a999 0810 06 Jun 91

Primitive Tribesman Lobbies for Money To Fight Disease

By TARA BRADLEY-STECK, Associated Press Writer

The "lost people, the sick people, the crazy people with broken thoughts" are threatening Davi Kopenawa Yanomami's world in the Brazilian rain forest, and he wants no part of them.

"Leave us alone," is the message of this tribesman, who until recently knew nothing of clothing, numbers or the wheel.

But realizing his message may be too late, he asks for something else - money for medicine to fight the diseases white prospectors have brought to the world's largest known primitive tribe.

A David-and-Goliath battle is being waged in the jungles of Brazil. But in this one, Goliath is winning.

On one side are gold-hungry miners who represent the economic future of the mineral-rich, cash-poor South American country.

On the other are Indians whose cultural development diverged from the rest of the world 10,000 years ago. The destruction of the rain forest and the introduction of measles, tuberculosis and malaria means an end to their world.

"If we destroy everything - the forest - the sky will fall down," Davi said through a translator during a recent fund-raising stop in Pittsburgh.

"You spend so much money to preserve a few animals here, in your zoos, while in the forest, there are thousands of animals to be preserved. So why not put money to preserve animals and people in the forests where they live?"

It is a simple question posed by a man whose life is rooted in the the basic elements of survival, whose only material possessions are the jeans, sweater and sneakers given him for his journey abroad.

He has trouble understanding the difficulties in fulfilling that request and the people who have made his mission so critical.

"You have broken thoughts, thoughts about money, buying things, about cars, about goods. These are bad for you. There's no future," said Davi, who gathered such wisdom during his a two-week trip to New York, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. "Good thoughts are to think about your nephew, your niece, the wind, the sun, the forest, life." About 14,000 Yanomamis inhabit the Venezuelan Amazon and 7,500 live across the border in the Brazilian rain forest.

While the Venezuelan Yanomamis still have managed to remain aloof from outsiders, in part because their lands are considered worthless and impenetrable, the Brazilian Yanomamis have been less fortunate. Despite the remoteness of their villages, the land is too rich with gold to pose too formidable an obstacle to outsiders.

About 1,500 Brazilian Yanomamis have died from disease since the gold rush began in 1987; malaria rates are as high as 90 percent in some villages.

Davi, who is weak with malaria himself, painted his face with red stripes and wore red-and-black toucan and macaw feathers in his pierced ear lobes to protect him from evil forces while in this country. (He said he fears Americans think he is dirty because of his face paint and homosexual because of his ear adornments.) "When I was a child, the missionaries brought measles, so many of our people died," he said. And when highway workers came in 1974, "we knew other people would come looking for land, looking for minerals. And always the white people brought diseases to us." Davi said some of the Yanomami are starving because garimpeiros, Portuguese for gold miners, are destroying their food.

"They pump everything from the bottom of the river to find gold, and they dirty the river so the fish are dying. The animals are running away because of the noise made by" helicopters.

About 45,000 garimpeiros swarm through the rain forests and pollute the rivers with silt and mercury in a $1 billion-a-year gold rush, said the Rev. Giovanni Saffirio, Davi's translator. Saffirio is an Italian missionary and anthropologist who has lived with the Yanomami in Brazil for two decades and who compiled an exhibit of the Yanomami for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

Anthropologists believe the Yanomami migrated from the Caribbean region thousands of years ago. Because they burn their dead and drink a solution of the ashes, there was little evidence of their existence, Saffirio said.

The Yanomami are short, broad-chested people with chocolate-colored skin and straight, black hair who live in thatch-roofed homes furnished only with bark hammocks. They cultivate small plots of gourds and bananas, and hunt tapir, deer and wild boar with spears and lances.

Their entire number system consists of "one," "two" and "many." Asked his age, Davi answers 35. He's been telling people that for about five years now, Saffirio said. He doesn't know the ages of his three children, saying merely whether they are pre- or post-pubescent.

Davi is a self-appointed spokesman for his people because he speaks Portuguese, taught him by missionaries, and more acutely senses the urgency of his mission.

"Nobody chose me. I chose myself," he said. "I know very well my people, and they are not jealous of me because I am going out and talking. They are probably happy because I know better than other people how to talk the foreigners' language so I can make a better point to explain how things are going in the forest."

Before he left Pittsburgh, Davi stopped at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and he fretted over the quality of the air, the plastic plants, the steel cables that doubled as vines and, most of all, the listlessness of the animals.

"They need huge forests to get air, clean air," he said. "The zoo is going to become a memory park where the animals are souvenirs."

Davi identified somewhat with the subjects behind the glass and the way they are poked, prodded and studied. He is, in a sense, one of them, he said. He resents that his people have become the object of someone's book, the potential convert for someone's religion, the victim of someone's greed.

"Missionaries and anthropologists do not respect my culture and my religion, he said. "We want to have our religion, not the white religion. We need the shamans, the spirits. ... If I had to live in your cities for a month, I'd die. There's no forest here."

End Adv for Monday June 10, 1991
© Associated Press