Davi versus Goliath


Davi Kopenawa Yanomami has a mission: to save his people from the ravages of mining and deforestation in the Amazon. He tells Georgina Jiménez why a world threatened by environmental vandalism must take note
Photo: ©Joëlle Hernández/CAFOD

ACOUPLE of weeks ago, news about the climate change summit in Bonn and the publication in the United Kingdom of a map detailing the effects later this century of climatic changes made the headlines.

Experts from the Met Office needed expensive and complicated technology to tell us that the summer rainfall in southern England will decrease by one fifth by 2040, and the days of typically British wet weather will be numbered. Carbon emissions are an increasing worry worldwide and as politicians of all parties panic, and entrepreneurs gather in elegant halls to discuss the need to take measures to protect the environment if they want to preserve their markets, there is Davi Kopenawa Yanomami.

This serene man who does not dress in business attire and did not go to an expensive school to gain knowledge, but has the wisdom and dignity of being in touch with his surroundings in the Amazonian rainforest, has in the flesh experienced the dreadful consequences of putting economic development first.

Born in Marakana, a Yanomami community on the Upper Toototobi river in the state of Roraima, northern Amazon, Davi began to fight in 1985 for recognition of the vast area inhabited by the Yanomami in the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas. Small scale gold miners (prospectors) were invading the area, and Yanomami were dying of diseases they had been exposed to which they had no resistance to.

Half of the planet’s remaining rainforests are located in the Amazon region, sustaining the largest number of living plants and animals in the world. Through the Amazon Basin also flows one-fifth of the world’s freshwater. But Brazil’s diversity is also ethnic and linguistic, and considered one of the greatest in the world. They are 215 indigenous groups and at least 180 different languages spoken among the tribes, belonging to more than 30 different linguistic families.

But the lessons learned after the conquest of the American continent, the atrocities, genocide and the legacy of slavery bequeathed by this process, seem merely a thing of the past – although history seems to be repeating itself before our eyes and the rights of indigenous peoples once again, after 500 years, are being ignored. And the excuse, as in colonial times, is gold. In 2009, this contempt for the indigenous peoples rights is generating dangerous and devastating consequences for the whole planet, as it threatens the environmental equilibrium and leads to climatic changes.

To raise an awareness of the severity of this problem, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, leader of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, spokesman for the Yanomami, shaman and winner of the UN Global 500 award, recently visited London to remind anyone who would listen about the plight of the Yanomami people and the future of humanity if the Amazonian forest is destroyed through mining and deforestation.

Davi spends approximately eight months every year away from the his people, campaigning to raise awareness about the difficulties they face. He gets homesick, but his mission is far greater than his own personal feelings. LatAmRoB was fortunate to be able to interview him.

Davi, Could you explain why the recognition of indigenous rights over ancestral lands helps to protect the diversity of the rainforest and to fight climatic problems? Why is it important to recognise these rights?

DKY – Yes, it is important that the western world recognises the rights of indigenous peoples in the Yanomami land, that they get to know the reality and the fact that indigenous people have lived in this land for a very long time, the fact that the indigenous lands have been demarcated and officially recognised by the government as such to try to guarantee indigenous land as one continuous area. It is important for the rest of the world to get to know about this.

Has your land changed over the years?

DKY – No, the land has not changed, but what has changed is the fact that now it has been demarcated to make it forbidden to strangers, loggers, miners, people who want to get the resources out of the land.

And the demarcation, does it work?

DKY – Yes it works, but the problem over the years has been the people from outside this demarcation who do not respect it, those who trespass just because they want to.

Do you think other people of Brazil understand the way you live and that they need to leave you alone in order to protect the rainforest? Do miners understand why they can’t just go invading and taking things from your lands?

DKY – They understand the way that indigenous people live because it is written in the constitution, but because they want money and they are greedy they do not respect us, they take what they want, gold in this case. So we face them and try to get them out, but they attack us with fire guns. We have bows and arrows.

Have some of your people died because of this?

DKY – In 1986, the Yanomami people tried to scare them and kill them so people would leave the land, but we didn’t succeed.

(Editor’s note: The garimpeiros, prospectors, brought violence and diseases unknown to the Yanomami people at the time. One in five Yanomami lost their life).

How does mining affect your community’s lives and the rainforest?

DKY – After the garimpeiros come and stay for months, when they leave they also leave behind malaria, because they dig holes and these turn into dirty puddles that mosquitoes use to lay their eggs. The mosquito bites the garimpeiros and they get sick, then the mosquitoes fly and sting the Yanomami, who also get sick. The miners have brought us also the flu (which we didn’t have before). They bring violence with fire guns, they use mercury to clean the gold, the mercury builds up and the soil gets contaminated, and when the rain comes it washes the soil into the streams and into the great river, so the river gets contaminated and the fish we eat die. As we use the water from the river to cook, drink and wash ourselves we are being poisoned too. First came 30 000 – 40 000 garimpeiros in 1986, the Yanomami then were 14,000. We faced them but we didn’t manage to expel them because they were too many for us so they ended up killing us.

Brazilian government

And did you get any help from the Brazilian government?

DKY – We asked the help of FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio – National Foundation for the Indian). And we asked also for help from the federal police and it took them four years to get the garimpeiros out, but they still keep coming. This year we think that there are around 3 000 garimpeiros in our land. The Brazilian government forbids the entry of garimpeiros to our land, however some deputies and a senator, who was previously involved in the FUNAI and has power before the national congress, are pushing a law forward that will allow industrial mining to enter our land. I don’t understand why if he was helping in the FUNAI (and he was meant to protect us) how after finding lots of gold when he left office he went to raze the woods in some other indigenous land. He promised us things, but he was stealing. He knows there are people going into the land but he is turning a blind eye.

The Brazilian government is meant to be trying to curb illegal deforestation and people taking things from your land, is this working?

DKY – The say they are trying to reduce deforestation but …(huffs). They come here to London and do speeches and they say they are reducing the problems of indigenous people, of indigenous land, but it is a lie, and they are tricking you.

So, the Brazilian government’s international reaction is to say that Brazil is very poor, and therefore it should be allowed to do what it wants with its forests ‘in the interest of its people without other countries interfering. What do you think about this?

DKY – The government says one thing: there is poverty in Brazil and they can use the resources of Brazil, the wood, natural resources, to improve Brazil, but they are not right because they will destroy the natural resources and when they want more they will go into our lands and will wipe out indigenous people. The Brazilian government will go into the reserves, then they will take the natural resources, and when they take the natural resources there will be nothing left and Brazil then will remain poor, and all the richness of Brazil will go to other countries because they will be exported. So in Brazil what will remain is poverty, illness and desolation.

Ethnic minorities

In rich countries like the UK, the government talks a lot about protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, but do you think that such countries have done enough to protect the rights of your people, the Yanomami?

DKY – They could do more. They could put more pressure and pay more attention on what the Brazilian government is doing, because in Lula’s government many things are happening. He doesn’t think about protecting the Amazonian forest. They talk about it but don’t protect it, they say nice things…The governments of places like the UK should make more noise about the need to protect the land, to put more pressure over the Brazilian government.

You are a spiritual leader in your community. In industrialised countries people often feel or think that they have lost a bit of their spirituality and although they have the television, the house, the car and look happy, they feel that there is something important that is missing. Do you have a message for these people?

DKY – We talk about the Shabori. Shabori is our word for what you call ‘Spirit’. Shabori lives in the Universe, the earth, the mountains, the moon, the stars, the world in general. Our Chief is the great Pagé, or Shaman, who teaches us how to cure. Shabori is the spirit that cures and defends everyone. When the sky is full of rain, when there are winds of storm and the sun can’t shine because there are too many clouds, when the world is not well, Shabori becomes angry. You asked me about the Indians and what happened in the past is that the “whites” were just like us, just like the Yanomami are now. They had traditions and ways similar to ours, they used arrows, they had houses, not like this one, but made out of straw. They used arrows to hunt. They had a great Shaman and spirit to whom they prayed when they had illnesses in their bodies, but they have changed. They changed when they started schools, using paper, and they deformed the children and created a civilisation so they created particular ways and then forgot to live in the old way, to hunt, to work, to be spiritual and to cure with prayer. Then they lost the knowledge of nature. People changed and they grew wanting more and more money and they became sick with wanting money. So money is the source of the industry. They no longer want to use the old knowledge. I can see that they only want more, they want to take more of the richness of the earth. What I would like to do is ask children and youth to think and dream of what I am saying, to think and dream of the way they are now living and realise what has happened. To dream and to think about life, because they lost their roots and they lost the beauty of nature. Before they used to use nature and they used to understand the beauty of nature and now they have lost that because they don’t live with nature anymore, they cannot eat without problems, they cannot sleep without problems, and they are always being watched by time.

In other South American countries some indigenous peoples have made some progresses advancing their causes. Do you think that this is the case in Brazil or are the Indians still being marginalized?

DKY – I think in this moment what we want is to be respected as we are. What Yanomami people want is that the federal government fully respects us, not just partly. Now they don’t want to respect us because they want to pass this mining law in our land. We are struggling to resist this.

Do you think the day on which the Yanomami will be completely respected will ever come?

DKY – It will come. We’ll have to struggle, and it won’t be easy, but I hope that it will happen, that the Brazilian government respects us, the Yanomami people and our land. This is what we are fighting for.

Do you have UNCH international observers monitoring your land?

DKY – No. Only the Hutukara Yanomami Association, but we are preparing a project of surveillance of the land. We got together with FUNAI, but they are quite slow…

Do you think if all the people beyond Brazil were to reject any gold which is mined the way the garimpeiros mine it and to choose gold mined in a “clean” way (without mercury or other nasty substances) you could be in favour of that?

DKY – No. I’m not in favour of mining, because it creates many problems, it brings fights and conflicts. It brings illness and there are too many people that do not respect our land. In my lifetime this is not going to happen. My struggle works, I don’t want to change it now. What I think about are my people living in peace, in good health, in happiness, and for them to use their own language and traditions. To me, I want the Yanomami respected. I want to be respected as well and to continue living with my own people. I prefer to survive with my people than abandoning them.

What made you want to learn Portuguese and leave your country to tell people that you exist?

DKY – It is a good question. My creator put me here to learn Portuguese and to defend my people, to learn to struggle, to spread the word, to learn how to work with politicians and the dangers in politics. For me, this was very good and to fly my flag for my Yanomami people so my people can live on the land and have bees, and animals. So I learned Portuguese with my great Pagé, who taught me how to live with the westerners and how to learn to play by the rules of the game (like in football). We are here to fight, like Hercules. I am very small, and my enemy is very big.

Like David, will you hit your enemy on the forehead?

DKY – The great Spirit will, but not for now.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer


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