General situation

63. The Yanomami and their struggle for survival as individuals and as a people provide an example of the problems faced by indigenous residents of the tropical forests in the national and international defense of their rights. The Yanomami who have lived for at least two thousand years around the Orinoco River in the region that has now become Venezuela and Brazil now account for an estimated 10,000 inhabitants of Brazil who live in groups in 150 communities.(20) The communities are independent of each other and do not have a single government structure, but they maintain relatively stable self-sufficient economies and relationships with their environment. At the same time, the growing intercommunication between the indigenous villages and the traditional uses of land have permitted the physical and cultural survival of the Yanomami along with protection of the ecology. That stability is now being threatened by the successive encroachment of outsiders, some of whom--such as the prospectors for gold and other items (garimpeiros)--are engaged in unlawful activities that cause damage to the lives and survival of these Indians and their culture and environment.

64. The Yanomami occupy an indigenous area containing 9.4 million hectares (36,367 square miles) of lush tropical forests in the Brazilian States of Roraima and Amazonas--an area that has been demarcated and given final approval.

65. To understand the delicate situation of the Yanomami=s human rights, it is important to recall relatively recent phenomena that have resulted in quantitatively significant loss of lives. The years between 1974 and 1976 saw the start of construction work on the Northern Perimeter Highway built mostly for the hauling of minerals. By the time it had covered a distance of 225 kilometers in Yanomami territory--and because the construction company workers had not been vaccinated (nor had vaccines been provided for the natives there)--the Yanomami population of thirteen villages along the first several kilometers of construction was besieged by epidemics that resulted in the death of one out of every four Indians. At the same time, the incidence of conflicts between immigrants and indigenous escalated, resulting in untold numbers of deaths.

66. The successive discoveries of valuable minerals and attempts at exploitation--in particular, by "garimpeiros" (small-scale prospectors of gold and precious minerals) who were in turn financed, supplied and given political support by well-endowed groups which also had political clout in the region--brought in their wake new diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, smallpox and other germs against which the natives had not developed any genetic defenses. In 1976, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the miners to be evicted. It is estimated that 15% of the Yanomami population (i.e., some 1,500 of them) died in that period as a result of diseases introduced by the miners. One of those newly arrived scourges--malaria--is found in 40% of the population today.

67. In December of 1980, the Commission received a complaint(21) denouncing acts such as the construction of highways, the issuance of mining permits, the lack of vaccination for the natives and the attempts to reduce their right to their lands by means of government measures, all of which would violate the Indians' rights that are guaranteed by the American Convention. After various procedural tasks--including hearings with experts and governmental representatives--the Commission issued a judgment on March 5, 1985, pointing out that serious violations of human rights had been committed against the Yanomami, especially at the time when a work was begun on construction of the Northern Perimeter Highway. The judgment also acknowledged the important measures adopted by the Government of Brazil in the last several years, especially since 1983, to protect the life, security and health of the Yanomami Indians. In addition, it recommended that the preventive and curative measures be continued there; that the borders of the Yanomami Park be demarcated; and that competent scientific, medical and anthropological personnel be consulted with a view to designing assistance programs for these Indians. (See the IACHR Annual Report for 1985, pages 24-34.)

68. Between 1987 and 1990, in the context of the Calha Norte project's execution, the ancestral Amazonian territory of the Yanomami--which had consisted of 23.5 Million acres--was reduced by 70% and divided into 19 isolated areas. Two thirds of the original territory was opened up to mining exploitation--especially gold. Thousands of "garimpeiros" penetrated their land in search of gold and precious metals. In 1987 their number was estimated as roughly 45,000.

69. Starting in 1988, the federal courts decided on various occasions in favor of the Yanomami=s rights. To begin with, they annulled the break-up of their continuous area into separate "reserves," forming a sort of archipelago. At the same time, the courts ruled in defense of the right of this group and others, to the effect that their territories would no longer be subject to usurpation by unlawful mining and lumbering operations and specified measures that would be used to oust them.

70. When the indigenous rights were set forth in the 1988 constitution, the federal agencies began to cut down on the invasion of this area and reduced the number thereof to a few thousand by the early 90s.

71. In subsequent years, the commission received information that the recommendations it had issued in 1985 had been implemented and that the demarcation and definitive titling of the Yanomani area had been completed. During their visit, its members were able to confirm the existence of health care posts and the establishment of federal inspection stations in the indigenous area, along with the efficient service being provided at that time by the federal national police force in protection the territory and defending it against the stealthy incursion of garimpeiros.

72. During its visit in December of 1995, the Commission obtained coinciding accounts from different sources--including state agents--placing the number of garimpeiros at less that three hundred in Brazilian territory, plus an undetermined number in the Yanomami area in Venezuela: most of the latter group were Brazilian and received their supplies from the Brazilian State of Roraima.

73. But the vigilance performed by FUNAI and federal agencies in the Yanomami was plagued by a series of ongoing changes. Early in March 1996, the helicopter watch performed by the Federal Police was suspended. As a result, a new shipment of garimpeiros and machinery was brought into the area by plane. It is estimated that some 2,000 garimpeiros have now settled there, and that 24 secret landing strips resulted from that operation. At the end of March, officials of the Justice Ministry announced that they would conduct a renewed campaign of expulsion and vigilance(22). The campaign has not been reinstated, nor had the intruders been evicted at the time this report was written.


Status of health in the Yanomami area. Incidence of malaria

74. The introduction of malaria and other diseases, in particular by the garimpeiros, has had adverse effects on the general situation of the Yanomami=s health. The most widely prevalent is malaria which, together with pulmonary disorders, has virtually decimated the Yanomami population and continues to exist on an epidemic scale today. According to official figures, the incidence of malaria among the Yanomami rose by 44% during 1995. That number is consistent with the upturn of malaria in the general population of the State of Roraima, which reached 52% in that year.

75. But in the Yanomami area where a project supported by the Pro Yanomami Commission, a nongovernmental agency, was conducted, the incidence of malaria declined by 14% in 1995. Over the last four years, the population has increased by 10.3% in the Yanomami communities where that project is being carried out.

76. The Commission has witnessed the interest displayed by the Yanomani communities it visited in preserving their cultural values and life style, at the same time respecting their ties to the Brazilian community, with which they are willing to share their knowledge and examples. It also received heard frequent statements of fear at the introduction of elements from the outside world without due care to protect the fragility of Yanomami culture and proper attention to their health.

77. In particular, the leaders cite the continuous pressure exercised by the garimpeiros with their sequelae of sickness, friction and the poisoning of streams. But they also refer to the access roads to the Yanomami area being built on their lands, which in their experience serves only to introduce disease, intruders (the garimpeiros and other sorts) and the unlawful exploitation of the timber resources or customs which disorganize community life.

78. These dangers have been brought closer with suspension of the Federal Police action using helicopters to protect the Yanomami area, as of March 1996.



79. According to the CIMI figures, there were forty-three murders of Indians in 1993, and 32 of them were committed by nonindigenous persons. Eight were committed by gold miners; seven were triggered by disputes over land; three by lumbermen; one was motivated by revenge; and the cause of three others was not known. By June of 1994, there had been only one arrest in all those cases and seven police investigations had been opened. In addition, 85 attempted killings, seven rape cases, 29 beatings and 18 illegal arrests were reported.(23)

80. Among the Yanomami natives, various persons were killed in 1993 by a group of garimpeiros in Haximu. In December 1996, five garimperios were convicted of genocide, but only one is now in prison.(24)

81. The Commission was able to verify that in the states where there are indigenous groups, the persons who defend them are continuously exposed to threats and that the Government is aware of the danger in those cases. Word was received in this respect that Paolino Baldasarri, a member of the Order of Servants of Mary and defender of indigenous rights was allegedly threatened by lumbermen in the Rio Branco region of Acre; and that the Government had provided him with protection. In the State of Para, on the other hand, Humberto Mattle, a defender of indigenous and other groups, had been murdered on October 10, 1995 in Xingú, Altamira, Pará. According to newspaper reports, the murderers confessed when they were arrested, but said that they had mistaken the target, since they had intended to kill Padre Federico, another active defender of indigenous peoples. Shortly before the middle of 1995, Bishop Erwin Krautler, a former president of the CIM had been attacked and threatened.(25)



82. Based on the foregoing, the Commission concluded that:

a. Over the past decade, the Indian peoples of Brazil have made major strides, insofar as their rights --including the demarcation and ownership of their lands--are concerned. Their cultural and physical integrity, as well as the integrity of their lands are, however, under constant threat and attack by both individuals and private groups who disrupt their lives and usurp their possessions. What is more, there have been attempts by the authorities of several States to erode their political, civil and economic rights. Although the National Human Rights Plan includes positive measures to combat this situation, reports received in early 1997 show that these measures have not yet been implemented to any significant extent;

b. The situation of the Indian peoples of Brazil in the areas of health, nutrition, and access to public services is worrying. Indicators demonstrate clearly discriminatory conditions as compared with standards and services for the general population;

c. Security guarantees that every state should provide for its inhabitants and which, in the case of the Indian peoples of Brazil, require special protective measures, are insufficient in terms of preventing and finding a solution to the ever-continuing usurpation of their possessions and rights;

d. Significant progress has been made in recognizing, demarcating, and granting territorial lands to the Indian peoples. Nonetheless, there are some cases, especially in the State of Roraima, where the Commission was able to confirm that action had been taken by the state to erode the human rights of the Indian population;

e. The procrastination and difficulties encountered in recognizing the integrity of the Macuxi people and full ownership of their lands, as well as the establishment of municipalities superimposed on their lands, thus weakening their traditional leadership and structure, are evidence of the inability of the Brazilian state to protect these peoples from invasion and abuse from third parties, and to militate against political pressures as well as pressures from the police intended to erode their full security and enjoyment of their rights;

f. The Yanomami people have obtained full recognition of their right to ownership of their land. Their integrity as a people and as individuals is under constant attack by both invading prospectors and the environmental pollution they create. State protection against these constant pressures and invasions is irregular and feeble, so that they are constantly in danger and their environment is suffering constant deterioration.

The Commission therefore makes the following recommendations:

a. To expedite and reinforce achievement of the short- and medium-term objectives established in the National Human Rights Plan. To establish procedures to promote compensatory measures in the areas of education and health, with the full participation and control of the Indian peoples concerned, in accordance with their own traditions and leadership.

b. To provide FUNAI with all types of resources to enable it to carry out its functions as regards completing the demarcation of lands as well as providing advisory services and legal advice to the Indian peoples.

c. To suspend all decisions on municipalization that have an effect on Indian lands, including those for which demarcation and official sanction are underway; and to establish procedures aimed at maintaining their integrity and autonomy in conformity with the constitutional provisions in force.

d. To demarcate and give legal sanction to ownership of the lands of the Macuxi people in the State of Roraima, with full respect for their property and ancestral institutions and customs.

e. To institute federal protection measures with regard to Indian lands threatened by invaders, with particular attention to those of the Yanomami, and in Amazônia in general, including an increase in controlling, prosecuting and imposing severe punishment on the actual perpetrators and architects of such crimes, as well as the state agents who are active or passive accomplices.

[ Table of Contents | Previous | Next ]


1. This figure represents about 0.2% of Brazil's total population, people who live in 546 areas and speak 270 languages. After a continuous decline which reached its nadir in the 1970s, the number began to rise again. In 1990, the figures of the special census indicated that there were 230,000, thus pointing to a sharp upturn over the five-year period until the 330,000 mark was reached in 1995.

2. The first indigenous national organization, UNI, was established in 1970. Others were established since then and internationally recognized indigenous leaders, such as Alton Krenak, Paulo Paiakan and Davi Yanomami came into the picture. Since then, the action of various indigenous and non-indigenous groups relative to their survival, rights and development has mounted. The year 1967 marked the creation of the government agency designed to put indigenous policies into practice--FUNAI, which continues to play a central role in the status of the indigenous peoples' human rights.

3. Clauses 3 and 4 of Article 174 refer to the activity of prospecting and extracting gold and precious metals on a small scale (garimpagem), and its text reads as follows:

Article 174...3. The state shall promote the organization of the prospecting activity in cooperatives, taking into account protection of the environment and socioeconomic promotion of the prospectors.

Article 174...4. The cooperatives to which the preceding paragraph refers shall have priority in the authorization or concession for research and working of resources and deposits of prospectable minerals in the areas where they are working and in accordance with Article 21, XXV, pursuant to law [Competence of the Federal Government].

4. A Critica newspaper, Manaus, November 19, 1995.

5. Studied by the Manaus Institute of Tropical Medicine, 1995.

6. Of these, 13 are identified and are now awaiting official declaration; 83 are surveyed, and awaiting physical marking; 13 are marked, awaiting description; and 14 are described and awaiting recording. Another 254 pieces of land are recorded. Another 179 cases remain to be identified.

7. The 307 Indian reservations in Brazil (out of a total of 554) which are still in the laborious legal process of identification, marking, approval and recording are still the subjects of claims by owners, lumbermen, mining companies and political groups that support them.

8. Julio Gaiger, former president of FUNAI. Mentioned in CCPY Update, May 1996.

9. Interview with the Governor of Roraima; Presentation of the Assembly of Leaders; Interviews with FUNAI officials and authorities of the Federal Police, Roraima Delegation (December 1995).

10. CIMI, published in Porantim, September 1995.

11. FUNAI informed the IACHR that the suicide rate among those indigenous peoples fell to less than half during the first few months of 1997 compared with the same period for 1996. It attributed this to the development of agricultural projects and the marking of new lands.

12. In this connection, see in this chapter as well the case of the hydroelectric dam in the Macuxi de Raposa/Serra do Sol area (Section V) and the Northern Perimeter road in the Yanomami area (Section VI).

13. Human Rights Watch/Americas: "Brazil, Violence Against the Macuxi and Wapixana Indians in Raposa Serra do Sol and Northern Roraima from 1988 to 1994." Washington, June 1994.

14. Presentation to the IACHR. General Assembly of Leaders from the Raposa-Serra do Sol area, December 3, 1995. In December 1995, approximately 15,000 birds of different species died when poisoned by carelessly used pesticides, according to the charges, on indigenous lands invaded by a former deputy and a large rice producer in the Raposa-Serra do Sol area. Several Indians from the Javari village approximately 5 kilometers from the area where the spraying occurred were also poisoned and had to be hospitalized. One of those responsible for the illegal spreading of pesticides was detained but immediately released. The Federal Police and the IBAMA seized the aircraft and the chemical products used in the spraying. CIMI Newsletter 191, January 1996.

15. Human Rights Watch, Violence Against Macuxi, Report, Washington, D.C., 1994.

16. Presentation by the Assembly of Leaders to the IACHR, December 1996. Interview with the Bishop of Roraima, December 5, 1995.

17. Data for 1991, Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia & Estadistica (IBGE).

18. Interview with the governor of Roraima, Neu De Campos, and the IACHR delegation, December 1995. AO Diario@ journal, Boa Vista, Roraima, December 7, 1995. A presentation of the Assembly of Macuxi Leaders, village of Matucura, December 3, 1995.

19. Interview with the governor of Roraima, Neu De Campos, Boa Vista, December 6, 1995.

20. Another 12,500 Yanomamis live in Venezuelan indigenous areas covering approximately 10 million hectares.

21. The original complaint was filed by the following entities: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology Resource Center, Indian Law Resource Center, Survival International and Survival International USA which is also representing Cooperation Committee for the CCPY Yanomami Park.

22. CCPY, Update, May 1996.

23. Indian Missionary Council (CIMI): "Violence Against the Indian Peoples in Brazil in 1993," Brasilia, 1994.

24. IACHR is processing a case on this situation.

25. Porantim, publication, September 1995.