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Davi Kopanawa Yanomami, Yanomami territory, Brazil, date unknown Claudia Andujar
YANOMAMI STRUGGLE | 2.19.23
Earlier this month at a New York art gallery, Davi Kopenawa crossed paths with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the opening of a retrospective, “The Yanomami Struggle”. The exhibition features the photography of Claudia Andujar who chronicled the early colonization of the Brazilian Amazon in the 1970s. Kopenawa was coming of age back then – an orphan to parents killed by, of all things, a measles outbreak. At the gallery, foremost on the activist’s mind were the emaciated Yanomami Elders and children whose innocent suffering from illegal gold mining recently spurred a humanitarian crisis. It felt awkward, he thought, to be traveling at a time when he and his tribal community were in mourning.
Kopenawa, a spiritual leader now in his mid-sixties, looked much older than in Andujar’s photos of yore. But he showed no signs of slowing down. The real work, it seemed, was just getting started. Newly inaugurated Brazilian President,
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had charged into leadership with a promise to save the Amazon. It raised a riveting question: could his pledge help save the warming planet, too? When Kopenawa spoke to Guterres, the concerns he shared about the rogue miners and the rainforest had been lingering with him for decades. These problems were nothing new, he said. “They’re stealing our land, destroying our nature and water, they’re logging and bringing disease.”
On the eve of Brazil’s presidential election last October, Kopanawa, a longtime activist for the Amazon, knew that the outcome of the political contest would have a major impact on the rainforest – the largest rainforest on Earth. Twice the size of India, the biome spans nine South American countries, and through absorption of greenhouse gases, regulates the climate for the rest of the world . But in the Brazilian Amazon, which is roughly sixty percent
of the entire forest, excessive gold digging and related deforestation sounded an environmental alarm. The World Resource Institute, for example, warns that more extraction in the region could trigger “a large-scale dieback” of the forest to the point of no return, along with massive carbon releases. These threats mattered to Kopanawa at the most grounded and human level. Not only was his homeland facing serious endangerment, but so too were its guardians, the Yanomami people. During former president Jair Bolsonaro’s four years in office, he subjected the Yanomami reservation, about the size of Maine, to a shocking rate of illegal gold mining. Reports of
rapes and murders of the Yanomami spiked. And then there was the rise of the malnourished – mostly children – who developed malaria brought in by the fortune seekers, or grew sick from territorial rivers poisoned by mercury
used to separate the gold from mud. Kopenawa feared that if the right-wing president were to be reëlected, even more people would be ignored, abused, and die. "We are surrounded by big politicians who don't want to know us or respect us." he told a reporter last fall.
Large mining area in the region of the Uraricoera river in the Yanomami Indigenous Land Bruno Kelly / Amazônia Real
Lula, as he is popularly known, eked out a narrow election victory over
Bolsonaro largely due to votes from environmentalists and Indigenous people. Such support has shaped his political agenda: a pledge to achieve “zero deforestation” by 2030 and with an unprecedented reliance on Indigenous leadership. This includes the establishment of the first-ever Ministry of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, and the appointment of respected tribal attorney, Joenia Wapichana, to steer the National Indian Foundation known as FUNAI. The government agency is charged with upholding the rights of Indigenous people including the protection of their homelands – among them, the Amazon. In his inaugural address on New Year’s Day, Lula made clear his trust in Indigenous land stewardship. “No one knows our forests better or are more effective in defending them than those that were here from time immemorial.”
Lula’s outsized embrace of the relationship between the Amazon and its traditional inhabitants holds real promise to shift attitudes of world leaders and thinkers around the globe. At surface-level is the long-overdue acceptance of Indigenous Peoples as sustainability experts – those best placed to defend the planet against an
ongoing cycle of colonization. This includes the complex renewable energy transition that could be dire for Indigenous land and life. More deeply, Lula’s
initial steps in protecting the Yanomami – first, by declaring a public health emergency followed by the forced expulsion of some twenty-thousand miners – represents another awareness that is less understood but what the
climate crisis all too often lays bare: an overlapping of crises steeped in inequality, racial injustice, and political marginalization. The Yanomami struggle poses our ripest example, yet. Under Bolsonaro, the killing of the Indigenous got easier in Brazil after he starved the FUNAI of its staff and budget, and let environmental agencies rot to the point where miners could freely invade Indigenous lands with impunity. Brazil’s supreme court is now investigating Yanomami genocide by the Bolsonaro administration, and it’ll be a case to watch. Will the high court make a connection that most entities grappling with the
climate crisis have yet to make - linking human rights abuses with environmental catastrophe?
Yanomami territory straddles the border of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela
comprised of 37,260 square
miles and home to an estimated 30,000 people. Yanomami Tribe
Kopenawa is hopeful about these strides, though with cautious optimism. During Lula's previous consecutive Presidential terms, from 2003 to 2010, he had a mixed conservation record. According to one UN expert’s report, he supported development that often encroached on or near reservations. And the new president is certain
to face new obstacles. Lula is under pressure to create thirteen additional Indigenous territories in Brazil – a #LandBack-style initiative that Bolsonaro outright rejected. Before taking office, the former president vowed not to give Indigenous people “one more centimeter of land,” and he was true to his word. “Lula is going to need a lot of support,” Kopenawa said. Across the country, pro-Bolsonaro governors still control large swaths of the Amazon signaling a bitter
polarizing landscape ahead.
But study after
study has found that the best-preserved regions in the Brazilian Amazon are Indigenous territories. Some 400 reservations have served as a net carbon sink,
say researchers, compared to a net carbon release on land not managed by Indigenous people. The longer the relationship between Indigenous ways and places is ignored, the more
vulnerable these knowledges become. In this moment then, the promise of protecting one of our most vital resources – the Amazon rainforest – is the ability of systems everywhere to, once and for all, take Indigenous land defenders seriously. On Yanomami territory, it has taken a humanitarian crisis for such leaders to be seen and heard. “I am in mourning because my people are dying,” said Kopenawa at a talk he gave at Princeton University days ahead of the New York art opening. “It’s a problem that comes from the past,” he continued. “Destroyers help to destroy our community, to destroy our forest.”
The Elder activist went on to discuss his book,The Falling Sky, a first-person account published in 2010 that in many ways is the conscience of the Amazon itself. “If you destroy the forest, the sky will break, and it will fall on the earth,” he writes. “There is only one sky, and one has to worry because if it becomes sick, everything will be finished.” These were the musings drawn from another way of seeing and being – an understanding that Kopanawa said derives from his dreams.
FUNAI President, Joenia Wapichana (right) joins President Lula and Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara (back) on a visit to Boa Visita, Roriama state in Brazil, January 21, to investigate the Yanomami health crisis. Ricardo Stuckert | Ministry of Indigenous Peoples,
Was there a warming up to these ways of believing when addressing global issues such as climate change and
environmental policy? The new president of FUNAI, Joenia Wapichana, thinks so. Weeks ahead of her political appointment she had a chat with Kopenawa. “Davi told me that he had a dream that I was in front of the expulsion [of illegal gold miners],” she told Mongabay. On February 6, the premonition came true. As the Brazilian military began their sweep of Yanomami territory, Wapichana – the lawyer who successfully argued before the supreme court that Indigenous land rights were human rights – stood side by side with Lula in a pledge to end the harmful mining. “Now my dream is to see the Indigenous peoples with their rights protected, respected, and fulfilled,” Wapichana said. And she just may see the day.
Lula may not yet believe, like Kopenawa, that the work he does is for the sky not to fall, but the measures he has taken to support the Amazon, its people, and the planet itself, are off to an inspiring and legitimizing start. Two Friday’s ago, he visited President Joe Biden at the White House seeking U.S. contribution to the revamped
Amazon Fund which may go before Congress. Lula also recently advanced plans to host the COP30 climate conference in 2025, originally scheduled to take place in Brazil in 2019 but canceled by Bolsonaro as one of his first acts in
office. It would bring the climate talks full circle to Brazil from when they began 31 years ago at the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Then as now, the most pressing issues remain – understanding the fate of ecosystems and knowledge bases at the expense of energy development, and what can be done to offset climate change against the gross imbalances of the worlds wealth. “The U.N. has to change,” Lula told Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, frustrated by the lack of progress at the international level.
Perhaps no one understands such rigor more than Indigenous Peoples. Their lack of explicit reference in the historic “loss and damage”
fund reached at COP27 in Egypt is among the latest example of the invisibility of these nations within nations – land and water protectors whose traditional knowledge is mentioned in the Paris Agreement, but who continue to be denied “full and effective participation” in responding to the climate crisis.
“We are the Amazon,” said Kopenawa. “We live in a land, in an earth, that is unique for all of us. We share it together and the Yonamami take care of it.” ♦
A Yanomami villager wearing a hard-hat from the construction of the North Perimeter Highway, Roraima State, 1975 Claudia Andujar | Exhibition The Yanomami Struggle
If you're in New York, I'd highly encourage you to take in the exhibition, "The Yonamami Struggle," in person at
The Shed through April 16. Claudia Andujar's imagery is moving, imaginative, and a doorway into a modern timeline of
colonial ambition in one of the world's more striving economies, Brazil. The artist's work also features drawings from Yanomami villagers. As Andujar, now 91, told the New York Times, it’s the Yanomami who need to be heard, not her.
One longread I sunk into in preparation for this
newsletter is from 2019, just as former president Jair Bolsonaro was about to unleash mayhem on the rainforest: "Blood Gold" by Jon Lee Anderson.
And for a more dense, but equally informative read is the 2009 report on the situation of human rights of
Indigenous Peoples in Brazil from U.N. expert, James Anaya.
And lastly, why the Amazon rainforest trees, perhaps more than any other, should be seen as "sentient beings."
One link I would have loved to share with you is a piece I haven't read yet, published in Piaui, Brazil's version of The New Yorker. It's a 2019 profile of Joenia Wapichana which I'm hoping delves into her hard fought land rights victory over the Raposa Serra do Sol. For all the articles written about her historic helming of FUNAI, there has been little mention about what seems like essential backstory. I'll be watching to see whether journalism around Lula's Brazil can do a better job at connecting these little known Indigenous throughlines with the larger climate conversation. Our planet depends on it
With that, I'll sign off by saying that I've missed writing to you week by week, and now month by month. My plate is quite full with my Alaska work which I'll soon be able to share more about. Until then, expect a schedule of fits and starts with my dispatches. In the meantime, maybe fill in your Sunday mornings with a few reasons to be cheerful, the title of David Byrne's new nonprofit editorial project. I think I'm in love...
Brazil has seen more than its fair share of parachute journalism over years, the act of reporters dropping into remote communities like Amazonian reservations only to leave to write a skewed and published version of the truth.
Three women journalists set out to counter such narratives and in 2013 launched Amazônia Real. Ten years on, the digital media outlet is thriving,
telling stories about the Amazon, and violations of Indigenous, environmental and human
Elaíze Farias, editor and co-founder of Amazônia Real, a digital news operation covering the Brazilian Amazon through a decolonizing lens. Bruno Kelly | Amazôn Real
What drives their philosophy behind their journalism are
bylines that don't make them cringe. “Outsiders like to make the Amazon exotic, like a theatre,” said co-founder and journalist, Elaíze Farias.
“They want to wow people. They want something they can sell."
Farias and her co-founders, Kátia Brasil and Liege Albuquerque refuse to be called activists, but their take on Indigenous news from the jungle spins a
narrative that aims to challenge colonial narratives.