‘We Don’t Want to Die Again’: Yanomami Leader Kopenawa
“It’s very important to talk to everybody here. We don’t want what happened 500 years ago to happen again. We, the Yanomami people, don’t want to die again,” said Davi Kopenawa in an interview with ICTMN at the end of April.
Kopenawa, an internationally known advocate for the Yanomami people of Brazil and the rainforest, was in San Francisco at the end of April to meet with activists, scholars and political officials to alert them to an escalating crisis involving gold miners in Yanomami territory and to speak about his book “The Falling Sky.”
For the interview on April 25th, Kopenawa sat down with ICTMN along with his interpreter and friend, Fiona Watson, Research Director for Survival International and longtime ally of the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples of Brazil.
During the 35 minute conversation Kopenawa began by asserting how dangerous the gold mining operations have been for the people and the environment in their territory.
“The gold miners are people with lots of vices. They bring alcohol, they bring illnesses. They couldn’t find jobs in the cities and got no help from the government and the only thing they want to do is get gold from Indigenous Peoples territories. They have spread all over our land.
"The gold miners (garimpeiros) only work in the rivers,” he explained. “They use mercury to clean and separate the gold from the sand. When they wash the gold with mercury, the mercury sinks to the bottom of the river bed. The communities who live downstream use this water for drinking, washing and bathing. The fish also swallow mercury when they are eating which in turn affects the people who eat the fish. So the Yanomami get ill from mercury poisoning. That's how the mercury contaminates our place.”
Kopenawa also emphasized that there are laws currently being proposed in Brazil that would make it easier for miners and others to invade indigenous territories. Watson noted that the indigenous communities and their allies such as SI are very worried about three potential laws in particular: PEC 215 is a constitutional amendment that would allow congress, which has members influenced by a strong anti-indigenous lobby, to be involved with demarcation of land; Portaria 303 which would prohibit extending any indigenous territory and that indigenous rights to use their resources would not extend to preventing large scale hydro-electric and mining projects; and Law Project 1610 would open up all indigenous territories to large scale mining (and there were already hundreds of petitions to start mining in Yanomani territory).
“I will talk about these things,” Kopenawa said in regards to his then upcoming presentations (he later spoke with California Governor Jerry Brown about the mining issues).
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