For their courageous determination to protect the forests and biodiversity of the Amazon, and the lands and culture of its indigenous peoples.
Davi Kopenawa of the Yanomami people is one of the most respected indigenous leaders in Brazil. He has dedicated his life to protecting Yanomami rights, their culture and lands in the Amazon. Their territory is among the planet’s most important reservoirs of genetic diversity, but high political pressure to exploit the Amazon’s natural resources is instigating invasions of indigenous lands. The violence, devastation and disease that follow are posing a severe threat to both biodiversity and the very existence of indigenous peoples.
Kopenawa plays a fundamental role in uniting indigenous communities to resist the miners, ranchers and other powerful interests destroying Yanomami lands and livelihoods for financial gain. He was instrumental in securing the 1992 demarcation of Yanomami lands in Brazil of over 96,000 square kilometres. Kopenawa’s long-running activism has gained him many powerful enemies, and he continuously faces death threats.
He is also co-founder and President of the Hutukara Yanomami Association. Created in 2004, the organisation unites and represents disparate Yanomami communities in Brazil, advancing indigenous rights in the country. Hutukara also works to conserve the rainforest. In light of the rapid decline in biodiversity across the world and the worsening effects of climate change, Yanomami knowledge on preserving and sustainably inhabiting their lands is significant for the benefit of all.
Davi Kopenawa, together with the Hutukara Yanomami Association, has resisted the ruthless exploitation of indigenous lands in the Amazon, one of the planet’s most important reservoirs of genetic diversity. He has played an essential role in uniting indigenous communities to resist the miners, ranchers and other powerful interests destroying Yanomami lands and livelihoods for financial gain.
First contact with the outside world brought disaster
Davi Kopenawa was born around 1956 in Marakana, a Yanomami community on the Upper Toototobi river in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. At the end of the 1950s and during the 1960s, the first sustained contacts with Brazilian authorities and later North American missionaries brought fatal diseases to the isolated Yanomami of this remote region. Kopenawa’s community was decimated and many members of his family, including his mother, died in the epidemics that swept through the area. When the military government built a road straight through Yanomami lands in the Amazon in the 1970s, communities along the route suffered. Many of them had no immunity to the diseases brought by the military and construction workers.
During the 1980s, tens of thousands of gold miners invaded Yanomami lands, with catastrophic outcomes. The miners destroyed Yanomami villages and shot members of the tribe. Even worse, they exposed Yanomami to further diseases to which they had no immunity, such as measles and malaria, causing epidemics that killed twenty per cent of the Yanomami.
Legal Struggles for Land & Rights
Starting in the mid-1980s, Kopenawa began to actively lobby Brazilian officials, including several presidents, for the legal protection of Yanomamilands. As a result of his campaigning, together with Survival International and the Pro-Yanomami Commission, the territory was officially recognised by the Brazilian government just before the UN’s first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Covering over 96,600 square kilometres, twice the size of Switzerland, it is one of the planet’s most important reservoirs of genetic diversity and home to some 35,000 Yanomami.
However, in 1993, a group of miners entered the Yanomami village of Haximu, slaughtering the community. A Brazilian court later convicted five men of genocide for their roles in the massacre, which was reaffirmed in 2006 by the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court. Haximu is a rare contemporary example of successful genocide prosecution anywhere in the world. Kopenawa played a prominent role in advocating for this case and subsequently serving as a witness during the trial.
Together with leaders from 11 Yanomami communities in Brazil, Kopenawa founded the Hutukara Yanomami Association in 2004. “Hutukara” means “the part of the sky from which the earth was born” in the Yanomami language. The organisation amplifies the voices of Yanomami people at the national level, allowing them to advocate for their rights in a stronger and more unified manner. Hutukara also manages education, communications, and mapping programmes to protect Yanomami lands. Kopenawa has been serving as its president since the beginning and has been reelected several times. He primarily aims to encourage younger Yanomami to become involved in defending their land and their rights.
Yanomami Healthcare and Education
Kopenawa has always been curious about the world of the napepë (non-Yanomami) and is keen to adopt Western technology and medicine for the benefit of the tribe without losing or compromising their core values and knowledge. Kopenawa’s understanding of the world of the “white people” was key to initiating vital medical and educational projects among the Yanomami from the 1970s onwards.
He helped the Pro-Yanomami Commission set up the medical organisation Urihi in the 1990s. Urihi trained Yanomami health workers and successfully reduced rates of malaria and other infectious diseases by bringing doctors directly to the communities to treat the sick and conduct vaccinations. This work undoubtedly saved many lives in the aftermath of the epidemics of malaria, measles and respiratory infections. In 2004, the Brazilian government’s National Health Foundation took charge of Yanomami health care. Kopenawa described it as a “tragedy for the Yanomami people” because it resulted in chronic mismanagement, corruption, and the extraction of Yanomami from their communities for months at a time.
With the support of the Pro-Yanomami Commission, Hutukara established a pilot education project, which aimed to strengthen Yanomami autonomy by alphabetising their language, enabling them to interact with society at large. From a small project, this has mushroomed into dozens of rainforest schools.
Connection to Nature
The spirit world is a fundamental part of life for the Yanomami people. Their powerful shamans have many and varied roles as healers, cosmologists, dream tellers and keepers of botanical knowledge. They are guided by spirits (xapiripë) and the wisdom of their ancestors. Kopenawa says, “with our knowledge and shamanism, the Yanomami are working to conserve the Amazon – not just for ourselves but for all of humanity.”
The traditional Yanomami knowledge on preserving and sustainably inhabiting their environment has taken on a renewed significance due to the rapid decline in biodiversity across the world and the worsening effects of climate change. Kopenawa warns that the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, global warming and climate change will destroy humanity. However, tribal peoples’ knowledge and the ability of shamans to understand the forces of nature could and should be used to conserve the Amazon and its rich biodiversity for the benefit of all.
Back to Stockholm
Davi Kopenawa first travelled outside Brazil at the invitation of Survival International, who requested he represent them at the 1989 Right Livelihood Award ceremony in Stockholm. During this trip, Kopenawa spoke of the terrible impact of the gold miners’ invasion on the Yanomami people’s health and environment. He warned that the Yanomami would only survive if their land rights were recognised. In 2019, precisely 30 years on, Kopenawa and the Hutukara Yanomami Association received the Right Livelihood Award in their own right.
The Award came at a time when threats to the Yanomami and other indigenous people in Brazil were increasing again. International focus has been drawn to the Amazon region, the world’s most giant terrestrial carbon sink, due to extraordinarily high levels of wildfires, with over 75,000 of them burning in August 2019 alone. The presidency of Jair Bolsonaro presented a renewed threat to indigenous rights and lands. Bolsonaro announced that he would not demarcate one millimetre of indigenous land. On the contrary, he threatened to “review” officially recognised indigenous territories to reduce their size.
Indigenous peoples report that since Bolsonaro took office, violent attacks on communities, destruction of property and land invasions have increased alarmingly. The president’s inflammatory rhetoric has emboldened miners, loggers, and farmers to invade and plunder indigenous peoples’ resources with impunity. A full-scale gold rush is underway, and the authorities are doing little or nothing to stop it, despite vigorous lobbying by Kopenawa, Hutukara and regional Yanomami associations. As a result of the illegal gold mining process, dangerously high levels of mercury poisoning have been reported in some Yanomami communities. Hutukara states that four principal rivers have already been polluted, a vital source of sustenance for the Yanomami. A 2014 study of hair samples revealed that over 90 per cent of indigenous people in one community were severely affected.
“The Falling Sky”
Kopenawa is the author of the first-ever book written by a Yanomami, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. The book, first published in 2010, challenges many common prejudices about indigenous peoples and presents an impassioned plea to respect his people’s rights and preserve the Amazon rainforest. New Scientist nominated it as one of the best science books of 2013, and in 2018, it was selected as one of the best books about deforestation by The Guardian’s then environment editor, John Vidal.
In a gesture of recognition for his contribution to the expansion of scientific knowledge, Kopenawa was elected to join the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in 2020. As a “writer, shaman and Yanomami leader,” he also co-created the script of the documentary “A última floresta.” The film, directed by Luiz Bolognesi, was selected for the Berlin Film Festival in 2021.