A tale of two peoples

  • 14/12/1995

A tale of two peoples Amazon apocalypse

For the handful of surviving Yanomami tribals left in the Amazonian rainforests of Brazil and Venezuela, the recent moves to end their rights over their home - the forests - could very well sound their death knell

From June this year the pressure started building on both sides of the Yanomami front. Brazil"s minister of justice, Nelson Jobim, started pushing for the amendments to the Decree 22/91, which enshrines for the Brazilian Indians, most noted among them being the Yanomami, their right to live in demarcated areas. Internal, rift appeared within the government, when the attorney general Aristides Junqueria"s office strongly protested. The public prosecutor (PP), Aurelio Rios, told the Supreme Court, "The prosecutor"s office must oppose all attempts, based on false aflegations ofthe unconstitutionality of Decree 22/91."

The Pp"s reference to "false allegations" related to Jobim"s statement that reservation of areas for the Yanomami was unconstitutional, because it does not allow those who have settled in, or invaded Indian land, the right to challenge the demarcation boundaries. But the PP was categorical: the original rights of the Indian populations to the lands they traditionally occupy cannot be altered. "No new right is created by demarcation. It only delimits lands which have always belonged to the Union government," Rios asserted.

The Comissao pela Cria@ao do Parque Yanomami (or Commission for the Creation of Yanomami Park, ccpy in short), the frontline non -governmental organisation (NGO) fighting for protection of the reservations, stepped up its campaign (see box. The park lobby). It termed Jobim"s attempts as the worst threat to Brazil"s Indians since the military regime proposed compulsory emancipation in 1978."

On June 22, leaders ofvarious organisations from different regions of Brazil occupied the office of the ministry of justice to meet Jobim, but were denied a hearing. The rift within the political elite also showed when a group -of Congressmen, cutting across party lines, asked for a Presidential audience to spell out the risks of such a change. The Catholic Indian Missionary Council (cimi) urged that the situation in the indigenous territories was turning critical. Although not within the Yanomami, but there has been noticed an alarming rise in suicide among other Indian tribes. "By changing Decree 22 the Brazilian government is, in fact, inverting the roles, and transforming the Indians into invaders in their own lands," the ami said.

Throughout July and August the strife over this issue dogged the government., On September 5, the Council for the Articulation of Indian Peoples and the Organizatione of Brazil Capolb, representatives of the church, Indian agencies and pro-Indian Congressmen met in Brasilia to discuss how the Forum in Defence of Indian Rights can be strengthened. And on September 7, the Brazilian Catholic Church, at the initiative of the Social Pastorate of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, organised a countrywide "Shout ofthe Excluded Ones", which, among other things, articulated the rights of the Yanomami.

The survivors
At the centre of all this din are just 8,268 Yanomami spread out in 188 communities. Between 1987 and 1994 the tribe lost 21 per cent of its people, 2,200 of them, as a direct result of a malarial invasion, tuberculosis and respiratory diseases. However, no perfect figures can be arrived at, because the Yanomami have a taboo on talking about death. But a survey in one community 2 alone, the Mararis, showed that 80 per cent tested positive for malaria, 8, and 50 per cent have the fatal falciparum strain.

Like other native peoples, the Yanomami have no natural immumties to the so-called white man"s diseases such as malaria, measles, . ......... mumps, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and respiratory infections. Uncontrolled contact with the outside society, especially gold prospectors, ranchers and construction workers is the real reason behind this population decimation (see box: Gold- plated genocide).

Many anthropologists believe that the Yanomami were a part of the second wave of Paleo-Indians who crossed the Bering Island bridge into North America about 25,000 years ago. For thousands of years, they wandered southwards, arriving in their present home between 20,000 to 12,000 years ago. Today, their settlements span only a degree or two on either side of the equator.

The Yanomami are unique in their relative isolation from their national societies. They are probably the largest indigenous group in the Americas which still maintains its traditional ways of life as semi-nomadic hunter-horticulturists. They live communally in large circular houses called xaponos; rarely does a group number more than 120. With the exception of sex and defecation, they carry on all their activities in public.

The Yanomami are an isolated linguistic family, and their various dialects and extremely rich culture suggest that they once lived spread over a huge area in their land of origin. The majority speak their native languages (of which there are four: Yanomama, Yanomami, Sanumami, and Nimam). Those who speak the neighbouring dialects understand each other easily, but intermarriages are not normal. Those few Yanomami who also speak Portuguese (in Brazil) and Spanish (in Venezuela) are generally males who have had prolonged contact with whites, particularly priests, cattle ranchers, construction workers and mineral prospectors. Fatima, the wife of Davi Kopenawa, (who is the only Yanomami spokesperson to have carried the campaign outside the country) is one of the few women who can speak a smattering of Portuguese.

The Yanomami survive on fishing and gather forest prod- ucts. They maintain gardens of bananas, plantains, manioc, sweet potatoes and other crops. They move their villages every three to five years, as the soil and game in one area become depleted. Their lifestyle and traditional practices are perfect examples of sustainable use of resources, as they do not extract more than what they really need to survive.

They eat much of what they gather, like wild -fruits, especially from varieties of palm trees, grub larvae found in rotten palm trunks and numerous types of wild honey. They used both seeds and juice from the fruits of the genipap tree for body painting. They also use hundreds of trees, vines and other plants for house constructing material, medical and magic purposes, for making hammocks, bows and arrows and virtually everything everything they need for their daily lives.

Tva&tionally, the Yanomami wear no clothes; they paint irbodies inserpentine and circular designs with red onotoIpme. Their thick black hair is cut in a regular bowl fashion,gosrwtimes tonsured. Among men, body hair is sparse; most wonwn have none at all. The personal aesthetics of the often very pretty women is remarkable. Girls and women adorn their faces faces by inserting slender sticks through holes in The lower lips at either side of the mouth and in the middle, And throubh the pierced ears, into which women insert flowers And men feathers.

Ted6nologically speaking, the Yanomami are a primitive People. They have no system of numbers: they talk in terms of "one","twO."and"many."Their only calendar is the waxing and wanning of the moon. On treks, they carry everything they own on their backs. They do not know of the wheel. They know nothing of the art of metallurgy, and interior villages might boast only of a few worn machetes and battered tin pots, acquired many moons ago in trade with groups living closer to the nabuh, the-non-Yanomami. Until recently they made fire with fire drills by the rubbing together of two sticks.

Children of the forests
In tropical forests a close relationship exists between the environment, indigenous inhabitants and their human rights. For all indigenous people, in fact, that right is directly linked to their rights to the lands they inhabit and the resources found on these lands. And that is the basis of conflict between them and the outside world: both need the land. But one needs it for sustenance, the other to make megabucks.

The Yanomami"s socioeconomic system, and especially their system of shifting cultivation and other subsistence activities are predicated on the availability of large tracts of land to promote soil regeneration and the replenishment of animal and plant stocks. The forest has for many generations provided them with everything they need to survive physically, culturally,and spiritually. Vast networks of foot-trails link villages, which maintain inter-community trade and social alliances.

The interrelationships among the villages are a continuation of the kinship network of the Yanomami who live in groups. There are no hierarchical social or political positions. Many village leaders are also respected spiritual preachers, or shamans, who have an important role in interacting with the Yanomarni"s spiritual world.

Until this decade, the plight oT the Yanomami, a society that had no knowledge of the modern technological societies that surrounded it, has been told exclusively through NGOS and the unions of the workers for the Northern Perimeter Highway (BR-210). So when modernity started stalking their reserves, they didn"t know what hit them.

During the "50s and "60s, contact with the outside world was sporadic and limited to individuals or small groups, such as government personnel, and missionaries. It was not until the "60s that the Brazilian National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) made its initial contacts with the Yanomami. FUNAI was set up in 1967 to replace the Indian Protection Service, which was founded in 1910 to pacify the remaining "hostile Indians", so that the land issue could be peacefully settled. FUNAi has a number of outposts in remote areas, which are supposed to provide medical aid and act as the government"s contact with tribal peoples. In reality, it is one of the most poorly funded and inadequately staffed organ of the federal government; which speaks volumes of the government"s ideology and politics.

White peril
During the "70s, two events broke the Yanomami"s isolation in a major way and with devastating effects. One was the beginning of construction of the Northern Perimeter Highway (BR2 10) from Manaus to Caracarai; the other was the publication of the results of an aerial survey of the Amazon, carried out by the Radar Amazonia (RADAR BRASIL) project.

RADAR BRASIL produced satellite photographs of the Amazon basin, indicating the location of potential mineral MWooW woo re, weave traditional cotton hammock deposits. This, of course, brought immediate attention to the development potential of the Amazon region and attracted mineral prospectors as well as large mining companies to the area. Since the discovery in 1975 of large deposits of cassiterite (tin ore) in the Serra de Surucucus region in the centre of Yanomami territory, illegal invasion of the land by mineral prospectors have remained a continuous threat. Subsequent discoveries of uranium, gold, diamonds, and titanium have been made on Yanomami lands. Illegal invasion of the Yanomami territory by go@d prospectors,-or garimpeiros, took off in 1976, culminating in the gold rush of 1987. These invasions brought disease and death of genocidal proportions.

The BR-210, begun in 1973, cut through the southeastern part of their territory in the Brazilian state of Roraima. Twenty-two per cent of the Yanomami living near the construction sites died in the first year itself, principally from respiratory diseases. Those living near the Ajarani River suffered a population decimation: from 400 in the "60s to just 79 peo ple in 1975. The workers also introduced the indigenous pop ulation to prostitution and begging, which contributed to the social breakdown of these communities. Even after the con- struction was abandoned in 1976 due to a cash crunch, the effects of contact continued to devastate the Yanomami in these areas. In 1977-78, a measles epidemic killed half the population of four communities in the Upper Catrimam region.

Even though the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve has been legally created, itJs clear that a permanent solution needs to be fQund to prev@ent further invasions and to protect the Yanomami so that they can prepare themselves for the future. Their physical survival remains as threatened as ever by the Proverbial scourge of white man"s diseases. Advocacy work is Only a part of the ccpy"s effort to defend and protect the nomi people (see box: The park lobby). It began vaccination in Yanomami villages in the "80s, and since 16 bas supported medical teams providing health care throughout Yanomami territory.

Yanomami SOS
In 1990 following the devastating effects of gold rush, Davi Kopenawa requested that ccpy open a health post in the Village of Derneni. Since then, ccpy has expanded its work to Include health posts in two other regions, serving 1,207 Mewhom i among 35 communities. An. outgrowth of the health project is an ethno-linguistic project conducted by the the author and French anthropologist Bruce Albert. The result is a bilingual health manual in Portuguese and Yanomama , one of the native languages, for use by the medical teams m a the field.

The cnwial project on education is in the final planning W_ It includes a bilingual literacy programme at the hW level to enable the Yanomami to deal directly a brazilian officials and other outsiders who impact their 1wwal and their future. Davi Kopenawa says, "We newasni need support for a school in Watorik (Demeni village We need to learn to write our own Yanomami language to, to read, and to keep accounts. And then we need to learn a little Portuguese in order to defend our rights,our land When a gold panner arrives in the reserve we need to be able to talk to him and not to allow him to approach us here in the reserve. And when we have learned to read well and to keep accounts, we are going to learn to work with the white "health workers."

These projects anticipate a new reality for the Yanomami, one in which they can become the actors rather than the recipients of someone else"s conception of their future. The basic right to life for all indigenous peoples requires that they have control over their lands and resources.

In a world striving to overcome racial injustice and environmental degradation, indigenous peoples must be consulted as part of the process of solutions. They are certainly not the problem. The demarcation of the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve certainly has the potential for success, but it can be achieved only when the interests of conservationists, human rights activists and organisations and indigenous peoples coincide. Nevertheless, the conflict over land and natural resources between the indigenous people and the dominant society in which they live remains. The draconian amendment to Decree 22/91 now being proposed has been stalled at the moment due to mounting pressures at home and abroad. The only person who is in a position to get them dropped is President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who can force justice minister Nelson Jobim to withdraw the proposal. And unless that happens, there will be no Yanomami left, and the last great human treasure of the Amazonian forests will be wiped out.

--- (With inputsfrom S Sudha in Washington).

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