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ICE Case Studies

Number 154

August 2005

Conflict and Human Rights in the Amazon:

The Yanomami

Stephanie Bier

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information



1. Abstract

The intersection between human rights, conflict, and the environment is an important topic of discussion, especially with regards to how the destruction of the environment impacts indigenous communities and threatens their human rights to property and a healthy environment. One of the most important examples of environmental destruction and the violation of human rights is the case of the Yanomami people in the Amazon. Since the 1970s, the physical and cultural survival of the Yanomami people has been threatened by gold mining, deforestation, and disease. This case study examines the way in which the destruction of Yanomami communities in the Amazon constitutes a serious human rights violation and a grave environmental crisis.

2. Description

2.1 The Yanomami People

The Yanomami are an ancient indigenous people living in the Amazon regions of Brazil and Venezuela. Today, there are approximately 26,000 Yanomami living along the Brazilian-Venezuelan border in the fertile lands of the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers. Like most Brazilian indigenous people, the Yanomami are "semi-nomadic, agricultural laborers, or hunters-gatherers." Traditionally considered to be an isolated peoples, the Yanomami are divided among four subgroups, according to linguistic differentiation. The name "Yanomami" was given by anthropologists and derived from an indigenous expression "yanõmami thëpë" which signifies "human beings." The Yanomami are also known for their close relationship to nature, relying on their territory for subsistence purposes and attributing cultural significance and myths to their surroundings.

According to anthropologists, the Yanomami (as a distinct linguistic group) have inhabited the region around the Orinoco and Parima Rivers for the past 1,000 years. Beginning in the early 1800s, the Yanomami began migrating from the Parima mountain region to nearby lowlands. As a relatively isolated indigenous group, the Yanomami had contact only with other local indigenous groups. It was not until the early 1900s, that the Yanomami had direct contact with outsiders including: hunters, soldiers, evangelists and missionaries. To this day, however, the Yanomami remain a highly self-sufficient group, relying on the natural resources of the Amazon for physical and spiritual sustenance.

2.2 Violence Against the Yanomami

For decades the fertile and mineral-rich territories of the Yanomami have been exploited for gold mining, timber production, and development purposes by intruders. The invasion of the Amazon by private, commercial, and government-sponsored actors represents one of today's greatest environmental challenges. Home to more than half of Brazil's indigenous population, the Amazon Rainforest also supports some of the greatest bio-diversity on Earth. According to Greenpeace International, the Amazon is considered to be the "most diverse ecosystem on Earth," the site of more than "60,000 plant species, 1,000 bird species, and more than 300 mammal species." For years though, the survival of the Amazon has been threatened by deforestation, mining for precious resources like gold and diamonds, construction work, and wildfires. However, the destruction of the Amazon not only endangers the survival of wildlife in the forest, but the lives and rights of the indigenous people for whom it is home.

In the mid-1970s, the Brazilian government began construction of the Northern Circumferential Highway as part of the National Integration Plan, cutting through large portions of Yanomami territory. This intrusion into indigenous land resulted in a major epidemic; nearly 20% of the existing Yanomami population, roughly 1,500 people, were killed by new diseases brought into the area by workers from which they had no immunity, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and smallpox. Numerous other Yanomami were killed by armed Brazilian gold miners.

Throughout the 1980s, the violence on Yanomami communities escalated as heavily armed garimpeiros, or Brazilian gold miners, continued to invade Yanomami territory and were often met with resistance by the indigenous people. There are even several cases in which the Yanomami have retaliated against invasion of their territory, killing the miners themselves.

In response to the invasion of Yanomami land and the violence inflicted upon the indigenous peoples, the Brazilian government made feeble attempts to protect Yanomami communities. In fact, only a small fraction of the existing Yanomami lands were demarcated; according to one study by the American Anthropological Association, by 1990, only about 30% of the original Yanomami territory was protected from illegal intrusion. The remaining 70% of the originally recognized area of Yanomami territory was essentially expropriated from Yanomami control, in order to make the land accessible to exploitation by the miners.

In the 1990s, a series of murders were committed by gold miners and lumberman, all triggered by land disputes. The Indian Missionary Council (CIMI) in Brazil also has reported numerous attempted killings, beatings, and illegal arrests of the Yanomami natives by intruders. While a number of other human rights NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented various attacks on the Yanomami people, the total number of Yanomami deaths remains unknown. One study by researchers at the University of Maryland, Minorities at Risk, estimates that over 100 Yanomami have been murdered since the discovery of oil in indigenous lands.

Disease is another important consequence of intrusion into Yanomami land. It is estimated between 1988 and 1990 some 1,500 Yanomami, approximately 20 per cent of the population, died of malaria brought into the region by garimpeiros. While not typically considered under the umbrella of violent conflict, the introduction of diseases to which the Yanomami people were not immune is one serious effect of allowing outsiders searching for environmental resources and violating indigenous rights into their territory.

For all practical purposes, this study measures conflict as the number of Yanomami known deaths caused by either violent attack or diseases initiated by Brazilian gold miners. While it is known that the garimpeiros have been found guilty of beating and attacking the Yanomami people, there is virtually no way to determine how many attacks have occurred in recent years. Yet even the Yanomami death toll (whether by disease or violent conflict) is a limited indicator of conflict. First, it is necessary to consider the cultural differences between the indigenous Yanomami people and Brazilian authorities that make accurate reporting of casualties of environmental conflict nearly impossible. The difficulty in traveling to isolated regions occupied by the Yanomami people, overcoming legal restrictions from entering into their territory, and communicating with them is understated. As a cultural tradition, the Yanomami cremate their dead; this makes it increasingly difficult for authorities to determine the exact number of those killed and the specific nature of the deaths.

Similarly, measuring the impact of disease on the Yanomami population is nearly impossible. First, the total population of the Yanomami must be known in order to judge its relativity. Secondly, as the Yanomami cremate their dead, the numbers reported by anthropologists and human rights organizations may only represent a small fraction of deaths.

Human rights related NGO's, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, while valuable sources of information, only provide specific information on reported cases. Groups that handle indigenous rights in particular, such as the Pro-Yanomami Commission and the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), are similarly limited in their reporting capabilities and are only a relatively recent phenomenon as reporting of human rights violations of indigenous people in Brazil did not even begin until the mid 1980s. Even legal instruments, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, only provide data regarding individual cases that have been presented to the court. The numbers used in this study, therefore only reflect reported data from the mid-1970s to the present.

2.3 Specific Incidents of Conflict

The following are descriptions of 32 known cases of Yanomami killings by Brazilian garimpeiros as reported to international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Links to the specific source have been referenced for more information:

1973 - After construction of the Northern Circumferential Highway begins, about 20% of Yanomami Indians (roughly 1,500) are killed by new diseases brought into the area by workers from which they had no immunity, and many others are killed by armed miners and settlers. (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).

August 1987 - Attacks on the Yanomami become known after miners invade the Succurus area. A conflict over a mine on Yanomami traditional land leads to the deaths of four Indians. The conflict was initiated when a group of Yanomami, including women and children, had gone to the mine to disarm a group of miners. (Amnesty International).

May 1988 - A Yanomami man from the Hakomatheri group, living near the Venezuelan border, is hospitalized with a serious gunshot wound inflicted by armed miners. The man's two-year-old daughter had died from her wounds and two other Indians were reportedly seriously wounded. (Amnesty International)

Nov 1988 - A 13 year old Yanomami boy is shot by a garimpeiro near the Paa-piu village. (Amnesty International)

June 1989 - A Yanomami is murdered by heavily armed garimpeiros near the Orinoco and Mucajai rivers in the Brazilian state of Roraima. The killing is witnessed by other Yanomamis who flee and report the incident to police in Bõa Vista (Amnesty International)

August 1989 - Two Yanomami women and a child are killed by a group of miners near a restricted airstrip after they had challenged the miners' presence (Amnesty International)

September 1990 - Lourenço Yekuana, the 65 year old leader of the Yekuana, a sub-group of the Yanomami in Auaris, and his son Albert Konaaka, are both killed in a conflict with miners. (Auaris is close to the Venezuelan border in the the Brazilian state of Roraima). (Amnesty International)

February 1992 - 25 year-old Yaduce Yanomami is shot by a group of garimpeiros near the village of Paa-piu, after which Yanomami from the village chase the garimpeiros and kill two of them. (Amnesty International)

July 1993 - 16 Yanomami are killed in the Haximu territory on the Venezuelan/Brazilian border by Brazilian garimpeiros. (Human Rights Watch)

Nov 1997 - 3 Yanomami are killed by miners in the Brazilian state of Roraima.(Amnesty International).

2.4 Human Rights Implications

Theoretically, the rights of the Yanomami people to ownership of their territory and the integrity of Yanomami land and traditions have been guaranteed by the 1988 Brazilian Constitution; in particular, the Chapter on Indigenous Rights states that:

Article 231. Recognition is hereby granted to the Indians' social organization, customs, languages, beliefs and traditions and their original rights to the land which they originally occupied, and it shall be the purview of the Union to demarcate those lands and to protect and ensure respect for all of the Indians' possessions.

11 The lands traditionally occupied by the Indians are those on which they have established a permanent residence; those utilized for their productive activities; those essential for preservation of the environmental resources necessary for their well-being, and those needed for their physical and cultural reproduction in accordance with their usages, customs and traditions.

21 The lands traditional occupied by the Indians are earmarked for their permanent possession, and they are entitled to the exclusive usufruct of the resources of the soil, the rivers and the lakes existing on such lands.

31 Utilization of the water resources--including the energy potential, the search for and extraction of mineral resources on indigenous lands--shall be made effective only when authorized by the National Congress, after hearing the communities affected, and those communities shall be assured of participation in the results of such exploitation, in the manner established by law.

41 The lands to which this Article refers are inalienable and not subject to disposal, and the rights to such lands are imperceptible.

51 The removal of indigenous groups from their lands is prohibited, except by referendum of the National Congress in the event of a catastrophe or epidemic which places their population at risk, or in the interest of the country's sovereignty following the deliberation of the National Congress, and guaranteeing, in any case, the immediate return [of such groups] when the risk is no longer present.

61 Any acts having as a purpose the occupation or domain and possession of the lands referred to in this Article, and the exploitation of the natural resources of the soil, the rivers or lakes existing on such lands shall be null and void and shall produce no juridical effects, except in the relevant public interest of the Union as provided in the complementary law; and such nullity and extinguishment shall not generate a right to indemnification or action against the Union, except in accordance with the law and with respect to the benefits derived from the occupancy [thereof] in good faith.

A similar protection, regarding healthcare of all people, exists in Venezuelan law. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, health is considered to be a "fundamental social right; an obligation by the state to guarantee health as part of the right to life.  All people have the right to health care and sanitation (Tit. 3, Art 83)."

However it is important to note that several problems exist with respect to the efficacy of Brazilian law protecting indigenous rights. In practice, only a fraction of indigenous lands have been properly demarcated by Brazilian authorities. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, of 580 officially recognized indigenous territories in Brazil, 340 have been ratified, while 139 are still awaiting identification, the first stage in the process. In order for Yanomami rights to their territory to be fully implemented, the Brazilian government must authorize the transfer of land. This procedure, however, is highly bureaucratic, requiring identification, delimitation, demarcation, ratification and registration of lands. According to Amnesty International, "the procedure has proved painfully slow, taking years, if not decades, for claims to be settled. FUNAI [The agency responsible for carry-out the process]has long been beleaguered by under-funding, corruption and internal problems, and consistently states that it lacks the money and manpower to carry out pending demarcations.

Protection of indigenous rights, it should be mentioned, is not an issue limited exclusively to the Brazilian government. Internationally, it is important to note that a number of important legal precedents exist in order to protect the rights of indigenous communities: the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, the 1994 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the 1996 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment.

5. Actors: Brazil, Venezuela, and the Yanomami

For the past 1,000 years, the Yanomami people have lived in the Amazon and the regions around the Orinoco River (in what is today known as Brazil and Venezuela). At present there are about 26,000 Yanomami people living in over 150 groups in the Amazon region of Brazil, particularly in the states of Roraima and Amazonas, and in portions of Venezuela.

4. Location: Brazil and Venezuela

The Yanomami occupy an area of about 900 km extending along the Brazilian-Venezuelan border. Strategically, the region in which the Yanomami habitat is known for valuable deposits of gold and other precious minerals and timber reserves.

3. Duration: 30 years

For the last 30 years, the survival of the Yanomami people has been jeopardized by illegal Brazilian gold miners, known as garimpeiros in Portuguese, and commercial loggers.


globe05 II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Habitat Loss [HABIT]

The main issue at hand is the destruction of Yanomami-inhabited territories by miners and loggers. This unlawful invasion has been assisted by lax governmental policies that favor economic interests over the rights of indigenous people to their land and a healthy environment. While the main example of habitat loss is deforestation, among other environmental consequences are water pollution, air pollution, and global warming.

The areas occupied by the Yanomami are especially rich in minerals such as gold and cassiterite, valuable resources that attract illegal garimpeiros. Gold mining in particular has serious negative consequences on the natural environment. Miners are known for using a particular method which involves the use of high-pressure hoses and the element mercury in order to extract gold from muddy waters. This practice results in large, shallow ponds of stagnant water and the pollution of streams and rivers by mercury. The mercury deposits left by this practice contaminate the Amazonian tributaries and have numerous consequences for human and animal health. Besides the mercury vapor emissions into the environment, another danger for the people living in these areas is mercury poisoning by fish that have metabolized mercury or plants that have absorbed mercury from the soil. Moreover, the pools of stagnant water in turn become breeding grounds for insects that carry malaria.

Deforestation of indigenous territory occurs by both private commercial loggers and national developers, In both cases, when loggers invade a given territory they destroy a small percentage of tress for road construction and half of the remaining trees in logging operations. Shockingly, only a small fraction of the felled trees, namely the best hardwood trees, are selected for exportation. Brazilian's government recently announced that over 9,000 square miles of Amazon forest were destroyed by loggers beginning in the year beginning August 2002, the second worst statistic to date.

Recent developments in the Amazon suggest that the envrionmental situation is unlikely to improve. Namely, in 2001 the Brazilian government announced its plans for "Avança Brasil" (Advance Brazil). According to Greenpeace International, this program is a "$40 billion plan to cover much of the Amazon rainforest with 10,000 km of highways, hydroelectric dams, power lines, mines, gas and oilfields, canals, ports, logging concessions and other industrial developments."

7. Type of Habitat: Tropical

8. Act and Harm Sites:

As the Amazonian Yanomami habitat both Brazil and Venezuela, environmental harm occurs on both an intrastate and interstate levels.

(1) Nation A impacts Nation A

The majority of the destruction of Yanomami territories occurs in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon and is inflicted by local Brazilian miners and loggers, and in some instances the national government itself.

(2) Nation A impacts Nation B

While the majority of Yanomami live in territories pertaining to Brazil, there are Yanomami communities that exist just outside the Venezuelan border. These communities have also been victimized by unlawful Brazilian loggers and miners.


globe05 III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: CIVIL

Quantifying the human rights crisis involving the Yanomami people and Brazilian gold miners in the Amazon is an extremely sensitive task. While it is typically considered to be a civil conflict, the level of conflict is open to discussion. Generally speaking the human rights violations of the Amazonian Yanomami people are intrastate in nature, as they are perpetrated by local Brazilian miners. However, Brazilian miners have also expanded into Yanomami territories in Venezuela, escalating the degree of conflict to an interstate level.

10. Level of Conflict: LOW

As an isolated community of approximately 26,000 in the Brazilian/Venezuelan Amazon (18,000 of which live in Brazil alone), the consequences of the environmental destruction and violence introduced into their communities by the perpetrators have far reaching impacts. The threats to Yanomami survival and their human rights come from many sources and affect the local tribe on several levels: not only is their health endangered, but their way of life and their rights to territory are being compromised.

Considering that the conflict occurs primarily at an intrastate level, the overall level of conflict is said to be low. This ranking takes into consideration the number of reported cases involving violence against the Brazilian Yanomami, as compared to broader interstate conflicts, which generally result in a greater number of fatalities. In this case, the rate of violence at the interstate level, involving the Venezuelan Yanomami, appears to be even lower than the level of intrastate violence.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities):

The discovery of gold in Yanomami territory has led to the most serious threats to Yanomami survival. The practice of gold mining in Yanomami territory has not only caused the destruction of their natural environment, but has numerous health consequences for the Yanomami people. The effects of mercury poisoning, a chemical used in the process of gold extraction, are widespread. At the same time, the gold miners themselves have posed a violent threat to Yanomami survival. Numerous killings, beatings, and other attacks have been inflicted on the Yanomami communities by garimpeiros.

Disease is another serious consequence of illegal intrusion of Yanomami territories. The Plano Emergencial de Atencao a Saude Yanomami (PEAS) was one of the first studies to examine the impact of disease on the Yanomami people. It also provided the first collected data on the general medical situation of the Yanomami of the Brazilian state of Roraima. According to this report, it appeared that roughly 20% of the total Yanomami population had become infected with malaria; 70% with viral respiratory diseases; a significant proportion with gastric disorders; and relatively high occurrences of venereal disease, dental problems, and dermatological problems.

globe05 IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct Conflict

The violence that has been inflicted upon the Yanomami people over the last three decades is an example of a direct conflict over an environmental resource. The government-sponsored construction work in the Brazilian Yanomami territory of the 1970's paved the way for illegal Brazilian miners to invade Yanomami territory, threatening the survival of Yanomami communities in several ways. Other than introducing new diseases into Yanomami communities, the garimpeiros are notorious for employing environmentally unsafe practices in the gold-extraction process. While less blunt than outright conflict, disease and environmental destruction are equally dangerous threats to Yanomami welfare.

While the Brazilian government has taken several measures to demarcate Yanomami territory from illegal invasion, these efforts are not enough. As not all of Yanomami land is properly recognized under indigenous control, violence continues to escalate as land disputes occur between the Yanomami and intruders. As long as Yanomami land is not fully recognized by the state, access to precious resources will continue to be a source of conflict between indigenous people and those who seek to exploit its natural resources.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Sub-state

In terms of the relationship between conflict the environment, the sub-state is without a doubt the most important strategic arena. As the majority of the conflict has occurred within Brazilian borders by Brazilian garimpeiros, it is the responsibility of the Brazilian government to ensure that violators are held accountable for their actions.

14. Outcome of Dispute: Stalemate

In this case the decision-maker in the human rights violations of the Yanomami people is the Brazilian government. Not only does the Brazilian government have a legal responsibility to protect indigenous people, but it has the authority to uphold the Yanomamis' right to land by properly demarcating all Yanomami territory. In this manner, intruders can be held accountable under Brazilian law. However, due to the fact that the protection of indigenous rights has often been traded in favor of more lucrative interests, the said conflict remains at the level of stalemate. Real progress in the area of human rights can only be made if the national government holds violators accountable and enforces indigenous peoples' rights to their territory.


globe05 V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases:

Copper Mining in West Papua

Gold and Native Rights in the Guyana Region of Venezuela

Guatemala-Maya Civil War

16. Sources

Relevant Literature

Hecht, Susanna and Alexander Cockburn. The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990.

The price of success. The Economist. April 11, 2005.


Relevant Websites

Amazon Alliance for Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the Amazon Basin

Amazon Culture (Yanomami: Shabono to Suburbia?)

American Anthropological Association

Report of the Special Commission to Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami.

Amnesty International

AI Report 1997: Brazil.

Just Earth!

Brazil: "Foreigners in Our Own Country": Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

BRAZIL: Convention No 107, Indigenous and Tribal Populations

The 81st International Labour Conference: Amnesty International's Concerns Relevant to the Committee on Application of Standards

CIA WorldFact Book (For Flags)

Comissão Pró-Yanomami (In Portuguese)

Conselho Indigenista Missionário (In Portuguese)

Fundacao Nacional do Indio (In Portuguese)

Greenpeace International

Human Rights Watch

Instituto Sócioambiental

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Minorities at Risk

Assessment for Amazonian Indians in Brazil

University of Texas at Austin (For Map of Brazil)


[August 2005]