Shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami furrowed his brow as he stared out at the skyscrapers and buildings looming through the window of his oak-panelled hotel room in New York City. “I’m here, in the city of stone, and mirrors and glass… but in my heart, I’m in mourning,” he told CNN.
Davi has been an activist for Brazil’s Yanomami people, one of the largest relatively isolated indigenous groups in South America, for nearly 40 years – braving threats on his life for his work. Last week, he was invited to Manhattan for the opening of a group exhibition of Yanomami artists and Brazilian photographer Claudia Andujar at cultural center The Shed, which counted among its guests United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
Despite the glamor of the surroundings, Davi’s mind was more than 2,000 miles away, deep in the forests of Brazil, where a health crisis has gripped his people. “I’m in mourning…for my people, who I’ve lost,” he said, referring to recent images that emerged from the territory showing emaciated Yanomami adults and children, some with swollen bellies from hunger.
Disease and malnutrition have torn through Yanomami villages over the last four years – a crisis that experts lay at the feet of the scores of illegal miners who have set up camp in their sprawling territory, spurred by the high price of gold.
Yanomami children are dying at a disproportionate rate from preventable diseases, like malaria and malnutrition. At least 570 Yanomami children have died from preventable causes since 2018, Brazil’s health ministry told CNN.
Fiona Watson, research and advocacy director at indigenous human rights group Survival International, said high malaria rates – spread by miners – have left many Yanomami adults too unwell to hunt or fish, as they rely entirely off the forest and rivers for food. “That means the food’s not coming in, hence you get so much malnutrition (that) has led to this terrible catastrophe,” she said.
Their predicament is exacerbated by water pollution and environmental destruction from the mines, and sometimes violent encounters with the intruders. In January, Ariel Castro Alves, Lula’s National Secretary for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, said a federal government delegation were told in January that at least 30 Yanomami girls and teenagers had been abused and impregnated by miners.
Government health workers, who might have mitigated the crisis, have been intimidated and even driven out of the area by miners who took over health facilities and airstrips, Junior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the Urihi Yanomami Association, told CNN.
The emergency is the latest test for Brazil’s newly inaugurated President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has made environmental protection a priority for his term in office. In January, he launched a crackdown on illegal mines in Yanomami territory, and the country’s military, environmental agencies and police forces are currently sweeping through the area to clear it of miners.