From Multinational Monitor", Vol XIII, No. 9, September 1992

Yanomami in Peril

An Interview with Davi Kopenawa Yanomami

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami was the first of the Yanomami people to recognize the threat the Yanomami faced from gold prospectors and land invaders. Today, the Yanomami are the subject of worldwide attention, their very survival threatened by epidemics of malaria and other diseases. Multinational Monitor interviewed Davi Yanomami at the Rio Earth Summit.

MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: Why did you choose to attend the Rio Earth Summit?

DAVI KOPENAWA YANOMAMI: I know that the authorities and many people came here because the planet is sick and they are trying to find out how to cure it. The people who come from many places, from the other side of the big lake, all come here to learn about how we [the Yanomami and other indigenous people] live.

I want to speak giving the message from Omai. Omai is the creator of the Yanomami who also has created all the shaboris that are the shamans. The shaboris are the ones that have the knowledge, and they sent two of us to deliver their message. The message is to stop destruction, to stop taking out minerals from under the ground, to stop taking out the steel with which all the metal utensils are made, and to stop building roads [through forests].

We feel that a lot of riches have already been taken out of the indigenous lands, and a lot of these riches are getting old and useless, and it would be much better if the Brazilian government would give these riches to the poor in Brazil. Our work is to protect nature, the wind, the mountains, the forest, the animals, and this is what we want to teach you people.

MM: What has been the effect of gold mining on the Yanomami people and their land?

DAVI YANOMAMI: In the years 1986 and 1987, the gold miners, the small-time gold diggers, known as garimpeiros, invaded our territory. In the very beginning of the invasion, in 1987, the garimpeiros killed four Yanomami.

They have now opened up air strips, to be able to settle down in the area, to bring in food, to bring in their tools and to start mining. There were between 40,000 to 50,000 invaders on our lands.

After some months of staying on our territory, they started to transmit malaria to us. That means that the garimpeiros were already sick. Mosquitos bit the garimpeiros and then bit us. That is how we got the disease.

The garimpeiros also brought in other diseases. There are complications of pneumonia, sometimes associated with malaria; tuberculosis; skin diseases that often are associated with other diseases, and, especially in children, can be fatal; there was an epidemic of yellow fever in the area; hepatitis.

MM: How many of the Yanomami have been affected by these diseases?

DAVI YANOMAMI: Some 15 percent of the Yanomami have died in the last three years. Last year, in 1991, the National Health Foundation registered 175 deaths, of which 110 died of malaria. That is very underestimated. One can assume there were four times as many people who died last year.

MM: The diseases were all brought by the garimpeiros?

DAVI YANOMAMI: Many of these diseases were not registered before the invasion in the Yanomami area. Malaria existed only in the outskirts of the Yanomami area. However with the arrival of the garimpeiros, it became the main reason of the deaths.

MM: What steps are being taken to confront this spread of disease?

DAVI YANOMAMI: The Brazilian government has set up a health project run by the National Indian Foundation of Health, which is trying to eradicate malaria. However, it is very difficult to do this and they have not been able to do it yet.

We also have our own project. We are at the present time working in an area of about a thousand Indians, and we have already taken doctors and nurses to a number of areas throughout our territory, and we are now opening a new site. This project has been helping us a lot.

MM: What is your reaction to President Collor's recent legal demarcation of your land?

DAVI YANOMAMI: News of the demarcation was very, very good news for us. We have been fighting for 30 years for this. President Collor has set aside a special budget, for FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, to be able to do this work and they finished the demarcation recently.

MM: Is the demarcation sufficient?

DAVI YANOMAMI: I don't believe it's really guaranteed. I don't believe that the demarcation and the ratifying of the law is enough because we have a lot of enemies. There are the militaries, there is the governor and other politicians who are getting payrolls. There are also big Brazilian, American, German and Japanese mining companies that have a big interest in trying to change this law and to enter our territory.

MM: What else should be done to protect your land?

DAVI YANOMAMI: Although FUNAI has set up Indian posts that are supposed to protect our lands, it will be very difficult to operate them because FUNAI has no money. We the Yanomami also have a rule. We have to look out, we have to watch where the garimpeiros are entering. It is a preoccupation that we have and that the Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park has, so that through this vigilance we can detect where the new invasions are occurring.

MM: Have you experienced any racism at the Earth Summit?

DAVI YANOMAMI: We feel that there are many white people who don't like the truth and that they don't like it when we tell the truth about things. This is how discrimination starts.

MM: How does racism affect the lives of the Yanomami?

DAVI YANOMAMI: The Portuguese [and their descendants] have done cruel things to our people, and the fact that many Yanomamis have died with the invasion of the garimpeiros is proof of it. These people want to get rid of the Indians; they pay off people to kill the Indians. They have lawyers that will defend them and get them off without having to be punished.

In Roraima there is really a big problem of discrimination against Indian populations. In the city of Roraima, the white people often refer to Indian populations as bishus, which means animals. The white people say that they know everything, that they know how to make machines, to make radios, they have technology and that the Indians are lazy, that we only eat and sleep and don't produce and that we are animals.

These are the people who want to cut down the forest and sell the wood to Japan and other countries. They are the ones who are interested in minerals to make rings and necklaces. And they are destroying our lands.

The Brazilians want to destroy the Amazon because they're very worried that the foreigners will come and take everything away. They want to be the first to make use of it. Our enemies say that the people who work with us [foreign non-governmental organizations] are interested in working with us because they are really interested in taking our riches.

MM: What has been your reaction to the Earth Summit?

DAVI YANOMAMI: We have asked the shaman to get in touch with his teacher, an elder shaman, and tell him that this conference is taking place, and tell him that he should do some special shamanism so that the Americans should agree with what's going on here. They are asking the help of the older ones, who are the elders and teachers, so they should give more force to them here, and speak so that they will be able to communicate with President Bush, and convince him to go along with the other countries to save the universe. We don't want to hurt him. We want to ask him to respect us. And we want to ask him to sign the [biodiversity] treaty together with the other nations and to return our rights to life.

President Collor should also agree with preserving the planet. If he doesn't, then we are going to get together all of the shamans of Brazil and we are going to do a very strong shamanism.

President Bush thinks that he is the owner of the world but the shamans are the ones who have the knowledge. He is not the first world. We are the first world.