- Davi Kopenawa Yanomamileader and shaman for the Yanomami people.
The new Brazilian government recently conducted operations to expel thousands of illegal gold miners from Indigenous Yanomami land in the Amazon rainforest. The miners have caused a humanitarian crisis among the Yanomami, who have suffered from severe malnutrition and illness from illegal mining operations that have polluted rivers and destroyed forests. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recently accused Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government of committing genocide against the Yanomami people. Bolsonaro, who is expected to return to Brazil from Florida next month, could face genocide charges for his actions. Democracy Now! spoke to Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a leader and shaman for the Yanomami people, while he was in Washington, D.C., last week. Yanomami says he supports the prosecution of Bolsonaro.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was in Washington last week meeting with President Biden, talking about the climate crisis and preserving the Amazon. The meeting came just over a month after supporters of Brazil’s former leader, Jair Bolsonaro, attempted a coup shortly after Lula’s inauguration. This week Bolsonaro announced he plans to return to Brazil to lead the opposition.
Last week, I spoke to Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a leader and shaman for the Yanomami people, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in Brazil, while he was in Washington, D.C., while Lula was meeting with Biden. The Brazilian government recently expelled thousands of illegal gold miners from Yanomami land. In January, Lula visited with the Yanomami people and accused Bolsonaro’s government of committing genocide. I asked Davi Kopenawa Yanomami about Lula and the plight of the Yanomami people.
DAVI KOPENAWA YANOMAMI: [translated] The people from the city, the non-Indigenous society, are listening to what I have to say. You asked me, “What does President Lula represent?” For me, my people, the Indigenous people of Brazil, he has thought about us. He has thought about how to resolve the problems that we’ve been been facing for so many years. For me, Lula is a positive person. He is like a friend. He is like a friend of the forest peoples. He wants to save the life of my Yanomami people and to save the lives of our rivers, our forests. He is a very good thinker. He has planned thinking. He has promised to remove the miners from the Yanomami territory. He has also promised to minimize the deforestation of the Amazon forests. So he is following through on his word. He is the only president who has been elected on the ticket of helping the forest peoples, helping the Indigenous people of Brazil, and other persons who really need help. So, he was very good.
He went to visit us in Boa Vista on January 21st. He went to Boa Vista to see up close, to meet our children who are suffering malnutrition, illness and hunger. So he really went there to get a close-up look in order to figure out what he’s going to do. That is the positive work that he’s doing against the illegal miners who have been destroying our rivers, killing our fish and allowing for the expansion of malaria, flu, parasites and other diseases that have been brought in by the illegal miners and which are destroying our health. So, I am a friend of him. I have known him for a long time. He already resolved other situations, such as the Raposa Serra do Sol, so he is continuing to help us, Yanomami in Boa Vista. We really need him.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what this raiding of the illegal gold miners by the government, what actually has taken place? How is the government cutting off their supplies to allow them to devastate the area of the Yanomami?
DAVI KOPENAWA YANOMAMI: [translated] Well, let me explain. I’m going to explain about the removal of the invaders who engaged in illegal mining. They have been here for a long time, practically eight years. During that time, no government has ever paid us any attention. So, the president of Brazil, he is fulfilling the role that he promised he would. He has sent security forces, federal police, IBAMA, the environmental agency. And this is all tied in with the Amazon forest, our land. He is expelling them.
The miners should not be there. The miners who are there to take the wealth of this land, well, that’s because they don’t have land to work on. The government of Brazil has not given these miners anyplace to work in their own place. And my Yanomami people have been living here for many years. And they’ve come and are doing illegal work. No authority has allowed the miners to cause damage to our rivers and to our health, the health of our people, our traditional people. And not everyone speaks Portuguese.
And the disease doesn’t come by itself. Disease comes with illegal mining. The illegal mining is not going to bring any good benefit to my Yanomami people. They have just brought disease to kill my people, to leave my people sick and hungry. Wherever the illegal miners work, they’re not taking care of my people. The miners are bringing disease. And the miners leave, but the disease stays. The disease has no border. There is no way to get rid of the disease. The miners leave, they go home, and they leave in their wake a dirty land, dirty water, pollution, and the disease will remain, as well. It doesn’t go away straightaway.
So, the Brazilian government is trying to resolve the problem. The problem is going to continue mistreating my people. So, the miners are also exploited by the rich. They’re sent by authorities who have money. I want to say the miners are never going to get rich taking out my gold and killing my people, my brothers and sisters and children.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned disease that the Yanomami people face, that the illegal gold miners bring in. But it’s also mercury contamination. This issue of the use of mercury for gold mining, needed to extract the gold, over 90% of the Yanomami have mercury levels in a number of communities that are far higher than the World Health Organization recommends. Mercury is not found natively in the area. Can you talk about the effects of mercury poisoning on the children, on the Yanomami people, adults, as well?
DAVI KOPENAWA YANOMAMI: [translated] I’m going to explain. I don’t know or our forest peoples don’t know of any illegal miner who doesn’t use mercury. Mercury causes illness in one’s body. Mercury is poison. You can’t eat mercury. You don’t eat mercury. It harms our health. So everyone knows that mercury isn’t food. Mercury isn’t water. Mercury is not for eating. Mercury, what you’re asking about, well, the miners who work without mercury aren’t going to get the gold. They place the mercury where the gold is, to separate it out, to clean it, and then the mercury stays in the water.
And we, the community, we’re downriver. The community is by the river’s edge. So the Yanomami draw their water from the river for cooking, to drink and for bathing. Our children like to bathe. Everyone likes to bathe. So they bathe, and then the mercury remains in their hair. It also enters through the ears and the eyes. Children, adults and the elders are also getting mercury poisoning, not just the children. Adults are getting mercury poisoning, as well. So, mercury is business for other countries. It comes from far away, I think from Japan and elsewhere where they began to use mercury. And then now it’s killing my Indigenous people. So they continue to use mercury. People are going to cook and drink water, and it’s dirty water.
The only thing is it flows through the rivers in the Yanomami area. The mining is at the headwaters. The rivers that are contaminated are the Catrimani, the Apiaú, the Mucajaí and the Uraricoera. And it also impacts the Orinoco River in Venezuela and in the Yanomami region, as well, in the Mutuacá. There’s water that originates in the mountains, and that’s where the miners are, at the headwaters in the mountains.
And so, mercury is harming our rivers, the rivers from which we drink water. That’s what I wanted to explain for you to understand. And also those of you who live in the cities, you’re not drinking contaminated water. No. So, that is very bad. It’s very bad. And believe me, it’s causing serious harm to our rivers. And as you say, it is a crime, killing the forests, contaminating the rivers, contaminating our fish. And our children are contaminated by mercury. The children’s hair is beginning to fall out.
The illegal mining in the Yanomami territory is mistreating my people, my Indigenous people. That never happened. We had never seen disease like this where it’s so hard to heal. The mercury is going to continue in the holes that they have made, and it’s going to create more illness. This is what the miners leave behind in causing this harm to our planet Earth.
AMY GOODMAN: Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, the new justice minister has begun an investigation into the Bolsonaro government for crimes against humanity or crimes of genocide against the Yanomami people. Do you think Bolsonaro should be charged with genocide?
DAVI KOPENAWA YANOMAMI: [translated] I would like that very much. I would like that very much. The minister of justice wants to prosecute him because of the way in which my Yanomami people have been mistreated. And they have allowed disease to come in. They have allowed us to die. They have allowed 577 of our children to die. So, you, or the role of the minister of justice, that’s who decides. I’m not going to decide. Because the crime that he created against my Yanomami people, well, it’s the federal Constitution that says that it is criminal to carry out genocide. So, he could go to jail, so that he could learn to respect my people, so he could learn to respect the cultural heritage of my people and of all Brazil.
AMY GOODMAN: Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, leader and shaman for the Yanomami people, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in Brazil. He won the Right Livelihood Award in 2019 with the Hutukara Yanomami Association. We spoke to him last Thursday, just as Brazilian President Lula was coming to Washington to meet with President Biden. The meeting came just over a month after supporters of Brazil’s former president, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, attempted a coup by violently attacking the Supreme Court and the Brazilian Congress in Brazil’s capital Brasília. This week Bolsonaro announced plans to return to Brazil in March to lead the opposition. He’s been living in Florida since December. We’ll be posting our full interview with Davi Kopenawa Yanomami in Portuguese next week.
Happy birthday to Neil Shibata! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.