You’ve just launched a report ‘Yanomami Under Threat’ with the Hutukara Associação Yanomami (HAY). Can you tell us a little about that report and what it says?
The main objective is to show and prove the illegal activities that are happening in Yanomami territory.
There seems to be an increase in addiction in indigenous communities. Why is this happening?
Young people are given money to join the illegal gold miners – we never know what they spend it on, but they can only spend it in the makeshift communities set up by the gold miners. This is where prostitution, alcohol and drugs are present, so our young people are being introduced to addiction and crime at such a young age. We are seeing a rise in domestic violence, the young people are working long days, and they become like different people because they consume so many drugs. Cocaine and marijuana mostly. I interviewed one young person to ask him if he had taken cocaine, he said he took it to have energy because the gold miners told him that’s what it does.
Gold miners aren’t just miners in this community, they become the pimps and drug dealers in the community. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and other criminal gangs from Brazil and other parts of Latin America are now entering Yanomami territory. These dangerous criminals are escaping and coming here and running the gold mining trade. It’s why we don’t trust the police or the army in Brazil, it’s all the same criminal network.
The report also highlights an unprecedented humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami and Ye’kuana, including violent conflict, murders, rape, and prostitution. Why is this happening?
In this report there are interviews with Yanomami women who have been directly impacted by illegal gold mining, it’s extremely worrying what is happening to young Yanomami girls who are experiencing sexual violence.
In an interview with a Yanomami woman, described in the report, she says that out of curiosity a Yanomami woman went over to the illegal gold miners at one of their sites to denounce what they were doing. She said, “you are destroying the river and my home, you have to pay for this” and the illegal gold miner said, “I’m not giving you anything, but if you offer your daughter to me (sexually) I’ll give you some food.” this is one instance of such exploitation.
The report talks of indigenous communities suffering from oppression from the Brazilian Government – could you expand a little on that?
The current president of FUNAI (the governmental protection agency for Amerindian interests and their culture), Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva, has actually been installed there by Bolsonaro. He (Marcelo) is actually reporting the indigenous leaders trying to defend their rights to the police, as he is in fact a high-ranking former member himself. This is a network of corruption at all levels.
Illegal gold mining is known to use mercury, which poisons land, rivers, wildlife and people. How is this affecting the rainforest and its communities?
The illegal gold miners use mercury when they are collecting the gold, when they are done with it they discard it in the river. So there is the contamination of mercury in the river which especially affects children. We see a high rate of malnutrition, children are really vulnerable to illnesses like malaria, pneumonia and flu. These illnesses are highly aggravated in the child population.
There is the cooptation of young people into illegal gold mining, it’s a very sad situation where these young people face extreme violence. The illegal gold miners offer young people (young people in Yanomami culture are around 12 to 13 years old) guns and weapons. They are incentivising these young people to think they are the owners of this land and ask that they will protect it on behalf of the illegal gold miners.
You recently attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn. How effective do you feel forums like this are for making change happen?
The first time I participated in the UN was in Paris when the agreement was made, and I’ve attended every COP since. We’re talking about our potency and power to preserve nature, it’s completely opposite to what the government is saying. I think we’re managing to gain an international space to show we are the real guardians of the forest. An amazing achievement for indigenous peoples was when Txai Surui opened the COP at Glasgow – it was the first time in history something like this happened.
This year we’re hoping that will mean there are more spaces for our voices to be heard. I think now that the heads of state are starting to realise the importance of indigenous peoples in this flight to protect the world, which is why they’ve committed more funding to this. The problem is we don’t know how to access this government – will it go straight to the Brazilian government? If so we’ll never see it. That’s why we’re developing a strategy so we can access this fund, we want to show the outcome of our work to preserve the climate. As I said, if the government doesn’t change then they won’t do anything to preserve the planet or climate. But we are confident that people are waking up to the cry of indigenous communities.
Can you talk a bit about the effects of climate change on the Amazon that you’ve seen in your lifetime?
Rains come earlier, but we also see droughts. The moon isn’t in the same rhythm as it used to be, our time is linked to the moon so the rainy season of April, May, and June are now what we have all year round. That has a massive impact on our harvest and crops, we can’t plant like we used to. We have to double our efforts. In some parts of the Amazon where there’s no mining, there is still fish present, near the mining sites there is nothing left. The land is dead.
When we went up in planes that fly low along the Amazon, we saw the true scale of the destruction. From the forest floor, it’s difficult to get a scale of the damage but from that height, it’s even more shocking.
You come from the Yekuana indigenous community in Brazil, but you have worked closely with the Yanomami (another indigenous group in the region) for many years now. What are the differences between your two communities?
They’re two very different cultures – traditional dances, festivals and rituals are all different. The language is different. The Yanomami are hunter-gatherers and fishermen, the Yekuana are farmers and we (Yekuana) make our own canoes. We are the minority in the Yanomami territory, there are only 600 Yekauana in Brazil compared to 30,000, but there are 12,000 in Venezuela.
Once a jaguar followed me whilst I was hunting and if you run away the animal likes the fear, if you confront him with your bow and arrow he gets scared. This is why I say to young people that they need to be prepared for everything in the forest, and be brave. In our culture, we prepare young people for the danger of the rainforest through a ritual to make them a warrior. At night, their grandparents will wake them and they will have large ants, maybe 5 or 10 all wrapped together, with very painful stings pressed into their skin. It happens at night as you are not allowed to scream, otherwise, this will wake your sleeping family, this is what makes you brave. Nobody passes this test, but it prepares you for the danger of the forest. After this, you will no longer be afraid.
What is your favourite memory of the rainforest?
I love to raise parrots from the rainforest as pets – my daughter loves to play with them. This is a tradition in Yanomami and other indigenous cultures.
My son will be 8 this year, and we have begun the ant rituals with him. He knows how to fish, he’s learning new things every day. On his first hunt, he won’t be allowed to eat his catch, it will be given to his parents. I want him to continue on this road and learn from his grandmother and grandfather. He’s learning how to build canoes right now. I want my children to live in the rainforest, learn the ways of our community and go through the processes we’ve spoken about. It’s a form of tradition and education.
You’ve given so much of your life to this movement, to defend the Yanomami and bring their plight to the world. This is at the expense of your life at home, that’s hard.
Sometimes in difficult moments I really miss them. We’re also prepared to face this, it’s as if we are hunters as if I’m kind of hunting in danger of indigenous peoples. And so in difficult times, I need to remember that I am a hunter and I am a warrior. I will survive this. In my culture when you’re missing somebody if you cry for them it means someone will die, that’s why we are prepared for this.
What actions can we all take to support you in this work to finally bring this suffering to an end?
In this report, I want people to see the enormity of the problems we are facing. People in the city across the world are ignorant of our fight and struggle, I hope this report spreads throughout the world. I hope it reaches heads of state, universities, and teachers so everyone can be educated about what is happening.
That’s why it’s so important to educate the next generation because what they’re learning isn’t how to protect their own lives. They need to learn how to plant trees and protect nature, but also how to take care of it and nurture it. They can’t just plant trees and then leave them, we need to constantly be with nature.
The thing I like most is going to school and hearing questions from the children, so I can educate and guide them on how to care for life. I was so happy when I went with Davi to visit a school in 2014 with CAFOD, the children already knew how we are looking after the planet – this was such a rich experience for us. So we need to have more presence in schools, showing our struggle to protect the environment – they are the future generations and they can take on this role, as we have.