Davi Kopenawa Yanomami
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Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, name also written Davi Kobenawä Yanomamö (born Toototobi, Brazil, c. 1956), is a Yanomami shaman and Portuguese-speaking spokesperson for the Yanomami Indians in Brazil. He became known for his advocacy regarding tribal issues and Amazon rainforest conservation when the tribal rights organization Survival International invited him to accept the Right Livelihood Award on its behalf in 1989. Yanomami spoke to both the British and Swedish parliaments about the catastrophic impact on Yanomami health as a consequence of the illegal invasion of their land by 40,000 ‘garimpeiros’ or goldminers. Prince Charles publicly called the situation ‘genocide’. In a seven-year period from 1987-1993 one fifth of the Yanomami died from malaria and other diseases transmitted by the miners.
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami speaking in 2014
Davi Kobenawä Yanomamö
February 18, 1956
Early life and educationEdit
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami was born near the Rio Toototobi near the border of Venezuela. He learned Portuguese from a Christian mission run by New Tribes Mission, an American evangelical organization specializing in the proselytization of isolated peoples. The acquisition of Portuguese language proficiency (then rare among the Yanomami) enabled Yanomami to interact with Brazil's Lusophone majority both directly and through the mass media.
In his own words translated from Portuguese:
I know that the authorities and many people came here because the planet is sick and they are trying to find out how to cure it. The people who come from many places, from the other side of the big lake, all come here to learn about how we live. I want to speak giving the message from Omai. Omai is the creator of the Yanomami who also has created all the shaboris that are the shamans. The shaboris are the ones that have the knowledge, and they sent two of us to deliver their message. The message is to stop destruction, to stop taking out minerals from under the ground, to stop taking out the steel with which all the metal utensils are made, and to stop building roads. We feel that a lot of riches have already been taken out of the indigenous lands, and a lot of these riches are getting old and useless, and it would be much better if the Brazilian government would give these riches to the poor in Brazil. Our work is to protect nature, the wind, the mountains, the forest, the animals, and this is what we want to teach you people.
Yanomami is the son-in-law of another traditional tribal leader with whom he apprenticed to be a shaman. His wife lost much of her family to measles and other diseases brought to the area in the 1970s by road construction crews and garimpeiros (small-time gold miners). Yanomami has mentioned this as part of his personal motivation to speak out on his people's behalf. Yanomami was orphaned as a child when his parents died from diseases transmitted by outsiders.
After some months of staying on our territory, they started to transmit malaria to us. That means that the garimpeiros were already sick. Mosquitos bit the garimpeiros and then bit us. That is how we got the disease. The garimpeiros also brought in other diseases. There are complications of pneumonia, sometimes associated with malaria; tuberculosis; skin diseases that often are associated with other diseases, and, especially in children, can be fatal; there was an epidemic of yellow fever in the area; hepatitis.
In the 1980s, he began working for the Brazilian government organization Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) at a post in Demini in the center of Yanomami territory as an intermediary between the government and indigenous peoples with whom outsiders had little or no contact. He also accompanied health workers to Yanomami villages and has worked closely with organizations such as Comissão Pró-Yanomami (CCPY) and Survival International in the fight for the integrity of Yanomami lands in Brazil.
Since the invasion of Yanomami territory began in 1987 by illegal goldminers, Yanomami has worked for their removal from the area and for the creation of a parkland therein. His action resulted in death threats from the miners and an award from the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988. After a major international campaign led by Yanomami, Survival International and CCPY, the Brazilian government finally recognized Yanomami land rights in 1992 just before the UN’s Earth Summit.
His non-Yanomamö supporters in Brazil, intelligent and well-intentioned advocates of the Yanomamö cause, are promoting him as a spokesman for his people. Such a role exists largely because our culture must deal with other cultures through their leaders – it is the only way we know how to deal with them. Everything I know about Davi Kobenawä is positive, and I am confident that he is a sincere and honest man. When I read his proclamations, I am moved – but I am also sure that someone from our culture wrote them. They have too much the voice of Rousseau’s idealism and sound very non-Yanomamö. My concern is that he is being put into a difficult position, fraught with consequences for the future of the Yanomamö. For one thing, there is currently no such thing as a pan-Yanomamö awareness, and so he cannot possibly be speaking for the Venezuelan Yanomamö.
Survival International and many others with extensive experience of the Yanomami have severely criticized Chagnon’s work which portrays the Yanomami as ‘sly, aggressive, and intimidating’ and falsely claims that they ‘live in a state of chronic warfare’. This characterization has undoubtedly been detrimental for them. It was referred to by the Brazilian government when it planned to fragment Yanomami land in 1988, in a proposal which would have been catastrophic for the Indians and which was only prevented by a vigorous campaign.
Yanomami has spoken out for over 20 years and visited many countries with his message about the importance of respecting indigenous peoples rights and their fundamental and unique role in conserving rainforest for the benefit of humanity.
In 2004 Yanomami and other Yanomami in Brazil set up an organization called Hutukara to defend their rights. As well as advocating for Yanomami rights, it runs educational projects where Yanomami teachers work in the communities teaching literacy, maths, geography and human rights.
Yanomami continues to speak out about the dangers facing the Yanomami. He has warned about the impact large scale mining will have on the Yanomami if the Brazilian congress votes to allow mining on indigenous lands.
We the Yanomami people think that mining will not bring any benefits to anyone. It will only destroy nature. It will only destroy the streams and the rivers and kill the fish and kill the environment. And kill us. And bring in diseases which never existed in our land. It will bring roads and people who will bring in disease, guns and violence. So we, the Yanomami people do not want the national congress to approve the law or the president to sign it. We do not want to accept this law. Our land has to be respected. Our land is our heritage, a heritage which protects us. This land belongs to us so that we can plant, hunt, be healthy, it is our home where will live for the rest of our lives.
In 2009 he was honoured by the Bartolome de las Casas award in Spain  and later gave a speech to the UK parliament where he warned that the goldminers are once again invading Yanomami land and disease is spreading.
- "A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales titled The Rainforest Lecture for Friends of the Earth, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew". princeofwales.gov.uk. 6 February 1990.
- "Disinherited – Indians in Brazil" (PDF). Survival International. 2000.
- "Engagement of anthropologists in public dialogue with members of study communities" (PDF). University of Arizona.
- His nickname ‘Kopenawa’ (hornet) was given to him in recognition of his ability to fight for his people.
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- "Multinational Monitor". XIII (9). September 1992.
- "Although death because of measles is rare in the United States and Europe, in developing countries death rates from measles can reach as high as 15%. Of these deaths, 60% result from secondary infections of bacterial pneumonia attendant upon measles. (Ý Redd, S. C.; L.E. Markowitz; and S. L. Katz, 1999,Ý "Measles Vaccine." Ý In Vaccines, ed. Plotkin and Oresten (W. B. Saunders Co.)".
- "Davi Kopenawa Yanomami biography" (PDF). survival-international.org.
- "Comissão Pró-Yanomami (Pro-Yanomami Commission) home page".
- Rocha, Jan (1999). "CCPY Urihi report no 12 'Worldwide support for the Yanomami is crucial' The Yanomami, the Gold Miners and the Amazon" (PDF). London: Latin America Bureau.
- Chernela, Janet (June 7, 2001). "Interview with Davi Kopenawa" (PDF).
- "Albert, Bruce, ed., "Research and Ethics: The Yanomami Case: Brazilian Contributions to the Darkness in El Dorado controversy," Brasilia, Brazil: Pro-Yanomami Commission Document No. 2, 2001"
- Disinherited – Indians in Brazil (PDF). Survival International. 2000. p. 50.
- Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel, Department of Anthropology. "Comments on "Introduction" to the El Dorado Task Force Preliminary Report". University of Hawaii.
- "Socio Environmental Institute report on Hutukara meeting".
- "Davi speaks about the threats facing the Yanomami". survival-international.org.
- "Davi Yanomami honoured with Bartolome de las Casas award in Spain" (in Spanish). casamerica.es.
- Vidal, John (13 June 2009). "Davi speaks to British newspaper". The Guardian. London.