Davi Kopenawa fights for his tribe's survival in the Brazilian rain forest

The once-remote Yanomami people have been challenged by the arrival of outsiders to their area of northern Brazil.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters/File
Davi Kopenawa, a shaman and spokesman for the Yanomami people, speaks about the plight of his tribe, located in the rain forest of northern Brazil – and the implications for the rest of the world.

Davi Kopenawa has been on the front lines for 40 years.

From encouraging tribesmen in villages in the heart of the Amazon rain forest to delivering a speech to Britain’s Parliament to addressing the United Nations, he’s fought for the rights of his people, the Yanomami of northern Brazil.

A revered tribal shaman and award-winning international activist, Mr. Kopenawa recently visited the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco to speak about the Yanomami and to introduce “The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman,” the book he originally dictated in a Yanomami language that later was transcribed and translated into French. Later this year, “The Falling Sky” will be translated and published in Portuguese.

Survival International, an organization dedicated to campaigning for the rights of the Yanomami and other tribal peoples around the world, has worked alongside Kopenawa for the last 25 years in his campaign to persuade the government of Brazil to set aside and protect Yanomami tribal lands in the northern states of Roraima and Amazonas.

Until the 1970s, when the Brazilian government first opened northern Brazil by building a highway, the Yanomami had virtually no contact with the outside world. Although they are one tribe, the Yanomami speak various languages, and their villages lie scattered across the vast northern reaches of Brazil and southern Venezuela. The first white people to visit the Yanomami came to map out the border between Venezuela and Brazil.

“We didn’t [even] mark times, days, or months,” says Kopenawa of his isolated tribe. When the boundary surveyors and construction crews arrived, the Yanomami had nothing to protect them from “the white man’s diseases” – as well as no way to defend themselves from the mercury that gold miners began using in the region to extract gold from ore. As mercury poured into the streams, it poisoned the water the Yanomami depended upon.

When the first outsiders arrived, Kopenawa was four years old. As wave after wave of people came into their villages, the outsiders brought diseases unknown to the Yanomami. The shamans – the holy men who perform rituals and cures – coped with any local ailments using the plants of the forest.

Kopenawa was a child when everyone became ill during the first epidemic. His village, Maracaná, was at the headwaters of the Demini River.

“I lost half my people,” he says.“I didn’t die because the shamans took care of me. Relatives and I went far into the rain forest for about two months.”

Another epidemic arrived when Kopenawa was about 12. Once again he became very ill. “I lost many family members, and I took a long time to recover," he says. "That’s when I started thinking: I want to fight to defend my people and talk to the white people.”

About this time, Claudia Andujar, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, won a two-year fellowship to document the Yanomami people. While working on her in-depth photo essay, she watched government bulldozers roll into the forest, razing whole villages to pave roads for the transcontinental highway.

Ms. Andujar says she witnessed a measles epidemic. “Hundreds died – sometimes entire villages,” she says.

In 1981, she set aside her photojournalism career to help establish health outposts to provide inoculations and other medical supplies.

At the same time, Kopenawa began his effort to persuade the government to recognize what was going on, and to help defend the health and stability of his tribe. He left his village and traveled throughout the region, meeting with Yanomami people across northern Brazil and meeting with the president of FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, a Brazilian government body charged with protecting indigenous peoples. The president of FUNAI admitted that he wasn’t even aware of the Yanomami.

By 1986, Kopenawa’s message began to emerge to the outside world, where he found supporters and groups willing to help. Among those who have been inspired by Kopenawa’s story is Sarah Shenker, who works in the London office of Survival International. She met Kopenawa in 2010 at the annual Yanomami assembly, a gathering of the tribe to meet with nongovernmental groups and others working on how to defend the Yanomami lands and people.

“Davi is an extremely eloquent leader,” Ms. Shenker says. “He encapsulates his people’s challenges, but in a thoughtful, enlightening way. And then he offers simple solutions.”

As to defending the Amazon rain forest, Shenker says, “Indigenous peoples are the best conservationists – we have so much to learn from them.”

After a 20-year campaign, in 1992 the Brazilian government designated 96,000 square kilometers (37,000 square miles, an area the size of Portugal) for the Yanomami “Urihi,” meaning “forest” in the Yanomami language. (Only outsiders call the region the Amazon rain forest, Kopenawa says.)

The Brazilian government also established a National Health Foundation, and today it provides money for medical supplies and medical outposts for the Yanomami.

“But people are still dying,” Kopenawa says. “It’s a general problem.” The outposts still lack modern equipment and drugs because the local government poorly handles the federal monies. As a result, he and the organization he founded, Hutukara, are still fighting for basic healthcare for his people.

While large-scale mining is no longer a problem in the Amazon Basin, illegal gold miners still infiltrate the region, bringing disease and environmental destruction. Kopenawa says the government does nothing to halt these practices.

Yanomami advocate Andujar agrees: “Today, there are about 4,000 illegal small-scale gold mines in the region.” That’s down from the 1980s, which saw 40,000 of these miners, she says.

Yet the entire Yanomami tribe numbers only about 11,000. “These illegal miners continue to bring with them more epidemics, most notably malaria,” Andujar says. “Since the first non-indigenous people arrived some 40 years ago, 20 percent of the Yanomami have died. So we continue to monitor these miners.”

Wherever Kopenawa speaks on behalf of his people, he delivers the same message: Help defend this region’s natural resources and the health of the Yanomami.

As he said recently in San Francisco to a packed room: “I’m here to call on you [the American people] to ask the Brazilian government to ask [Brazilian] President Dilma [Rousseff] to see the error of their ways. Help me and my people. I do not want what happened 40 years ago to happen again.”

[Editor's note: An update Aug. 20, 2014: Survival International reports that gunmen, possibly hired by gold miners operating illegally on Yanomami land, have threatened the life of Davi Kopenawa. More at http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10367]

• For more information on the Yanomami and their fight to defend their land, visit http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/yanomami.

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