The Yanomami, also referred to as the Yanomamo or Yanomam, are a
group of indigenous people living in the rainforests and mountains of Northern
Brazil and Southern Venezuela. They are the largest relatively isolated tribe in
existence today, with a population of about 32,000. They occupy the largest
forested territory in the world out of all indigenous groups. The Yanomami are an
interesting group with a rich culture. Unfortunately, the forces of globalization
threaten their existence and their way of life.
The Yanomami live in “Shobonas” or communal houses described as
being large and circular (Chagnon, 2012). The central area is used for activities
such as rituals, feasts, and games. Among the Yanomami, tasks are dived
between the sexes. The men hunt (using curare to poison their weapons) and the
women tend gardens (Chagnon, 2012). Meat only makes about 10% of the
Yanomami diet, while crops grown in the gardens make up about 80%. Both men
and women fish. The most prized food for the Yanomami is wild honey. The
Yanomami also have huge botanical knowledge and immerse heavily in
shamanism. They believe in equality among people and have no official “chiefs.”
The Yanomami first came into sustained contact with outsiders in the
1940s (“The Yanomami” 2015). At that time, the Brazilian government had sent
teams to delimit the frontier with Venezuela. However, soon after that, the
government’s Indian Protection Service and religious missionary groups
established themselves there, in Yanomami territory. This influx of foreigners,
unsurprisingly, led to outbreaks of measles and the flu. Having never had contact
with these diseases, the Yanomami immune system had not built up protection.
Sadly, many Yanomami died.
In the 1970s, the military government of Brazil decided to build a road
through the Amazon. Out of nowhere, with no warning, bulldozers drove through
the Yanomami community of Opiktheri (“The Yanomami” 2015). The road
brought a number of problems to the Yanomami, including but not limited to:
diseases, deforestation, and alcohol. In fact, two villages were entirely wiped out
from diseases brought over through this road (“Gold Rush” 2013). Today, the
road is still causing harm to the Yanomami. Cattle ranchers and colonists use it
as an access point to invade and deforest the Yanomami territories.
The 1980s brought with them a new set of terror for the Yanomami.
40,000 Brazilian gold-miners invaded their land (“Gold Rush” 2013) in an event
that has been described as genocide. The miners shot the Yanomami, destroyed
many villages, and exposed them to all kinds of diseases. As mentioned before,
the Yanomami had no immunity to foreign diseases. Due to all these factors,
about 20% of Yanomamo died in just 7 years (“The Yanomami” 2015). Following
these events, in 1992 Yanomami land was finally demarcated and miners were
expelled. However, the days of murder and invasion were not over. In 1993, a
group of miners entered the village of Haximu and murdered 16 Yanomami,
including a baby (“Gold Rush” 2013). Even though, the five miners were found
guilty of genocide by the Brazilian court, only two are serving sentences.
Furthermore, the gold mining invasion continues. The situation is dire as the
Yanomami have had their lives and culture be attacked for many years.
Authorities have done little to help.
Over 1,000 gold miners are working on Yanomami land, all the while
transmitting deadly diseases like malaria and polluting the rivers and forests with
mercury (“The Yanomami” 2015). Similar to other indigenous populations, the
Yanomami are also facing a threat from cattle ranchers who are invading and
deforesting their lands. Currently, Yanomami health is in bad shape – they are
suffering. Critical care is not reaching them, especially in Venezuela (“The
Yanomami” 2015). The Brazilian government has taken over health care but
medicine and equipment doesn’t make it to the communities, leaving indigenous
people, including the Yanomami, dying.
The biggest problem of all is that Indians in Brazil still do not have proper
ownership over their lands. The government has failed in recognizing tribal land
ownership (despite having signed the International Law ILO Convention 169)
guaranteeing it (“The Yanomami” 2015). Many people within the Brazilian
establishment would like to use the Yanomami land for their own selfish gains –
such as mining, ranching, and colonization. In fact, the Brazilian government has
built barracks in the Yanomami lands (“The Yanomami” 2015). Obviously, this
has increased tensions and brought in a new set of issues for the Yanomami.
There are reports of soldiers prostituting Yanomami women, some of whom
having been infected with sexually transmitted diseases (“The Yanomami” 2015).
The Yanomami are currently facing many issues, all of which are
byproducts of globalization. Miners, cattle ranchers, and even the government,
are invading Yanomami lands, killing them off, and using the tribal territories for
their own selfish reasons. The Yanomami have not even properly been consulted
about their views on mining. Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman, believes
mining will destroy their nature (which is sadly, very true). “It will kill us.” he says
(“Davi” 2009). The Yanomami, much like other indigenous peoples, have a
strong tie to their lands. “Our land has to be respected. Our land is our heritage,
a heritage which protects us” (“Davi” 2009). Sadly, that protection is very much
needed as the very existence of the Yanomami people is under attack.
Even while facing all these of nightmares, the Yanomami have not given
up. In both Brazil and Venezuela they have established organizations, “Hutukara”
and “Horonami,” respectively. The purpose of these organizations is to increase
awareness among the Yanomami to their rights. Many members of the tribe
aren’t even aware that they have rights. The organizations aim to teach them
their rights with hopes of salvaging their future.
Reading and writing about yet another group of people who are exposed
to all kinds of human rights violations is simply, heartbreaking. These are people
who have for centuries created and established societies and rich cultures. Their
way of life and their very existences are under attack – for what? The answer is:
for profit. The sad reality of our world is that gaining wealth is often put before
human rights. The Yanomami and thousands of other indigenous groups are
treated incredibly unfairly. We all have a duty to call on the Brazilian or
Venezuelan government to create laws and policies that will keep the Yanomami
from being exploited or pushed off their lands. As human beings we have a duty
to be compassionate towards each other. We have a duty to speak out against
any and all human rights violations. It is easier now than ever before and if
enough of us get on board, we may be able to make a real change in the lives of
the Yanomami and other indigenous populations.
Chagnon, N. (2013). Yanomamo (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage
Davi Kopenawa – Yanomami. (2009, April 1). Retrieved December 1, 2015, from
Gold Rush:The Yanomami Massacre. (2013, January 4). Retrieved December 1,
2015, from https://dogmaandgeopolitics.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/gold-
The Yanomami. (2015). Retrieved December 1, 2015, from