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For tribal peoples the earth gives health, progress often kills


Davi Kopenawa Yanomami is a spokesman for the Yanomami Indian tribe who live in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil and Venezuela. He was recently in Europe to raise awareness of threats to the Yanomami homelands and to publicise a report by UK-based NGO Survival International on how ‘progress’ or development often brings nothing but destruction and death for tribal peoples across the world (Survival International, Progress Can Kill).

Davi is a highly committed and redoubtable campaigner on behalf of his people. An experienced shaman practising the ancient traditions of his tribe, he led the long-running international campaign to secure Yanomami land rights after government officials, missionaries and gold miners brought fatal diseases and destruction to the region from the 1950s. In 1989, he won a UN Global 500 award, and after several more years of international campaigning, the Yanomami area was officially recognised by the Brazilian government just before it hosted the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Yanomami territory straddles the border of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. It is over 9.6 million hectares in size (four times the size of Switzerland) and the largest indigenous rainforest territory anywhere in the world. A highly important reservoir of genetic diversity, it supports 16,000 Yanomami who survive through a combination of hunting and gathering and small scale agriculture. The Yanomami use over 500 species of plants for food, medicine, artefacts and house building. They grow around 60 crops which provide the mainstay of their sustenance, but resources procured through hunting and gathering are still highly prized. They gather 15 kinds of wild honey and hunt with bows and arrows tipped with curare poison. Following highly traditional hunter-gatherer values, hunters never eat their own kill but share it out with others and get given meat to eat themselves.

The Yanomami live in large communal houses known as yanos or shabonos, which house up to 400 people. They are built in large ring shapes; each family has its own hearth and the central space is used for dancing and ceremonies. The spirit world is a vital part of life and spirits can cause good luck or illness. Shamans have the power to interact with and control the spirits, often with the aid of yakoana, a hallucinogenic snuff.

Although the Yanomami have managed to survive and thrive in their ancient territory, they still face a range of serious threats and their protected status is not guaranteed. Their land is repeatedly threatened by mining. In the 1980s, it was invaded by 40,000 gold miners who shot Yanomami, destroyed their villages and exposed them to diseases. Up to twenty percent of Yanomami died in seven years, a tragedy that was a major impetus to the creation of the Yanomami Park in 1992 and the expulsion of the miners.

But Indians in Brazil still do not have proper ownership rights over their land and the Brazilian congress is currently debating a bill which, if passed, will open up much of the Brazilian Amazon to large-scale mining. The Yanomami face other problems too: the Brazilian army is stepping up its presence in the area and government-controlled health provision is woefully inadequate. In common with other indigenous Amazonian tribes, the Yanomami are opposed to the legalisation of mining in their areas and argue that the best way to protect the rainforest is to allow it to remain under indigenous control. In Davi’s words:

“You napepe (whites) talk about what you call ‘development’ and tell us to become the same as you. But we know that this only brings disease and death…The forest cannot be bought; it is our life and we have always protected it. Without the forest, there is only sickness, and without us, it is dead land. The time has come for you to start listening to us. Give us back our lands and our health before it’s too late for us and too late for you”.

If the Yanomami still face a struggle to hold onto their lands, Survival’s report Progress can Kill graphically reveals that they are the lucky ones. Tribes across the world face the same devastating impact of the loss of their land. Once dispossessed, their prospects are bleak.

Hadzabe2003%20196The Survival report meticulously documents the life-threatening challenges faced by dispossessed tribal peoples. They include: diseases of contact, lowered life expectancy, HIV/AIDS, starvation, obesity and diabetes, suicide rates up to ten times higher than average and alcohol and drug addiction. Struggles to reclaim land from national governments are often vicous and rarely successful, resulting in little or no hope for the future. To take three examples: the Innu peoples of Canada, the Aborigines of Australia and the San Bushmen of Botswana all face challenges that have destroyed many of their people and threaten many more.

The Innu are the indigenous people of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula, in eastern Canada (Survival International: Innu; see also Samson, C). Up until the second half of the 20th century, the Innu lived as nomadic hunters, exploiting the wide range of seasonal resources across their vast territory, but relying in particular on the Caribou which migrate through their land every spring and autumn. Until recently, the Innu got everything - food, clothing, shelter, tools and weapons - from the caribou, which are of huge cultural importance to them.

During the last fifty years, the Innu have come under sustained pressure from the Canadian government (and the Catholic Church) to settle in fixed communities. Many of the Innu are still fighting to continue their traditional lifestyle, but this is very difficult as the government has broken up their territory into mining concessions, hydro power schemes, and road building and refuses to recognise the right of the Innu to own land without making significant concessions in return. The UN Human Rights Committee has described the situation of tribal peoples as 'the most pressing issue facing Canadians', and has condemned Canada for 'extinguishing' aboriginal peoples' rights.

The effects of this dispossession on many of the Innu have been traumatic. In addition to endemic unemployment and grim resettlement camps for many communities, addiction and suicide rates are sky-high. Among the Innu youth, petrol sniffing is a chronic problem. In the long term this can cause convulsions and permanent damage to the kidney, eyes, liver, bone marrow and heart. Alcohol and petrol addiction sets up destructive cycles that cause entire families to collapse. Babies can be born with defects, children get little care from their addict parents, elders become alienated from younger generations and teenagers have few alternatives except to become addicts themselves.

The report documents comparable health issues for the Aboriginal Australians. Compared to other Australians, Aborigines are: six times more likely to die as an infant; six times more likely to die from a stroke; eight times more likely to die from lung or heart disease; 22 times more likely to die from diabetes and their life expectancy is 17-20 years less than other Australians. According to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) “The health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is disastrously poor…the fundamental cause is disempowerment, due to various factors including continued dispossession from the land, cultural dislocation, poverty, poor education and unemployment”.

For Boniface Alimankinni of the Australian Tiwi Islands, the problem for Aboriginal Australians is that “We were ashamed of ourselves. We had lost our mastery. Our sons were ashamed of us. We had no self respect and nothing to give our sons except violence and alcoholism. Our children are stuck somewhere between a past they don’t understand and a future that won’t accept them and offers them nothing.”

Again and again, tribal peoples world-wide argue that what they need to regain their health, their sense of respect and worth and to pass something valuable onto their children is to return to their land. The Bushmen of Botswana have taken the Botswana government to court for repeatedly evicting them from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, created to protect the traditional territory of the 5,000 Gana, Gwi and Tsila Bushmen (and their neighbours the Bakgalagadi), and the game they depend on. In December 2006 they won a historic victory when the Botswana High Court ruled that the government had illegally evicted them from their land. Despite facing a continual brutal struggle to ensure the Botswana government respects the ruling, the Bushmen will not give up.

Doris Pilkington Garimara, Australian Aboriginal author of Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (2003), says: “The first step in the journey of healing is to reconnect with the land. It symbolises so much to us: it’s our family, our parents, our grandparents. It’s the umbilical cord, the bond between mother and children.”

Perhaps the final word should go to Davi Yanomami: “There is only one earth. We don’t have any more land. The land only has one heart. We cannot let the earth’s heart be destroyed. The heart of the earth gives people health and happiness. If there is no heart, we all die.”


Survival International: Bushmen:

Survival International: Innu:

Survival International: Yanomami:

Survival International, Progress Can Kill:

Colin Samson (2003) A Way of Life that Does Not Exist. Canada and the Extinguishment of the Innu. London: Verso

Photo: © Fiona Watson/Survival. For more information see the Survival International website.