Malaria on the rise in the Amazon as uncontrolled mining devours indigenous lands


Malaria cases among indigenous Yanomami people living in the Brazilian Amazon have risen more than 700% in the past decade as illegal gold mining intensifies in the world’s largest rainforest, researchers say in health.

Miners leave behind gaping craters in the ground as they clear huge swaths of forest, creating ideal conditions for the spread of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that thrives in standing water, said Paulo Basta, epidemiologist specializing in indigenous health.

Gold mining also destroys other plants, scares wildlife and contaminates soil and rivers with mercury, which is used to separate gold from other minerals, said Basta, who is also a lead researcher at the Brazilian biomedical research center Fiocruz.

“This process affects the balance of the local ecosystem, creating favorable conditions for the proliferation of mosquito-borne diseases,” he said.

Junior Hekuari Yanomami, head of the Yanomami health board, said heavily armed illegal miners criss-cross the group’s lands on the Venezuela-Brazil border, sometimes leaving holes the size of football stadiums.

“They destroy everything: trees, rivers, everything,” he said in a video call. “It’s a total invasion of Yanomami territory.”

According to government data, more than 26,000 Yanomami live in the northern region of the Amazon, constituting the largest indigenous reservation in Brazil.

After a series of attacks on indigenous Amazon communities, including one in which miners killed two Yanomami in 2020, Brazil’s Supreme Court last year ordered the government to adopt “all necessary measures” to protect the life and health of the Yanomami and Munduruku peoples from savage gold miners.

But the government has done little to help, said Junior Hekuari Yanomami, estimating that there are currently around 25,000 illegal miners inside Brazil’s indigenous territories.

The Health Ministry’s Indigenous Health Service, SESAI, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Curbing the growing deforestation of the Amazon is essential to prevent the runaway effects of climate change due to the large amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide absorbed by the trees of the forest.

Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has encouraged mining and agriculture in protected areas of the Amazon, saying such activities are key to lifting indigenous groups out of poverty and improving the lives of 30 million people. Brazilians who live in the area.

The country’s constitution prohibits mining in indigenous territories, but Bolsonaro has tried to push through a bill allowing mining on indigenous reservations for potash, a potassium-rich salt and a key ingredient in fertilizers.

Brazil typically gets a quarter of its potash from Russia, which halted exports when the war in Ukraine began.

Congress has approved the creation of a task force to analyze the bill, before a possible vote, but the president’s persistent calls to develop the Amazon have already contributed to an increase in deforestation.

According to INPE, Brazil’s space research agency, 430 square kilometers (166 square miles) of forest were felled in January 2022, a figure five times higher than the same month a year earlier.

INPE also showed that in the two years since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, deforestation inside indigenous territories rose sharply, including on Yanomami lands, which lost 40 square kilometers of forest during this period, which is six times more than in the two years preceding the election of the president. to earn.

“In the Intensive Care Unit”

Malaria outbreaks go hand in hand with illegal mining and deforestation, Basta said.

He said there had been two major outbreaks of malaria in Brazil since 1959, both linked to the gold rush in the Amazon.

Analyzing data from SESAI, Basta noted that during an explosion of uncontrolled mining in the 1980s, the number of malaria cases in the country rose to more than 500,000 per year from around 100,000 per year. during the previous decade.

The number of cases only declined after the launch of a national program in the early 2000s that included investments in local health services and better tracking of malaria cases.

The spread of malaria peaked again between 2018 and 2019, during what Basta calls “the second gold rush”, reaching 200,000 reported cases per year.

In Yanomami territory, malaria cases have been steadily increasing since 2014.

That year, there were 966 cases of malaria among the Yanomami, including five caused by the deadliest form of the disease, Plasmodium falciparum malaria, Basta said.

In 2020, the date of the most recent consolidated figures, there were more than 11,000 recorded cases in the community.

Figures on how many of these cases resulted in death are not readily available.

Junior Hekuari, the Yanomami chief, said malaria is just one of many diseases that have plagued his community since illegal miners began encroaching on their lands, dirtying the rivers and driving away the fish and game they needed. the community survives.

“(Children) get sick, often with diarrhoea, because they drink dirty water from the river. I even saw a 3-year-old child who was suffering from three different illnesses at once: pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria,” he said.

“The health of the Yanomami is in intensive care. Getting out of intensive care requires good government planning, in partnership with specialists.

More deadly epidemics

The role of deforestation in the spread of malaria is not limited to watery mosquito breeding grounds left behind by illegal miners, said Pedro Vasconcelos, president of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine.

Massive tree loss alters regional rainfall patterns and makes long-term weather cycles more erratic.

The resulting rise in temperatures and sudden heavy rains create ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes, Vasconcelos said.

This has led to increased rates of not only malaria but also other mosquito-borne viruses such as chikungunya, which causes fever and joint pain, yellow fever and Zika in parts of Brazil as well as ‘in Bolivia, Peru and other neighboring countries, he mentioned.

As long as the Amazon is battered by climate change and leveled by illegal miners and loggers, Brazil and its neighbors will face a future of stronger and more widespread disease, Vasconcelos warned.

“The combination of destructive human actions with environmental and climate change can have a devastating effect,” he said.

“If nothing is done, it is (very likely) that we will soon have a new epidemic which may be as or more deadly than those we have already seen.

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