June 2023

The Yanomami crisis: a genocide foretold

Recent, horrific images of starving Yanomami Indigenous children in Brazil have shocked people around the globe. The full extent of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Yanomami territory is now coming to light. In the last four years at least 570 Yanomami children (out of a population of around 27,000) under the age of five died of malnutrition. Treatable diseases like malaria and TB are rife; 44,000 cases of malaria have been recorded, evidence that some Yanomami have suffered multiple bouts of this potentially lethal disease.  When the Yanomami get sick with diseases, they are too weak to hunt, fish and cultivate fruit and vegetables in their forest gardens and cannot provide food for their families. Hence the terrible malnutrition affecting a self-sufficient people in one the world’s most biodiverse forests.

No less shocking are the videos of criminal gangs boasting of their attacks on Yanomami communities. Some regions of the Yanomami territory have become war zones where these armed gangs and 20,000 miners have operated illegally and with total impunity. Latin America’s largest army has three military bases in the Yanomami territory yet turned a blind eye to this open warfare.

The miners have murdered Yanomami, including members of an uncontacted group, raped and sexually abused Yanomami girls and women, and poisoned rivers and fish with toxic mercury which they use to separate the gold. Many Yanomami living by the illegal mining camps have dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies.  According to Hutukara Yanomami Association, between 2019 and 2021, the area illegally mined in the Yanomami Land increased by a staggering 1,963%. 

This manmade humanitarian catastrophe was largely fomented by former President Jair Bolsonaro, his ministers, and political allies. They not only ignored the increasingly desperate pleas and complaints from Yanomami organizations, Survival and other NGOs about the crisis, but actively encouraged the invasion.  Bolsonaro weakened environmental laws and safeguards and dismantled the federal agencies responsible for protecting Indigenous peoples and their lands. His racist rhetoric incentivised invaders all over Brazil who felt empowered to plunder Indigenous territories safe in the knowledge they would not have to answer for their crimes. Brazilian NGOs have lodged two cases at the International Criminal Court charging Bolsonaro with the genocide of Indigenous peoples. In January 2023, one of Brazil’s Supreme Court judges ordered federal prosecutors to investigate members of the Bolsonaro government for committing genocide and other crimes.

How will the Yanomami people recover from this onslaught? Much will depend on how President Lula’s new government lives up to its commitments to remove all the illegal goldminers and keep them out. This will require long term funding, strategic planning and consultation with Yanomami organizations and communities, funding for appropriately trained doctors and health agents, and federal protection teams equipped with technology to monitor the territory, the largest Indigenous territory in Brazil. It will take years for the forest and rivers to recuperate from the mining. 

Although the government has started to remove the miners many Yanomami communities are in a critical state due to impacts of the invasion on their health and forest livelihoods, but they are also resilient. This resilience comes in part from their extraordinary ecological knowledge and their ability, honed over generations, to live self —sufficiently from the forest. 

The Yanomami are scientists, zoologists, and doctors. They use 500 species of plant for food, medicine, artefacts, and house building and nine plant species just for fish poisoning. They fish for 50 species of fish and collect more than 40 kinds of wild honey and 11 species of mushroom. The forest gives them everything they need to thrive.

They are also artists, weavers, and film makers: some of their work can be seen alongside Claudia Andujar’s iconic photos— in the exhibition The Yanomami Struggle, which opened on May 27 in Mexico City.

Yanomami lives are based on reciprocity and collective living —their imposing «yanos» (communal houses) can house several hundred people. Much food is hunted or gathered in groups and shared, as are stories, mythes and dreams. Communities and different generations regularly come together to celebrate festivals such as the ripening of the peach palm and the reahu funeral rites which commemorate the dead. 

Every element of the natural world —animals, birds, insects, mountains, rivers— has a spirit which are essential to the work of the shamans who strive to maintain order and balance between these different worlds. 

In his monumental book The Falling Sky Yanomami shaman, Davi Kopenawa, describes the rigours of his apprenticeship as a shaman where he learned to take yakoana, the hallucinogenic snuff used by shamans to communicate with the xapiri (shamanic spirit helpers). Young shamans gradually acquire xapiri which travel down pathways on the right and left of the spirit house in Davi’s drawing that illustrates this Work of the month. They are adorned with rich red annatto paint (Bixa orellana), white down and scarlet macaw feathers and dance on a mirror (at the base of the drawing), which radiates bright light. The spirit house is suspended «very high in the sky’s chest. This is how the xapiri can contemplate the entire forest». As the shaman calls on new spirits, so the house grows. At the apex of the house two spider monkey xapiri dangle by their tails. Davi recounts how his shamanic spirits accompanied and guided him on long arduous journey to far off, cold lands in Europe when he denounced the destruction of his people and their forest home.

The shamans and their xapiri are vital not only for restoring the health and well-being of the Yanomami and their forest but for all of humanity in the fight to combat climate change as Davi explains: «We shamans look after the sky, so it doesn’t fall down. We look after the earth, so it doesn’t sink. And we look after Motokari (the sun) so that we don’t all burn to death. […] We look after our universe, so that we can continue living in this world. We, and you».

His book, written with anthropologist Bruce Albert, is a searing critique of the «merchandise people» in the industrialised north: «Merchandise occupies their thoughts even after they fall asleep […] [it] makes them euphoric and obscures all the rest of their mind». It is an urgent warning that their wellbeing and wealth cannot and must not be at the expense of Indigenous peoples and nature.  

Above all it is an impassioned call to us the nape or non-Indigenous people to value human diversity as well as biodiversity.

The Yanomami’s fight is not over. Davi —whose Yanomami name Kopenawa means wasp— warned audiences in the US in last February that the miners will return unless the Brazilian government fully commits to protecting the Amazon forest in the long term.  If we collectively fail to do so, his prophecy is stark: «We will all be carried away into the darkness of the underworld, both the white people and the rest of us».


Fiona Watson
is research and advocacy director at Survival International, the global movement for tribal and indigenous peoples’ rights. To support the Yanomami visit Hutukara Yanomami Association, and for more information, Survival International


Kopenawa D, Albert B. 2013. The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, Harvard University Press.

Milliken W, Albert B. 1996. The use of medicinal plants by the Yanomami Indians of Brazil’. Economic Botany 50(1): 10-25.