Aug 25/97: Statement by Davi Kopenawa Yanomami


distributed by SAIIC

Sao Paulo, 25th August 1997


The biggest problem for the Yanomami now are the garimpeiro (goldminers) who are in our land, and the illnesses they bring with them. The government's National Health Foundation say that 1300 Yanomami had got malaria up until May this year. They have counted 24 airstrips opened by garimpeiros in the forest and they said that over 2500 men have illegally entered our reserve to pan for gold.

This information was published in the newspaper Folha de Boa Vista in May, you can see for yourselves.

Among them some have illnesses like flu, TB and venereal diseases, and contaminate my people. Now we are afraid they will bring measles and also AIDS, this illness which is so dangerous that we do not want it among us. But the worst illness for us is malaria, which comes in with the goldminers.

It is the indians who keep the forest alive, because the indians do not destroy nature looking for gold. The indians do not spoil nature because they know it is important for the salvation of the planet Earth.

This is why we want the help of all those who understand that we only want to live in peace. If they do not help us, the garimpeiros will spoil all the rivers and leave us without fish or drinking water or game, destroying the health of the indians, the whites and the planet.

When I go to the big city I see people who are hungry, without anywhere to plant, without drinking water, without anywhere to live. I do not want this to happen to my people too, I do not want the forest to be destroyed, which leads to misery.

I am not saying that I am against progress. I think it is very good when whites come to work amongst the Yanomami to teach reading and writing, how to breed bees, how to use medicinal plants, the right ways of protecting nature. These white people are very welcome in our land. This for us is progress.

What we do not want are the mining companies, which destroy the forest, and the garimpeiros, who bring so many diseases. These whites must respect our Yanomami land. The garimpeiros bring guns, alcohol, prostitution and destroy nature wherever they go. The machines spill oil into the rivers and kill the life existing in them and the people and animals who depend on them. For us, this is not progress.

We want progress without destruction. We want to study, to learn new ways of cultivating the land, living from its fruits. The Yanomami do not want to live from dealing with money, with gold, we are not prepared for this. We need time to learn.

This is what I wanted to say to the whites who will listen to me, so that they can understand what the Yanomami want. We do not want to live without trees, hunting, fish and clean water. If this happens misery will come to our people.

That is why I am here, defending my land and my people. I hope that you will help me in this fight.

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami

South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC)
P.O. Box 28703
Oakland CA, 94604
Phone: (510) 834-4263
Fax: (510) 834-4264
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September 26, 1997

BOA VISTA, Brazil, Sept 26 (Reuter) - Gold fever is sweeping the sweltering frontier town of Boa Vista and spreading death like a plague in the cooler stillness of the rain forest nearby, where the Yanomami Indian nation lives.

Officials say at least 3,000 "garimpeiros," the Portuguese word for wildcat gold and diamond miners, have poured into the remote Yanomami reserve straddling Brazil's northern Amazon border with Venezuela, bringing disease and destruction.

Now, with rumors swirling through Boa Vista that Indian reservations will soon be opened to mining, hundreds more freelancers dreaming of sudden wealth are buying up shovels and drums of mercury and getting ready to go.

"Boa Vista has gone mad with talk about the gold," said Claudia Andujar of the independent Pro-Yanomami Commission.

"Thousands of garimpeiros are already in the forest mining illegally. Thousands more could go at any time. It would be disastrous," she said.

It is not the first time the "white man's" hunger for gold has threatened the 23,000 Yanomamis in Brazil and Venezuela, who live in a primitive communion with nature, hunting and fishing in a reserve larger than Portugal.

Boa Vista's ramshackle airport was Brazil's second busiest in the early 1990s as a stream of small planes ferried garimpeiros to the forest. Back then, freelancers in Roraima state produced half of Brazil's annual 25 tonnes of gold. But in 1993 garimpeiros massacred 16 Yanomamis and the reserve was placed off-limits in the ensuing outrage. Now this city of 150,000 has been stirred out of its steamy, tropical stupor by the passage of a bill through Congress that would allow limited mining in Indian lands.

The bill still has some way to go before becoming law, but Boa Vista has been whipped into a frenzy of anticipation by local politicians touting the legislation as Roraima's economic salvation.


The Yanomamis do not want the miners on their land. "The garimpeiros bring guns, alcohol, prostitution and destroy nature wherever they go. The machines spill oil into the rivers and kill the life in them and the people and the animals who depend on them," tribal leader Davi Kopenawa Yanomami said.

"If the garimpeiros come in and destroy our land, where will we hunt? Where will we plant? If they poison the water and kill the fish where will we drink and what will we eat?" asked Jose Siripino Yanomami in Venezuela.

Health workers say the invasion of the Yanomami lands by outsiders is already proving deadly. Some 1,300 Yanomami have malaria. Sexually transmitted diseases and ailments such as tuberculosis are said to be on the rise.

"We lack the data to say exactly what health effect the garimpeiros are having on the Yanomami," Luis Paiz, Brazil country manager for French doctors group Medecins Sans Frontieres, said. "But it's worth bearing in mind that a cold is not just a cold for these Indians. It becomes pneumonia."

The government in Brasilia has been planning a major military operation for almost a year to clear Yanomami lands of invaders and has actually authorized $6 million in funds. But a National Indian Foundation (Funai) spokeswoman said the Air Force had failed to provide aircraft and talks were under way with the Federal Police to seek alternative transport.

"The operation isn't paralyzed," she said. "It's being organized."


In the shabby streets of Boa Vista, where the mainstays of the local economy are public sector jobs and smuggling drugs and contraband, people shrug at the fate of the Indians. The main square in this Wild West town boasts the "Garimpeiro Monument," a giant, post-modernist statue of a panhandler.

"What can you expect from a town that lives off garimpeiros?" asked a local official who requested anonymity. "Most people here are either adventurers or crooks. Give them half a chance and they'd get rid of every single Indian."

Locals say there are at least a dozen clandestine airstrips around town and as many as 30 in the Yanomami lands. It costs 200 grams of gold, or about $3,000, to hire a plane.

At a makeshift airfield near the Jockey Club, which has fallen into neglect since its owner was killed in a reputed mafia hit a year ago, three young migrants from Brazil's poverty-stricken Northeast waited recently for a plane.

"We need the mining. Otherwise this town will go to the dogs and these kids will starve," said taxi driver Francisco Chagas Duarte, still nostalgic about the "good old days."

On the Street of Gold, where jewelry stores and bars with names like "Cocktail and Dreams" cater to a free-spending crowd, Boa Vista's leading gold dealer, known as "Diamantes," says he has had to diversify into cellular telephones.

"Gold hasn't been good business for awhile. The margins are too narrow and the quantity coming out too little," he said. "But there are a lot of people going into the forest and a whole lot more waiting to go in."

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