The Yanomami, estimated to number around 28,000, live in Brazil's largest Indigenous reservation, in the northern states of Roraima and Amazonas. Invasion of their lands by illegal miners has caused malnutrition and deaths.

"I've asked the pope to support the Lula administration, because Lula needs friends. He won't be able to do it alone. There are a lot of people around him, politicians who don't want him to solve it," Davi Kopenawa told reporters.

"The pope said he's going to talk to him."

Kopenawa, a shaman who co-founded and chairs the Hutukara Yanomami Association, which campaigns for indigenous rights and the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, met Francis at the Vatican.

He mentioned water poisoning from mercury - used by wildcat miners in the hunt for gold - as one of the biggest threats to his community, along with deforestation for cattle ranching and soya farming.

The Yanomami territory, an area about the size of Portugal, has been invaded by gold miners for decades, but the destructive incursions multiplied in recent years when former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro dismantled environmental protections.

Lula, a leftist three-time president who returned to office in 2023, has led a push to evict illegal miners from Yanomami territory. In January, his administration announced 1.2 billion reais ($239.58 million) in aid for the indigenous community.

Francis, who hails from Brazil's neighbour Argentina, has made defence of the environment one of the cornerstones of his papacy, and has repeatedly condemned the plundering of natural resources in the Amazon and elsewhere.

($1 = 5.0088 reais)

(Reporting by Alvise Armellini in Vatican City and Gabriel Araujo in Sao Paulo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)