Yanomami Indians Exposure to Modern Life Deadly
By William Schomberg, Reuters,
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
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
YANOMAMIS DECIMATED BY WILDCAT MINERS
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.
YANOMAMIS SAY WHITE MEN MIGHT BE GONE FOR GOOD
The Yanomamis, who have seen the garimpeiros return after each of the
government's three previous removals, think this time they might be gone
"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.
BRAZIL'S MINING BILL - PROFITS FOR ALL?
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
"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