Yanomami Indians Exposure to Modern Life Deadly

By William Schomberg, Reuters, 2/27/98

YANOMAMI INDIAN RESERVATION, Brazil, Feb 27, 1998 (Reuters) --
From the window of a tiny plane, the lands of the Yanomami Indians look like a world untouched by time -- jungle-covered mountains and valleys cut by shiny ribbons of lonely rivers.

As the plane swoops over the trees to land with a bump on a rough landing strip, men daubed in the red paint of welcome emerge clutching bows and arrows twice their own height and talking excitedly in the Yanomamis' ancient language. Naked women suckling babies stand cautiously at a distance, their cheeks pierced by long, ornamental straws.

A first-time visitor to this remote corner of the Amazon feels he has been transported back into pre-history. For 2,000 years the Yanomamis have lived in a primitive society where warriors still raid villages to steal women and some babies are killed to ensure the survival of others.

But the devastating impact of the tribe's short exposure to modern man is also there for an outsider to see. In a nearby hut, men and women lie listless in hammocks, shivering with malaria. A few minutes' walk down a path where a stream once ran, mosquitoes swarm by stagnant pools. The stinking water is the mark of the "garimpeiros," the wildcat gold miners who have brought pollution and disease to the once-healthy Yanomamis and left them on the brink of extinction.

"Garimpeiros, malaria, many dead," one man said in a few Portuguese words he knew. Others crowded around government officials, pointing to a distant mountain range. "More garimpeiros," a translator explained. "They are armed."


It has been nearly 20 years since the garimpeiros first swarmed into the Yanomamis' forests in a gold rush of gigantic proportions. In the early 1980s, an estimated 40,000 men were blasting riverbeds and polluting the water with mercury.

The Yanomamis were decimated. Malaria, tuberculosis and even common flu have reduced their numbers in Brazil to about 9,000, down from an estimated 20,000 just 20 years ago. Another 13,000 are believed to live in Venezuela but they too have been devastated by disease.

Malnutrition is suddenly a problem for a people who used to flourish in the forest. There is little left to hunt and nothing to fish. The population has begun to grow slowly again but child mortality is 15 times that of the rest of Brazil.

In a sinister development, the garimpeiros are giving out guns and eight Yanomamis were shot to death by other Indians in the first half of 1997, taking traditional inter-village fighting into a new dimension of violence. "The Yanomamis face a very real risk of extinction from disease and violent conflict," Sullivan Silvestre, head of the Brazilian government's Indian Foundation (Funai), said. He said Funai was determined not to let the Yanomamis go the way of dozens of other Indian groups in Brazil that have been wiped out this century as farming, logging and mining interests swallowed up their traditional homelands.

"They might live in the middle of the world's biggest Indian reservation but they need protection," Silvestre said.

In January, Brazil completed its fourth clearing out of garimpeiros from the reservation, a near-impossible task in an area the size of Portugal, blanketed in thick forest. Five hundred miners were arrested, many of them sick or starving, and another 250 gave themselves up, glad for the chance of an airlift out of the jungle. Dozens of landing strips were blocked with logs and equipment was seized.

About 80 garimpeiros were believed to remain deep in the forest. Working by hand, without heavy equipment, they can slip away into the trees at the sound of approaching helicopters. But if the government's plan to control sales of aviation fuel works, they will be cut off from supplies, leaving them no option but a 30-day trudge back to Boa Vista, capital of remote Roraima state on Brazil's northern border with Venezuela.


The Yanomamis, who have seen the garimpeiros return after each of the government's three previous removals, think this time they might be gone for good.

"I don't think the garimpeiros will be back. They are very greedy men. They accept any sacrifice. But this time they won't return," a teen-age boy said, speaking through a translator.

Around him stood the remains of what a few days earlier had been a bustling garimpeiro settlement: rough huts made from freshly cut branches, a makeshift bar and a litter of discarded pumps and hoses abandoned in the rush of the government raid.

In Boa Vista, too, where a statue of a panhandler stands proudly at the center of the main square, the opinion is that the garimpeiros have had their day. In Rua de Ouro, or Gold Street, men who once handled a pound (.45 kg) of the precious metal every day now chat in empty shops. The only things they buy these days are television sets from garimpeiros moving on. "Things have never been as bad," vendor Gentil Barros said. "When the government went in before, things would pick up afterwards. Now they've struck the heart of the business."

He remembered the good times, when a flood of poor migrants from the underdeveloped northeast, along with fortune-seekers from around the world, made Boa Vista Brazil's fastest-growing city. Now he plans to go back into his previous business as a middleman in the cashew nut business.


There is one glimmer of hope for the dreamers of gold. A bill written by a local congressman and awaiting a final vote in the faraway capital Brasilia proposes a radical rethink of Brazil's Indian policy. It would allow mining companies access to reservations that are currently off limits.

Sen. Romero Juca shrugs off protests by alarmed Indian groups. For centuries, tribes have been at the mercy of garimpeiros and loggers, he argues, so why not regulate the industries and let the Indians reap the benefits as royalties?

Mining companies are already interested in some areas of the Yanomamis' vast reservation where there are rich deposits of bauxite as well as gold. Juca believes they can operate without disturbing the Indians. In any case, he said, the Yanomamis themselves could veto the projects.

"When Indian people have stood against progress they have been mowed down as if by a charging locomotive," the senator said. "It's not a question of integrating Indian society into our society, it's a matter of allowing the two to interact."

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, one of only a handful of Yanomamis with experience of the world beyond the forest, has a different view of the future. Backed by non-governmental organizations, he has traveled the world to warn of his people's demise.

"My people are like children, we are not ready for this bill," he said. "We do not want to be tricked."

Kopenawa believes the Yanomamis' only hope of survival lies in education. Already children in some villages are learning customs their parents no longer practice. Then they are taught Portuguese.

"Half of my people have already died," he said. "If we lose our language then we lose everything."

© Reuters Limited 1998