There is a remote tribe that you’ve probably never heard of – the Yanomami. Here, Joanna Eede, Survival International’s editorial consultant and author of We Are One tells their story. Please share this feature with your friends and family. Only by raising awareness of the Yanomami’s plight can we give them the help they truly need
In the vast area of dense tropical rainforest, forested lowland plains and sandstone table-mountains of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, live the Yanomami, one of the largest and relatively isolated tribes in South America.
Like most tribes in South America, the ancestors of the Yanomami probably migrated across the Bering Strait between Asia and America about 15,000 years ago. ‘The rainforest has been the home of my people for thousands of years,’ says Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami spokesman. ‘We know this land. We know the streams and the seasons of the wild fruit trees. We call this place Urihi, our land, our forest – the place where we belong.’
As their Urihi home is so deep in the Amazon, the Yanomami had remained virtually isolated from the rest of the world until the mid 1900s. But with that contact came destruction. During the 20th century, the Yanomami witnessed the demise of their people from poverty, disease, alcoholism and prostitution. The discovery of gold in the 1970s meant the beginning of an influx of garimpeiros (illegal goldminers) to their homeland. The miners opened clandestine airstrips, shot the Yanomami, destroyed many villages and exposed them to diseases to which they had no immunity . A fifth of their population died in just seven years.
The mining also had adverse consequences for the Yanomami’s land where high-pressure hoses destroyed the riverbanks. The birds and mammals they rely on were driven away by the noise of the shotguns. Mercury used to separate the gold from soil and rock poisoned their water supplies and pools of water created by mining became breeding areas for malarial mosquitoes.
Quite apart from the devastating human toll, such environmental destruction was nothing short of a disaster for the Yanomami. To them, the earth is the bedrock of their lives. They believe in maintaining ecological balance, the destruction of the natural world is thus also a self-destructive act. They believe, ‘If we hurt nature, we also hurt ourselves’.
The Yanomami still live in complex communities where the solidarity of the group is of utmost importance. A shabono, the communal house, can contain up to 400 people. They believe strongly in equality and do not recognise ‘chiefs’. Decisions are made by consensus, frequently after long debates where everybody has a say. The art of sharing is paramount, so a hunter will not eat an animal he has killed – instead, it is distributed among relatives and friends. Children are raised in an atmosphere of collective intimacy, and one that contains a larger number of individuals than most city dwellers would be used to.
Yanomami children are not formally educated; they are left to their own devices to watch and imitate adults. By the age of four or five, most children start to join adult activities. Boys learn the rudiments of hunting by killing small birds and mammals with bows and arrows, while girls tend to take on the duties of looking after smaller children as well as helping their mothers gather produce from the Yanomami gardens, or preparing food at the hearth in the shabono. Childish play continues alongside grown-up activities. On average it takes the Yanomami less than four hours work a day to satisfy all their material needs. These needs are entirely provided by the forest and hunting – the most prestigious of skills – which is done by men in the rainforest. Women tend to Yanomami gardens, where they grow about 60 crops, which make up 80 per cent of the Yanomami diet.
It is thought that the Yanomami use about 500 species of rainforest plants on a daily basis, so their botanical knowledge is extraordinary. The piassava palm trees are used to weave mats and baskets, the bark of the copal tree is applied to eye infections, the juice of cat’s claw vine for diarrhoea and timbó vine for stunning fish.
Today, however, the Yanomami continue to suffer. Thousands of gold-miners work illegally on their land and they still do not have proper ownership rights, despite Brazil signing the international law (ILO Convention169 which guarantees this right).
Crucially, the Yanomami, like many other tribes around the world, need to be listened to and given a say in the decisions that affect them. The Yanomami want to be able to choose their way of life now, and in the future. ‘We do not want to have change thrust upon us,’ says Davi Kopenawa. ‘We want progress without destruction. We want the forest to remain quiet, the sky to remain clear, the evening darkness really to fall and the stars to be seen.’