Health Crisis Leads Scores of Yanomami to Roam the Streets

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Years of neglect during the previous government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro led to a health crisis in Brazil’s Indigenous Yanomami population

From a distance, the small group lying on the sidewalk outside the city market could be confused with hundreds of homeless people spread through Boa Vista.

But they are Yanomami, an Indigenous people from the Amazon rainforest who traditionally live in relative isolation. Years of neglect during the previous government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro led to a health crisis that got worse while illegal gold miners swarmed into their territory. Dozens of Yanomami ended up roaming in the region’s largest city.

The eldest ones in a group living in Boa Vista’s food market are a couple — Oma Yanomami, 46, and Bonita Yanomami, 35. Both are from the Koroasipiitheri community, only accessible by air. In September, they were medivaced to Boa Vista to accompany their 3-year-old son, who was ill with malaria.

Initially, they stayed in the Indigenous Health House known as Casai, a federal facility on the outskirts of Boa Vista, a sprawling city of 440,000 people and capital of Roraima state. But in the first few days, the family left the facility and began living on the streets.

“It was too crowded,” Oma Yanomami told The Associated Press Thursday in broken Portuguese while sitting on the dirty sidewalk. Beside him, his wife was asleep despite the heavy car traffic nearby. Both had sustained bruises and appeared in poor health.

A report published this week by the Ministry of Health paints a grim picture of Casai, which was built to host Yanomami under treatment and their relatives. Its capacity is 200 people, but it harbors many as 700, representing 2% of the Yanomami population. The figure doesn’t include those hospitalized, including several children with severe malnutrition.

“The bathrooms are unhealthy, and the dining areas are insufficient and unpleasant. In addition, the food was insufficient until a few months ago,” the report says. “The Yanomami lack space to prepare their food and other activities, so at night, there are several drunken people and reports of violence and car hit-and-runs.”

According to the report, 150 Yanomami are eligible to return to their villages, but the wait for a place on a return flight can be very long — 10 years in one extreme case.

An estimated 30,000 Yanomami people live in Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory, which covers an area roughly the size of Portugal and stretches across Roraima and Amazonas states in the northwest corner of Brazil’s Amazon.

Life in the streets took its toll on Oma and Bonita Yanomami. Their son soon contracted pneumonia, while his parents fell into drinking sprees. Health workers found out about the situation and took the baby to a local hospital. There, he was admitted as “indigent,” which put him on the adoption path without the parents’ consent.

For four months, the couple did not see their child. Then social workers affiliated with the Indigenous movement intervened to get them inside to visit. The future of the child now hinges on a judicial order.

It is not uncommon to meet Yanomami in the streets of Boa Vista, most with drinking problems. Some go back to Casai during the night, while others end up under viaducts.

Their life is rough. Two weeks ago, a Yanomami woman gave birth on a sidewalk. On Thursday, a Yanomami man died several days after being injured in a fight inside a prison, according to the State Secretary of Justice. There are 269 Indigenous inmates in Roraima of various peoples.

In January, the federal government, led by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people. Since then, military doctors treated over 1,000 people in a field hospital in Boa Vista, and 4,000 food baskets were distributed in the vast territory.

In parallel, security forces started to destroy equipment and control entry of illegal gold miners, estimated at 20,000 people. As a result, dozens have decided to leave the Indigenous territory, while many others keep mining gold.

The Indigenous organizations now want the Yanomami child, now four years old, to be returned to his parents so they can board a plane and go back to Koroasipiitheri, where six siblings are waiting for them.