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Brazilian Indigenous Leader Davi Kopenawa: Bolsonaro Is Killing My People & Destroying the Amazon

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Democracy Now! sat down with indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa, one of this year’s Right Livelihood Award honorees along with the organization he co-founded, Hutukara Yanomami Association. Kopenawa is a shaman of the Yanomami people, one of the largest indigenous tribes in Brazil, who has dedicated his life to protecting his culture and protecting the Amazon rainforest. He says indigenous peoples in the Amazon are under threat from business interests, as well as politicians, including far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has a long history of anti-indigenous statements and policies. “He doesn’t like indigenous people. He does not want to let the Yanomami people to live at peace, protected. … What he wants is to extract our wealth to send to other countries.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, I sat down with Davi Kopenawa, who is a Right Livelihood laureate along with his organization Hutukara Yanomami Association. Kopenawa is a shaman of the Yanomami people, one of the largest indigenous tribes in Brazil, dedicating his life to preserving his culture and protecting the Amazon rainforest. I began by asking him to talk about the threats facing the Yanomami people.

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] My name is Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. I am a representative of the Yanomami people in Roraima and Amazonas states in Brazil. My peoples, the Yanomami, is a sacred people. Up until today, the non-indigenous peoples haven’t recognized where we come from, where we were born. And that is why the non-indigenous society is always messing up with our homes, destroying our land, our territory, contaminating our rivers, killing our fish and hindering the health of the Yanomami people, who are now contaminated by men, men who came and contaminated our home.

AMY GOODMAN: The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as the president of Brazil, how has that affected indigenous people?

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] President Bolsonaro was elected by his own people. Us, indigenous peoples, we haven’t participated in it. We have not voted for him. But he is now there. And he is preparing a trap. He is preparing a trap for my Yanomami people in order to fool us and manipulate us.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain more what that trap is.

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] It is a trap just like the one you use to hunt an onca, Brazilian jaguar, or a snake when they are sleeping at their homes. Men prepare a trap to get the animal. So it is a trap to mistreat us. He threaten us to make my people fall ill, to make our children fall ill and get diseases. That’s what I mean by trap. That’s the trap he always uses, to any kind of indigenous people and to planet Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain Bolsonaro’s latest moves, trying to get a law passed that would allow for more gold mining, and what that means for the Yanomami and other indigenous people?

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] Before he was able to become a president, he already had this thought, this intention of reducing the size of our land. He says it is too much land for just a few indigenous peoples, and it is a land very rich in minerals, in wood. He says that the land is good for plants such as crops of soybeans or sugarcane. They want to use the land to plant things that they use for food, food for the city. That’s his reasoning. He wants to extract things from the underground. That’s his concern. He wants to extract the wealth from the Earth, right from the land where Yanomami people have been living for many, many years. That’s why he keeps talking about it. He created a legislation. It is a bill for mining. And he wants to get it approved at our National Congress. And I am aware of it. I know that if they let it happen, this is really a worry for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Mercury, what’s used in the gold-mining process, how does it make people sick?

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] I am going to explain it to you. This mercury that they use, they use it when — they actually got it from somewhere else, from Japan or from here in Europe. And then they use it in their mining activities. The machines come to dig a huge hole to extract minerals. And then it goes on the rivers. The rivers are full of minerals, full of gold, full of sand and mud. The mercury is then dropped on the rivers, and they use it to separate mud and sand so that the only thing left behind is gold. That’s what they use it for.

And the mercury is then left inside of the river. It won’t melt like sugar does. It stays there. It is a disease that stays within our rivers. And then fish come and eat smaller fish, just like fruits that fall into the rivers, and then fish get contaminated. And us Yanomami who live by the rivers, we use the water to make food or to bathe in it and to drink it. And after, we get sick. We get cancer. And our children then born smaller than usual, underdeveloped. That’s what mercury is causing. Our health is terrible in Yanomami people because of it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Brazilian indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa, co-founder of the Hutukara Yanomami Association. He’ll receive the Right Livelihood Award tonight here in Stockholm, Sweden. We’ll continue with our conversation with Davi in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Someone for Something” by the Swedish musician and flautist Elsa Nilsson. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. In our next segment, we’ll be speaking with the former U.N. rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, about the new study on the imprisonment of children around the world. But first, we continue our conversation with Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami indigenous leader in Brazil, receiving the Right Livelihood Award tonight here in Stockholm, Sweden.

AMY GOODMAN: Davi, I wanted to read a few of Bolsonaro’s quotes. In 1998, he said, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] The president of the United States, they exterminated our indigenous peoples who lived over there. He is doing just the same. He is repeating it. He wants to kill my people. He wants to get rid of the forest. He wants to destroy our health. That’s the role he’s playing. That’s a law that came from the United States, and the Brazilian government is using it as a copy, like you call it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read another quote from a few years ago, 2015. Bolsonaro said, “The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture. They are native peoples. How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?” And he said, “There is no indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians,” Bolsonaro said. If you could comment?

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] He heard other people talking, and that’s why he says that us Yanomami people do not speak Portuguese. Of course we don’t speak Portuguese, because we’re not from Portugal. We are Yanomami from Brazil. We have our own language. It exists. It is Yanomami. Yanomami do not need any money. Yanomami do not need money to go on and steal from others, to steal from friends, from your own relatives and brothers. We don’t need that. Yanomami has a different way of thinking.

He wrote things against us. He has wrote things because he lost when we had our victory, when we were able to have again, to get back for us our land that had been stolen from us. And that’s why he talks against us and he speaks these bad things about us. And I defend myself and my people. On behalf of my people, I defend the name of my people and our language. What’s the use for the Yanomami to speak Portuguese? We’re not interested in it. We’re interested in our own language, our knowledge. The knowledge of our people who uses its own language, that’s what’s interesting for us.

But I wanted to respond to the second thing that you read about, his words when he speaks of our wealth. Of course there is a lot of wealth. Brazil is very rich. Our country Brazil is very rich, rich in good land, in forests, rich in mountains and waters, the medicine, the natural medicines that we use and beautiful places. That’s what we’re rich in, us Yanomami who live there, who have never experienced hunger before people who came to invade our land, to invade Brazil.

When they first met us, we were healthy. They found us healthy with lots of food — banana, manioc, sugarcane, palm heart, cará fruit, and all the fruits you find in the forest, animals, game that we hunt, tapir, fish, everything that we’re rich in. It’s not the kind of wealth that you need to dig a hole in the earth to find it, to destroy the land. Our people is different. That’s why he speaks against us.

And I don’t want to say bad things about him, but he attacked us, so I will attack him. I am not going to attack him with a bow and arrow. However, I am going to fight using my mouth and paper. He uses words and the word that you use, which is prejudice. He doesn’t like indigenous peoples. He does not want to let the Yanomami people to live at peace, protected. He does not want that. He doesn’t want to let it happen.

What he wants is to extract our wealth to send to other country. The wealth of our Yanomami land, he will take it and send it to China, to Japan, to Germany and other places. That’s his way of thinking. That’s his concern, making money, earning money so that he can become rich. And when he becomes rich and when he dies, he won’t take any of it with him, not even his underwear.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolsonaro calls the climate crisis a hoax. President Trump calls the climate crisis a hoax. Can you talk about what the climate crisis means for the Yanomami people, for the people of Brazil?

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] They are a sick group, the president of the United States, the president of Brazil and the president of Venezuela. They are talking to each other and discussing, and then they tell people there are no problems in Brazil, because they want to hide it. This is very clear. Everyone knows it’s taking place, climate change. He sees the fire burning up our forests, but he’s not concerned about it. He is not worried when he sees the forest burning up. He’s taking advantage of it, because the fire burns up the forest and the trees burn up, and then workers come and take advantage of it and bring trees down. Yeah, that’s his way of thinking. But it truly took place. It’s happening. Wildfires in the forest and deforestation are increasing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the murder of Paulo Paulino Guajajara, the indigenous forest protector? Your organization has worked with him for some time. Recently, a group of experts released an open letter to Bolsonaro warning a genocide is underway against the indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest. Do you feel threatened yourself? And respond to that murder.

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] Well, I am a leader, a leader who fights. I have been fighting for 40 years. And I am threatened. I am threatened by a group of illegal gold miners and also farmers and politicians. Politicians have a way of finding someone who enjoys killing and who kills indigenous peoples. And I am persecuted. Our indigenous leaders who really fight, they want to get rid of us. So I am threatened.

And I think that this will happen again. We have talked about his name, Bolsonaro. He will know that we are talking about him, about his name, Bolsonaro. So I am asking your help in order to protect us, so that we won’t let it happen again as it happened to other leaders who got murdered. It is a very dangerous struggle. In Boa Vista, well, it is a small town, so the Bolsonaro people, they pay others to go after the leaders who are fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: What message do you have for the leaders of the U.N. climate summit, the thousands of people who come from around the world? And what message do you have to the people of the world?

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] Well, I would like to give a message, a message from the Yanomami people. I would like to ask the leaders, the non-indigenous leaders from here, to gather with other leaders who are at their homes, their cities, their capitals. I would like to take this opportunity to send them a message so that they can know about what’s going on, so they won’t let it happen again, something very bad to my Yanomami people, so that they won’t let people destroy the environment, so that they won’t let people destroy the lungs of planet Earth. That’s my message to everyone, all of those who fight, all of those who love the forest, all of those who like to protect, to take care of nature for their children, grandchildren and the other generations.

I also need help. I need help on that, because we have grandchildren, so that they have their protected land, so that they have a protected land for them. That is why I’m giving you this message, to ask for your strength, your strength, your European people to talk to Bolsonaro, to talk to the president of Brazil so that he takes care of his country, so that he can take care of it, protecting it together with the indigenous peoples and together with the people who live in sacred lands, and also the Yanomami peoples, who have never seen the white man, uncontacted Yanomami people who live in sacred land. So I would like you to protect us, protect the isolated indigenous communities.

I do not want the president of Brazil to destroy the lungs of our forests, our real Amazon. It is unique. Lots of people are trying to get their hands on the Amazon, just like bees who collect honey and take it to their homes. I do not want to let him do just the same. That’s my message. This is a message for women who fight for having the right to land, men who fight for their forests, their education, their health. Nowadays, the young people, the youth, is fighting, and they are the ones who will keep on fighting. It is a struggle, a fight so we can keep alive, because without the struggle, we won’t live. There will be no forest. So we need to fight for it so we can live.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does the Right Livelihood Award mean to you, why you’re here in Stockholm, Sweden?

DAVI KOPENAWA: [translated] I think this award is really important. It is very interesting that the government of Sweden invented this and created this award. This award is important to bring recognition to my struggle, to bring recognition to my Yanomami people, so that the people from the city and the people of the planet get to know us. This is really important that the people from here are offering me this award. I never asked for it. You offered it, and I am happy to accept it. It is really important. It is the result of our fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Brazilian indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa, co-founder of the Hutukara Yanomami Association. He’ll receive the Right Livelihood Award tonight along with the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, Sahrawi human rights leader Aminatou Haidar and Chinese women’s rights lawyer Guo Jianmei.

When we return, we speak to the former U.N. special rapporteur on torture, who just released a devastating report on the more than 7 million children worldwide deprived of their liberty, from immigration jails to orphanages to prisons. Stay with us.

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