The Yanomami: An isolated yet imperiled Amazon tribe

The Indian group has official protection, but its large reserve in Brazil is coveted by mining companies and large farming enterprises with political clout.

Looking out
Yanomami warriors look out to the mountain vegetation on the flanks of Pico da Neblina (Mist Peak), rising almost 10,000 feet above sea level.

The Yanomami, the largest Indian tribe living in relative isolation in the Amazon Basin, have for millennia occupied a vast stretch of tropical rainforest in northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. Of the estimated 40,000 Yanomami, around two-thirds live in Brazil, where a landmark presidential decree in 1992 recognized them as rightful owners of a reserve the size of Portugal in two northern states, Roraima and Amazonas.

Yet, despite this official protection, alarmed by reports that the tribe’s survival is again at risk, the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado recently traveled to the Yanomami region for the third time in three decades. Indians face threats across Brazil, he said in an interview, but none more than the Yanomami, whose land is coveted by small and medium-sized mining companies and large farming enterprises with political clout.

The communities portrayed in these photographs – Demini, 160 miles south-west of Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state; and Maturacá, 180 miles farther west, in the state of Amazonas, at the foot of the Pico da Neblina, Brazil’s highest mountain – carry the scars of the two worst man-made disasters to have struck the Yanomami since they were first contacted a century ago.

A view of the river used by gold seekers on the flanks of Pico da Neblina (Mist Peak).
Banana leaves make ideal umbrellas.
Shaman Angelo chants and dances, preparing an upcoming expedition up to Pico da Neblina.
1 of 3
On left: A view of the river used by gold seekers on the flanks of Pico da Neblina (Mist Peak).
On right, top: Banana leaves make ideal umbrellas.
On right, bottom: Shaman Angelo chants and dances, preparing an upcoming expedition up to Pico da Neblina.

In the mid-1970s, with Brazil’s military regime eager to develop the Amazon Basin, a northern section of the trans-Amazonian highway reached into Yanomami territory, introducing influenza, measles and malaria and resulting in thousands of deaths. Although the highway was later abandoned, survivors of 13 decimated communities came together to build a new village at Demini.

Maturacá, in contrast, was engulfed in a gold rush in the late 1980s which attracted over 35,000 freelance gold-diggers to traditional Yanomami lands, not only bringing new diseases but also using violence against Indians and poisoning their rivers with the mercury they used to separate gold from mud. Once more, uncounted thousands of Indians died.

The giant armadillo (Tatu bola) — an endangered animal and object of legends — offers much-appreciated meat. This one weighs about 65 pounds. The Tatu bola was the mascot of the World Cup hosted by Brazil.
After several days of preparation and fermentation, the “wine” of the fruit of the peach palm (pupunha) is poured into a hollowed-out tree trunk. Everyone drinks, children included.

After the 1992 presidential decree, which recognized the Yanomami’s “original right” to their land, all outsiders were evicted from the reserve by the army, police and the Brazilian Indian Foundation, known by its Portuguese acronym of Funai. But soon moves were afoot in Brasilia to authorize economic activity in the lands set aside for the country’s 550 Indian tribes, an area equivalent to the combined size of Texas and California, or 13 percent of Brazil’s territory.

Today, a new bill pending before Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies would proclaim a “public interest” in allowing Indian reserves to be used for farming, mining, oil and gas pipelines, hydroelectric dams, human settlements and military operations. The bill, already approved by the Senate, is strongly opposed by Indian rights and environmental groups and Funai, which forms part of the federal government.

Men return to the communal dwelling after having adorned and painted their bodies for the ceremony.

The Yanomami represent a single ethnic group, albeit speaking four different languages, with about 26,000 Yanomami occupying the 37,260-square-mile reserve in Brazil and another 16,000 inside Venezuela, where they enjoy some protection in the 31,600-square-mile Alto Orinoco -- Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve. The Indian Foundation says there are also numerous uncontacted Yanomami communities living deep inside the rainforest.

Salgado, 70, who previously visited Yanomami villages in 1984 and 1998, said he now saw many signs of outside influence. In Demini, villagers still live in a communal roundhouse and feed themselves through hunting, fishing and traditional farming. But while 30 years ago everyone was naked, he said, young men now wear shorts. Villagers are a 30-minute walk from a Funai outpost and an air strip and one community leader, Davi Kopenawa, frequently travels across Brazil and to international conferences as a Yanomami and Indian movement spokesman.

Hunters have killed a mountain lion, which will be swiftly consumed.
In the forest, women paint their faces and bodies for the funerary ceremony.
Under the influence of the yâkoana hallucinogen, two men have a ceremonial dialogue, called the “yâimu,” settling certain disputes. One of the men — a guest invited for a funerary ceremony for a young tribesman — is telling the shaman the news and his impressions about this trip through sophisticated metaphors.


Salgado planned his trip to Demini to coincide with a funerary ceremony for a young tribesman who died in a hunting accident a year earlier. The ceremony, which took months of planning, brought Indians from villages as far as 60 miles away, with Demini’s population briefly quadrupling to about 500, all of whom slept in the traditional roundhouse.

The ceremony lasted two weeks – “until all the food and drink had been consumed,” Salgado noted – and involved not only feasting on smoked monkeys, but also dancing, a great deal of drinking of a fermented fruit-juice known as “pupunha” and the use of a hallucinogenic powder called “yâkoana,” which local shamans blow through a pipe into men’s nostrils.

During the funerary ceremony, women dance and brandish palm leaves that have been shredded.
A shaman, Justino, is decorated for a ceremony during which he will fall into a trance. Ritual decorations include vulture down and an assortment of feathers.

In Maturacá, where older men remember working as porters for gold-diggers 25 years ago, the communal roundhouse has now been replaced by individual huts. “Many of the men wear trousers and use shoes or rubber boots,” Salgado said, “although for ceremonies they revert to tradition and paint their bodies.” For some years, a village school has been run by Salesian missionaries, although only few of the Yanomami whom Salgado recently met there spoke any Portuguese.

Salgado’s trip to Maturacá, which was also only possible with Funai’s permission, involved a different adventure. “I’d photographed the Pico da Neblina from the air, but I also knew that the Yanomami considered it a sacred mountain, home to many of their guiding spirits,” he said. “My ambition was to climb the mountain with the Yanomami.”

“First an important shaman asked the spirits for clement weather,” he said, noting that the 10,000-foot-high Pico da Neblina means Mist Peak in English. “I was accompanied by 20 Yanomami, including two shamans. It took us four days in very slippery conditions to reach a plateau at about 7,200 feet. Finally, nine of us made it to the top. The whole trip took 15 days and for not one moment were we dry.”

The Yanomami say the mountains of the Pico da Neblina range are home to their most important spirits. The mountains were occupied for many years by hundreds of gold seekers until 1992 when they were expelled. This gold-laden region remains under surveillance by the Yanomami to prevent a new invasion.

Salgado, who in his most recent book, “Genesis,” photographed landscapes, animals and human settlements unspoiled by modern development, said he now plans to focus his work on the threats posed to Brazil’s Amazonian Indians by illegal mining, farming and logging. “We should never forget,” he added, “that the greenest parts of the Amazon are Indian reserves. The Indians are the guardians of the rainforest.”

Sebastião Salgado is a social documentary photographer and environmental activist. He and his wife, Leila Wanick Salgado, co-founded the Instituto Terra, an environmental center in Brazil dedicated to teaching about and re-seeding the Amazon Forest where their efforts have replanted more than 2 million trees.

Designed and produced by Brian Gross and Shelly Tan.


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