked at the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (Funai) under the Bolsonaro administration, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said the agency made several requests for Yanomami assistance, all of which were denied. An August 2022 report by The Intercept also revealed that Hutukara, the main Yanomami association, sent 21 letters to government agencies in two years, asking for help due to violence caused by illegal miners in their territory. These letters were ignored.

Not only has malnutrition taken its toll, but also the mercury used by the gold miners…

Last Friday, SUMAÚMA revealed that in the four years of Bolsonaro’s presidency, 570 children under the age of five have died from what are called “preventable causes.” Some died from malnutrition itself, others from diseases aggravated by being underweight, such as pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea. The data and photos in the report, showing children and elderly people with only skin and bones, shocked the world. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited Roraima, where part of the Yanomami territory is located, the following day. The government announced a series of emergency care measures for the population, including a crisis room, a field hospital and the declaration of a public health emergency. These are measures adopted in the event of an epidemic.

For the time being, the Brazilian justice system is studying several options as to the qualification of the charges in the event of official proceedings against Bolsonaro and his administration. There is talk of crimes against humanity, and even genocide for some. Already, Jair Bolsonaro, who is currently in Florida, has requested asylum from several countries, including Italy, which has refused to grant it. The FBI is beginning to take an interest in him and his sons. Several American senators have asked that his diplomatic visa be revoked. But, in any case, it normally expires this Monday, January 30…

Currently, the Brazilian justice system is considering several options regarding the charges that could be brought against Bolsonaro and his administration in the event of official prosecution. Some are talking about crimes against humanity, and for some, even genocide. Already, Jair Bolsonaro, who is currently in Florida, has sought asylum in several countries, including Italy, which has refused him. The FBI is beginning to take an interest in him and his sons. Several US senators have requested that his diplomatic visa be revoked. However, in any case, it is set to expire this Monday, January 30th.

[Update: On February 1st, Jair Bolsonaro officially applied for a 90-day tourist visa].