“It’s very important to talk to everybody here. We don’t want what happened 500 years ago to happen again. We, the Yanomami people, don’t want to die again,” said Davi Kopenawa in an interview with ICTMN at the end of April.
Kopenawa, an internationally known advocate for the Yanomami people of Brazil and the rainforest, was in San Francisco at the end of April to meet with activists, scholars and political officials to alert them to an escalating crisis involving gold miners in Yanomami territory and to speak about his book “The Falling Sky.”
For the interview on April 25th, Kopenawa sat down with ICTMN along with his interpreter and friend, Fiona Watson, Research Director for Survival International and longtime ally of the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples of Brazil.
During the 35 minute conversation Kopenawa began by asserting how dangerous the gold mining operations have been for the people and the environment in their territory.
“The gold miners are people with lots of vices. They bring alcohol, they bring illnesses. They couldn’t find jobs in the cities and got no help from the government and the only thing they want to do is get gold from Indigenous Peoples territories. They have spread all over our land.
"The gold miners (garimpeiros) only work in the rivers,” he explained. “They use mercury to clean and separate the gold from the sand. When they wash the gold with mercury, the mercury sinks to the bottom of the river bed. The communities who live downstream use this water for drinking, washing and bathing. The fish also swallow mercury when they are eating which in turn affects the people who eat the fish. So the Yanomami get ill from mercury poisoning. That's how the mercury contaminates our place.”
Kopenawa also emphasized that there are laws currently being proposed in Brazil that would make it easier for miners and others to invade indigenous territories. Watson noted that the indigenous communities and their allies such as SI are very worried about three potential laws in particular: PEC 215 is a constitutional amendment that would allow congress, which has members influenced by a strong anti-indigenous lobby, to be involved with demarcation of land; Portaria 303 which would prohibit extending any indigenous territory and that indigenous rights to use their resources would not extend to preventing large scale hydro-electric and mining projects; and Law Project 1610 would open up all indigenous territories to large scale mining (and there were already hundreds of petitions to start mining in Yanomani territory).
“I will talk about these things,” Kopenawa said in regards to his then upcoming presentations (he later spoke with California Governor Jerry Brown about the mining issues).
“I want to talk about the concerns of the Yanomami people. We are beginning to get nervous and sad because the government is preparing to invade our territory even though it is demarcated and recognized by law.”
He stated that his book, “The Falling Sky,” explains those concerns and how the Yanomami are guardians of their region of the earth.
“It is important to explain this to the city people who know about their land and mountains and places but we Yanomami needed a book to explain things to white people so they would know our story. We are guardians of the knowledge of our region of earth, of the mountains and the rivers. For us, the forest is a thing of great beauty and it is our story. Some white people think that the Yanomami know nothing, so for this reason I thought about writing a book about the traditional knowledge of the Yanomami, my people.”
At the end of the interview, Kopenawa re-iterated his principal message to the people of the United States.
“All we Indigenous Peoples in Brazil are very worried because of the project to mine in the Yanomami's territory and in the territories of other indigenous brothers and sisters. We Yanomami people don't want mining because we don't want to suffer and die of the white peoples' diseases. Mining will not bring positive benefits to the Indigenous Peoples. It will only bring a lot of diseases and problems and fights with the indigenous people. For this reason all we Indigenous Peoples are against mining.
“I, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, an indigenous leader, ask for support from the American people not to allow mining to start in the Yanomami territory. I would like you to help to defend the lungs of the earth. I thank you for your strength. Thank you very much."