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Amazon protectors: we want illegal gold miners out of our territory

Yanamami shaman Davi Kopenawa and his son, Dário Kopenawa, were in Geneva in October to speak out against the invasion of their ancestral lands by gold miners. (Credit: Geneva Solutions)

The Yanomami, a 30,000 strong indigenous people living in some 200 villages throughout the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Roraima on the border with Venezuela, are among the last safekeepers of one of the Earth’s cradles of biodiversity. But the Amazon forest is facing growing threats from deforestation, ravaging wildfires and illegal extraction of gold and other minerals. 

Around 20,000 illegal gold miners have invaded Yanomami territory, causing devastating consequences for the environment and sparking violent confrontations between the miners and the indigenous inhabitants. Covid-19 and now a malaria outbreak are threatening the communities amid accusations against the Brazilian government of disregarding indigenous communities. 

Bolsonaro, who had campaigned in 2018 on a promise to open Brazil’s natural resources up for exploitation, announced on Monday that he would speed up his plans to get rid of illegal deforestation by two to three years but critics remain skeptical about his commitment to the protection of nature, the Associated Press has reported.

Davi Kopenawa, one of their shaman leaders – sometimes described as the Dalai Lama of the rainforest – and a 2019 laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, was in Geneva this week with his son, Dário Kopenawa, to warn UN officials about the ongoing destruction of the rainforest by illegal gold miners.  The two environmental advocates are calling on international organisations to pressure Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to respect indigenous rights.

Geneva Solutions: Illegal gold mining in the Yanomami territory has been a long standing problem since the 1980s. What is different today?

Dário Kopenawa: We’ve been facing the return of illegal gold mining for around six years now, and our association ​​Hutukara Yanomami has filed many claims with the Brazilian authorities, including the Ministry of Justice, the Federal Police, the army, the FUNAI [National Indian Foundation] and the president.

The situation has gotten worse. Since 2018, the global price of gold has gone up. One gramme of gold is around 300 reals [50 CHF], which is very high. This has attracted miners from other parts of Brazil who saw that they could make a profit. We estimate that there are around 20,000 illegal miners spread out in our territory. 

GS News: What has been the response of the authorities?

Dário K.: The president of the republic, the justice minister and the supreme court never replied. It’s difficult. We also wrote to parliamentary members for them to put pressure on the government but we didn’t get an answer either. In Roraima, the federal police, the army and the justice ministry sometimes act by carrying out very local and small operations, for example to destroy the machines of the illegal miners. It might make them leave for a while but then they come back. It's not efficient.

GS News: You've been in Geneva before with a similar warning about the presence of miners and the destruction of your land. Are you hopeful that this visit will actually help save the Amazon forest?

Davi Kopenawa: The first time I went outside of Brazil to speak about the situation was in 1988 to New York, in the US. We fought hard and it was difficult, but we managed to get support from the UN. I then came to Geneva in 2016 to also get support from the UN for the Yanomami people, but it didn’t work this time. That's why I'm here again.

GS News: Dário K., you are from the younger generation. Are you optimistic that coming to Geneva will help protect the Amazon? 

Dário K.: We understand that it's a very complex system because the UN is composed of many countries and Bolsonaro’s government doesn't want the UN bothering him. Two months ago, we spoke with the UN chief of human rights, Michelle Bachelet, by virtual meeting. She put a lot of pressure on the government and asked it to protect the kids from pollution and from violence. She's very strong but then the president didn't do anything. He lied saying that everything is okay, that the government was protecting the people from Covid, that there’s no pollution and that they were fighting against the illegal gold miners. But it’s just lies.

But the UN is going to hear us again and will have to act again. We’re going to ask them to put pressure on the president to take out all the miners from our territory right now.

GS News: Next week Cop26 is taking place in Glasgow. As one of the most affected populations by climate change, what can you and other indigenous peoples expect from the climate summit?

Davi K.: I don’t trust anybody, so the government authorities of the world can have a big meeting but it will only be a waste of money. They say they're going to protect the environment but then they won’t. 

Dário K.: They should listen more to the indigenous people of Brazil, of America, and the rest of the world. Indigenous people are especially [affected] by climate change and the problems it causes, including for the economy and the protection of the territories. 

Governments have to come up with an agreement to stop climate change, stop oil extraction, stop gold mining and stop the destruction of our territories. Otherwise, they would only be wasting money.

GS News: Davi K., you say you don’t trust anybody but does listening to your son give you any hope that the younger generation will be able to safeguard indigenous lands?

Davi K.: I believe that the young Yanomami are walking on the same path as us. The fight lives on and I hope they will manage to save our lands. We are in this together with the strength of nature and our shamans. We are also together with the non indigenous society who supports us. So yes, I have some faith.

Dário K.: We have to unite the youth of the cities with the youth of the forest to protect the planet and then we will make it.

GS News: Covid has decimated indigenous communities in many places of the world. How is it affecting the Yanomami?

Davi K: In the two states of Brazil where the Yanomami are, which is the state of Amazonas and the state of Roraima, Covid has already passed. It was brought by health professionals who were taking care of us, from the city to our forest. But we were lucky because we didn't get so sick. We lost more or less 10 people but now in 2021 another disease is going around affecting the children. It’s like a strong flu and we think it’s related to Covid.

GS News: A congressional report has recently accused Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity for mishandling the pandemic and leading to the deaths of some 600,000 Brazilians. Do you think this could lead to him facing justice?

Davi K.: The commission didn't invite us so I don't really know about the work of the parliament members, but all I know is that I’ve been observing Bolsonaro and he's not a good person. He's linked to the military and when the military was in power, they killed thousands of indigenous people. Bolsonaro was elected only to destroy us. He has not taken care of indigenous people. He has not sent vaccines, medicine or doctors to help us fight against the malaria outbreak or against the new disease we are facing. Bolsonaro is not a friend of indigenous peoples and he is not a friend of the planet. He only wants to exploit our resources.

GS News: Geneva is the world’s hub for commodities trading. It was recently revealed that several Swiss banks were financing oil extraction in the Amazon, though they quickly announced they would pull out their investments. Will you address this in your meeting with the UN?

Davi K.: Oil is very dangerous because it can spill into the ocean or the rivers and pollute the ecosystems. People from the oil industry are not concerned about polluting the water and the government from here is also guilty because it finances activities that destroy the environment.