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Brazil declares state of emergency over deaths of Yanomami children from malnutrition

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s health ministry has declared a medical emergency in Yanomami territory, the country’s largest indigenous reservation bordering Venezuela, following reports of children dying of malnutrition and other diseases caused by illegal gold mining.

A decree issued Friday by the new government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the aim of the declaration was to restore health services for the Yanomami people who had been dismantled by his far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.

In Bolsonaro’s four years as president, 570 Yanomami children have died of curable illnesses, mostly malnutrition but also malaria, diarrhea and deformities caused by mercury used by wild miners, Amazon journalism platform Sumauma reported, citing data obtained by FOIA.

Lula visited a Yanomami health center in Boa Vista, Roraima state on Saturday after photos emerged showing children and elderly men and women so thin their ribs were visible.

“More than a humanitarian crisis, what I saw in Roraima was genocide: a premeditated crime against the Yanomami, committed by a government insensitive to suffering,” Lula said on Twitter.

The government has announced food parcels that will be flown to the reserve where some 26,000 Yanomami live in an area of ​​rainforest and tropical savannah the size of Portugal.

The reserve has been overrun by illegal miners for decades, but incursions have increased since Bolsonaro took office in 2018, promising to allow mining on previously protected land and offering to legalize uncontrolled mining .

There are also signs that organized crime has become involved. In recent violent incidents, men aboard speedboats on rivers have fired automatic weapons at indigenous villages whose communities oppose the entry of gold miners.

Some miners have started to leave, fearing the Lula government’s crackdown, and appear to be heading for neighboring Guyana and Suriname, said Estevao Senra, a researcher at the Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO that defends indigenous rights.

Lula said the new government would end illegal gold mining as it moves to tackle illegal deforestation in the Amazon, which has reached its highest level in 15 years under Bolsonaro.

“We must hold the previous government accountable for allowing this situation to escalate to the point where we find adults weighing like children and children reduced to skin and bones,” said Sonia Guajajara, the first indigenous woman to to be a minister, heading a new Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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