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How gold mining in Brazil is connected to hundreds of deaths

January 26, 2023

Malnutrition and other illnesses among Brazil's Yanomami people have been linked to illegal gold mining on their territory. Here's what we know about why.

Two Yanomami adults and one child sitting in hammocks
Since the mid 20th century, the Indigenous Yanomami people have fascinated Western journalists, activists and anthropologistsImage: Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images

In mid-January, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva accused the country's former president, Jair Bolsonaro, of facilitating genocide against the Indigenous Yanomami people, who live deep in the Amazon rainforest along the border of Venezuela and Brazil.

The Yanomami people lived in almost complete isolation until the 1980s, when gold was found in their territory. Over the decades since this discovery, some 40,000 illegal miners have edged their way in, spreading illnesses like tuberculosis and malaria and polluting rivers with mercury in their search for gold.

On January 20, Brazil's Health Ministry declared a medical emergency in the territory. A reported 570 children have died of malnutrition and preventable diseases during the last four years of the Bolsonaro presidency, which Lula said actively ignored the illegal mining activities and ensuing humanitarian emergency.

There have been a number of studies since the 1990s that have raised awareness about the negative health effects that the illegal gold mining has had on the Yanomami population, which consists of about 30,000 people. 

These studies show gold mining can be linked to tuberculosis, malaria, mercury poisoning and malnutrition.

Yanomami child and baby together
Brazil's Health Ministry has declared a medical emergency in Yanomami territory, where children are suffering high rates of malnutritionImage: Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images


For hundreds of years, the isolation of the Yanomami spared its people of many of the plagues of the "civilized" world — including tuberculosis. 

A 1997 study published by Brazilian researchers in the journal PNAS found that tuberculosis, which raged in Europe and the United States in the 18th century, only started spreading among the Yanomami after outsiders made contact with them in the middle of the 20th century.

The study said the first reported case of tuberculosis dated back to 1965, and a small number of cases were noted in the 1970s. But it was only in the 1980s, when gold was discovered and outsiders started flocking to the region, that the infection spread throughout the area and became an epidemic.


In the decades since gold mining — and logging — began in the area, and especially in recent years, researchers have observed a "remarkable" increase in cases of malaria among the Yanomami. 

In a study published in BioMed Central's Malaria Journal in late 2022, researchers outlined two reasons for the spike in cases. 

First, they said it was difficult for health authorities to control the virus in border areas, and that was illustrated by cases imported from Venezuela.

Second, they cited mining in the area, including illegal mining, as being responsible for increasing vector activity. Human-caused alteration of the environment through open-pit mining and the digging of hollows and benches produce lush mosquito breeding places, they wrote.

Between 2016 and 2020, the number of miners in the area increased. At the same time, the number of malaria cases rose by 1,090% in Indigenous areas and a 75,576% in mining areas, the researchers wrote.

Mercury poisoning

The miners search for gold by mixing liquid mercury into excavated sediment of the Amazon's rivers. 

The illegal expulsion of this mercury into the natural environment has polluted Yanomami areas traditionally used for hunting, fishing and gathering and has resulted in the deforestation of wide swaths of the nearby rainforest. 

Research conducted by Paulo Basta, a medical doctor and scientist at Brazil's National School of Public Health of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, shows evidence that this practice has caused abnormally high levels of mercury in Yanomami populations closest to the mining areas.

Another study published by Basta and others in May 2019 revealed that the nutritional deficits of the Yanomami children they found "[were] the most severe ever reported among Indigenous children on the American continent."

"The prevalence of stunting, underweight and wasting that we report have no precedents in the specialized literature," the authors wrote. 

Their results also indicated that these conditions were being passed down to generations of Yanomami people.

Research on the potential link between the mercury pollution and the stunting is still underway. 


Historically, the Yanomami have sustained themselves from the land. They eat wild game — birds, pigs and fish — and fruits from self-planted gardens, such as bananas.

"The problem is that the gold miners have really destroyed the forest," said Christina Haverkamp in an interview conducted from the Amazon region via voice message.

Yanomami children and women
Some of the Yanomami cooperate with the illegal miners in exchange for packaged foodImage: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Haverkamp is a German human rights activist who has been working with the Yanomami for over 30 years.

"[The miners] leave bald spots and flooding where the Yanomami can't build anything. In these areas, all the wild game have fled and the fish are poisoned by mercury. In Papiu [a Yanomami territory], we had to bring our own drinking water. You can't drink the river water because of mercury poisoning," she said.

In many parts of Yanomami territory, the miners have not only interrupted but destroyed the food chain, making it impossible for the Yanomami to sustain themselves from the land, said Haverkamp. 

She said when the gold miners arrived some 30 years ago, it was like a true invasion. Over the following years, the numbers of miners  began to drop, but then started picking up again during the Bolsonaro presidency

"For the gold miners, [Yanomami territory] is like a free area where they can kind of do whatever they want because they're all armed," she said. "The Yanomami don't have any chance to fight the gold miners — if they try, they will be killed. That's also the reason why some groups of the Yanomami have started cooperating with the miners and working with them — because they haven't had any help from the outside to defend themselves."

In exchange for their labor, these Yanomami often receive ultra-processed foods from the miners as compensation, Haverkamp said.

Lack of health care

A report by the nonprofit organization Socio-Environmental Institute notes that many of the troubles afflicting the Yanomami are preventable and could be treated by medication and access to health care. But in their report, called "Yanomami Under Attack", they say clandestine mining trails have blocked many of the airfields that have traditionally facilitated the delivery of health care and medication through plane and helicopter. 

Airstrip on Yanomami territory
The airstrips designated for essential medication and health care have been co-opted by gold minersImage: Associação Hukerari Yanomami

"Last year, I was in Papiu to help renovate a health station we built 19 years ago," said Haverkamp. "The gold miners came into the station to get treatment, overwhelmingly for malaria. That was naturally very difficult for me, to see that the gold miners were being handled [in a station made for the Yanomami] but the nurse said that, by law, we must help everyone."

DW's Brazil Correspondent Nadia Pontes also reported that in December, miners and loggers burned down a health post in Yanomami territory, putting the lives of 700 Indigenous people at risk. The medical team working at the post had abandoned the site days before, after rumors that miners were going to attack the unit.

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany

Clare Roth
Clare Roth Editor and reporter focusing on science and migration