Home Topics Indigenous Peoples Brazil’s Yanomami people: silence, devastation and fear

Brazil’s Yanomami people: silence, devastation and fear

Indigenous people may share the fate of the people of Macunaíma

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This article was first published in Portuguese by Público. It has been translated for LAB by Theo Bradford and edited by Mike Gatehouse


There was a great moment of silence on the banks of the river Uraricoera when Macunaíma, the ‘hero without a character’, was born in the depths of the virgin forest, ‘black as calcined ivory’ and ‘sired by the Terror of the Night’. It was there, acccording to Mario Andrade, author of the famous Brazilian modernist novel Macunaíma 1)Macunaima, by Mario Andrade, first published in Portuguese in 1928. Translated into English by E.A.Goodland, Random House, New York, 1984., that the Tapanhuma Indian gave birth to the hero of his story.

Mining for gold and souls

In 2020, the silence of the river Uraricoera has given way to the machinery of illegal gold mining located on its banks. Aerial photos taken on Friday 18 April reveal the operations of illegal gold miners in various parts of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in the state of Roraima. The region covers approximately 9.6 million hectares in Brazil and is inhabited by over 26,000 Yanomami and Ye’kwana indigenous peoples, spread across 320 villages.

Aerial photos taken on Friday 18 April reveal the operations of illegal gold miners in various parts of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in the state of Roraima. Images: Marcos Colón

Rich in gold deposits, the Yanomami Indigenous Territory attracts not only merchants of gold, but merchants of God. The area represents the largest forested indigenous territory in the world and, over the past three months, has recorded a steady increase in illegal gold mining and religious missions. The perpetrators of these activities have been encouraged by the discourse of members of the Government, which has facilitated the operations of both groups in indigenous territories: by the appointment of Ricardo Dias, former member of the Brazilian New Tribes Mission (MNTB), as coordinator of the unit for uncontacted tribes in the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), and by the legalisation of gold-mining in indigenous territories by President Jair Bolsonaro (05/02).

Thus far, the government’s attempts have been blocked by Congress. Draft Law No.191 envisages the regulation of mining, the exploration of hydrocarbons and the installation of hydroelectric power stations on rivers in indigenous lands.

The current incursions of miners and missionaries are nothing new for the Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples. In the 1980s, their territory was invaded by approximately 40,000 gold miners who left a permanent trail of environmental and human destruction in their wake. In the village of Haximu, at the beginning of the 1990s, a group of illegal gold miners assassinated 16 Yanomami, including children. The presence of evangelical missionaries in the area of Mucajaí dates from the 1960s, following the example of Italian and Salesian Catholic missions in Catrimani, Amazonas, near Pico da Neblina. Thus, the Yanomami Indigenous Territory has become the present-day El Dorado of opportunists seeking the ‘prizes’ of gold and souls in a post-coronavirus world.

Government protection removed

At the beginning of April, Yanomami Indians reported an increase in illegal gold mining as a result of the reduced presence of state agents in the field on account of the crisis. However, the dismantling of assistance in the region began with the closure, between 2015 and 2016, of FUNAI’s three Ethno-environmental Protection Bases (BAPEs) for isolated and recently contacted Indians in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. The closure made way for the assassination of two isolated Moxihatëtëa Indians by illegal gold miners in the region of Serra da Estrutura, on indigenous land, in July 2018.

The Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples have consistently complained of the presence of illegal gold miners on their land, says Luis Ventura, a member of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) in the state of Roraima: ‘The state is aware of this. The current situation, with the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic, is all the more worrying. The federal government has the responsibility to implement territorial monitoring and protection measures, to reopen, organise and operate the Protection Bases, to remove trespassers and to protect the life and health of indigenous peoples.’

FUNAI has deliberately failed to comply with a court order which requires it to reinstate the BAPEs in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Especially now, during the pandemic, its attitude has heightened the level of insecurity in the region. FUNAI’s failure to implement territorial monitoring and protection measures could have been what allowed for the probable assassination of the isolated Moxihatëtëa Indians.

In August 2019, FUNAI established a timeline which anticipated the reopening of the BAPEs in three stages, one for each base, beginning in August 2019 and culminating in 2021.

The project encompasses the purchase of materials, the fight against illegal gold mining, the support of security forces and the construction of each BAPE.

The first, BAPE Demarcação, responsible for the demarcation of indigenous lands, began operations while its office building was still unfinished. By November 2019, FUNAI had taken measures against illegal gold mining, with the support of the army, including the installation of barriers on the Mucajaí River.

According to the Federal Prosecution Service (MPF), in March 2020, before the pandemic, the construction of the second base, BAPE Korekorema, was dependent on the conclusion of bidding processes. FUNAI claimed it did not have sufficient funding to implement the third base, BAPE Serra da Estrutura.

However, the MPF also said that the process of re-establishing the bases should not be the only measure taken to combat land invasion. It asserted that the federal government should have a contingency plan to prevent illicit gold mining.

When consulted, the regional FUNAI office in Roraima could not confirm whether the Korekorema base would re-open.

The Federal Prosecution Service of Roraima (MPF-RR) warned in 2017 of the threat of genocide of the Moxihatëtëa peoples and filed a class action lawsuit, requesting a preliminary injunction against the federal government, FUNAI and the state of Roraima, so that ‘the necessary measures be taken in order to quickly re-establish permanent activities in the Ethno-environmental Protection Bases, … providing the material and human resources needed to monitor and inhibit the operation of illegal gold miners in communities and to guarantee the wellbeing of the local population and the preservation of natural resources in indigenous lands’.

Virus-related unemployment fuels the garimpo

The audacity of the current incursions, in the middle of a pandemic, is shocking. However, what is of even greater concern is the imminent threat they pose to the health of indigenous peoples. Also worrying is the rise in the number of illegal gold miners. This follows from the social distancing measures and economic restrictions implemented as a result of the pandemic, which have made more people resort to working illegally in this sector in an effort to overcome unemployment.

It is thought that this illegal activity in indigenous territories will intensify further as a consequence of the economic impact of the virus in the big cities.

In addition to the direct threat of physical violence, the absence of BAPEs has resulted in an increase in the presence of illegal gold miners in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which could lead to transmission of the virus, jeopardising the survival of an ethnic group which, in addition to having a history of low immunity to Western diseases, lacks access to adequate healthcare.

We are very concerned about the disease reaching our villages. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but it is very close, in Roraima. We have very serious problems with trespassers, illegal gold miners, coming into the Yanomami Indigenous Territory on a daily basis. They will transmit the disease to many of us. This is the main transmission factor.

‘We are very concerned about the disease reaching our villages. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but it is very close, in Roraima. We have very serious problems with trespassers, illegal gold miners, coming into the Yanomami Indigenous Territory on a daily basis. They will transmit the disease to many of us. This is the main transmission factor. We are afraid about what might happen today, tomorrow, or afterwards. We are extremely vulnerable’, says Dário Yawarioma, son of Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa and vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY).

There is no-one left

The narrative of Macunaíma draws attention to the violence experienced by the mythical/narrative space. In the end, what makes the character Macunaíma leave his people is the theft of the sacred Muiraquitã amulet by a character who symbolises the exploitation of the forest, merchant Venceslau Pietro Pietra, who goes to São Paulo to enjoy the good fortune brought by the indigenous talisman.

Review of the book Macunaíma by Luana Werb, Abstração Coletiva, June 2015

After many twists and turns, Macunaíma recovers the sacred artefact and takes it back to the heart of the jungle. In addition to the narrative’s fantastical elements, Macunaíma’s experience when he returns, is of a place that is unrecognisable to him. It has been devastated by predatory practices and penetrated by other cultures which transform the hero while destroying his home and native peoples:

‘There is no longer anyone left. Sorcery and bad luck have finished off the scions of the Tapanhuma Tribe, one by one. The places they knew – those spacious savannas, those clefts and gullies, those balata bleeders’ trails, those abrupt ravines, those mysterious forests – they are all now as solitary as a desert. An immense silence slumbers over the River Uraricoera’ 2)Macunaíma, by Mario Andrade, Translated by E.A.Goodland, Random House, New York, 1984, p.167..

those spacious savannas, those clefts and gullies, those balata bleeders’ trails, those abrupt ravines, those mysterious forests – they are all now as solitary as a desert. An immense silence slumbers over the River Uraricoera

In the fictional space, this destruction takes the tragic form of indigenous genocide in a narrow sense and, more broadly, the annihilation of nature, consisting of the interactions between humans and non-humans. Only silence, devastation and fear remain.

The ecological problem, therefore, manifests not as a fact on the textual surface of a physical tragedy, but by means of the story’s conclusion, which asserts that there is no space for Macunaíma’s people and his own existence as a culturally diverse being. His ascent into the heavens is symbolic of his displacement in the world. Thus, there is no longer a hero to defend the forest, no longer a people to be defended. What is left is just the story, the tragedy, the legend, as fragile as the current condition of the Amazon rainforest. Our concern is that the same will happen to the Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples.


Marcos Colón has a doctorate in cultural studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a professor of the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University and directed the documentary ‘Beyond Fordlândia’.

References   [ + ]

1. Macunaima, by Mario Andrade, first published in Portuguese in 1928. Translated into English by E.A.Goodland, Random House, New York, 1984.
2. Macunaíma, by Mario Andrade, Translated by E.A.Goodland, Random House, New York, 1984, p.167.

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