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
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
MM: How many of the Yanomami have been affected by these
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
MM: What steps are being taken to confront this spread of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.