Yanomami shaman sees tough times ahead for Brazil’s indigenous
Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Amanda Perobelli; Editing by Karishma Singh.
Shaman Davi Kopenawa, chief of the Yanomami people who live on Brazil’s largest indigenous reservation, fears a pending Supreme Court decision on native land claims could worsen an onslaught of aggressive mining encouraged by President Jair Bolsonaro.
“The machines will scrape off the skin of Mother Earth and wound it,” he told Reuters in Brasilia, where thousands of indigenous protesters gathered last week to protest ahead of the landmark ruling.
Kopenawa said illegal gold miners, emboldened by Bolsonaro’s criticism of native land protections, are invading his people’s ancestral lands on the border with Venezuela in growing numbers and using automatic weapons to intimidate the Yanomami.
In the past, wildcat miners brought influenza and malaria that killed hundreds of Yanomami, but today the danger is the spread of COVID-19 that has taken nine of their people so far.
On Wednesday, the top court will discuss an appeal by the Xokleng tribe against a position adopted by Brazilian governments since 2016 that claims to indigenous land can only be recognized if tribes were living there when the constitution was ratified in 1988. The Xokleng were expelled from much of their land in 1952. read more
The ruling will affect 230 pending land claims, many of which offer a bulwark against deforestation in the Amazon. A defeat in court for the indigenous people would set a precedent for the rollback of native rights advocated by Bolsonaro and backed by powerful farming interests.
“Our territory was registered and signed by the federal government in 1992, but they want to reduce its size because Bolsonaro says it is too large for so few people,” the 66-year-old shaman said in an interview.
Some 29,000 Yanomami live in 360 villages spaced out over the 96,650 square kilometers (24 million acres) of reservation, about the size of Portugal, stretching from northern Brazilian savannah into the Amazon rainforest.
An internationally renowned spokesman for the Yanomami, Kopenawa is the author of “The Falling Sky,” a poetic account of his initiation as a shaman, his first encounters with outsiders and an appeal to save his people’s culture and the rainforest.
Satellite and aerial images show the dramatic advance of polluted gold mining ponds in deforested areas along the Uraricoera and Mucajai rivers in the reservation since Bolsonaro was elected in 2018.
Bolsonaro has often said indigenous people make up less than 1% of Brazilians and live on more than 13% of the country’s territory, sitting on undeveloped mineral riches.
Critics say his efforts to legalize mining on protected lands have encouraged the advance of illegal miners, who have swarmed the Yanomami reservation in motorboats and prop planes landing on clandestine airstrips in the forest.
A wave of invasions in the 1980s brought miners offering gifts of machetes, hammocks, clothes, soap and even guns and liquor to befriend the Yanomami, Kopenawa said. They chased the women and spread killer illnesses such as influenza and malaria.
Now, after international criticism that Brazil’s indigenous people had been left to the mercy of the coronavirus, the government has began to vaccinate communities and, according to the Health Ministry, 84% of the target Yanomami population have had a first vaccine dose.
An equally dangerous enemy is the mercury used by miners to separate gold from the earth. The toxic liquid metal is polluting rivers and poisoning the fish that the Yanomami and other indigenous people rely on to eat. read more.
“The mercury wounds the Earth for years and years, and there is no medicine to cure the Earth,” said Kopenawa, who complains the government has done little to evict the miners despite a Supreme Court order to protect indigenous people.
“They want to eliminate us and take our land. We have to keep fighting to save it for future generations so they can continue our customs, our language, our songs,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.