Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, name also written Davi Kobenawä Yanomamö (born Toototobi, Brazil, circa 1956) is a shaman and Portuguese-speaking spokesperson of the Yanomami Indians in Brazil. He came to international prominence for this advocacy regarding tribal issues and Amazon Rainforest conservation when the tribal rights organization Survival International invited him to accept the Right Livelihood Award on its behalf in 1989. Davi spoke to both the British and Swedish parliaments about the catastrophic impact on Yanomami health as a consequence of the illegal invasion of their land by 40,000 ‘garimpeiros’ or goldminers. Prince Charles publicly called the situation ‘genocide’. In a seven-year period from 1987-1993 one fifth of the Yanomami died from malaria and other diseases transmitted by the miners.
"Of all Yanomami who have emerged as public figures, probably the most important is Davi Kopenawa Yanomami."
Davi Kopenawa was born near the Rio Toototobi near the border of Venezuela. He learned Portuguese from a Christian mission run by New Tribes Mission, an American evangelical organization specializing in the proselytization of isolated peoples. The acquisition of Portuguese language proficiency, then rare among the Yanomami, enabled Davi Kopenawa to interact with Brazil's Lusophone majority both directly and through the mass media.
In his own words translated from Portuguese:
I know that the authorities and many people came here because the planet is sick and they are trying to find out how to cure it. The people who come from many places, from the other side of the big lake, all come here to learn about how we live. I want to speak giving the message from Omai. Omai is the creator of the Yanomami who also has created all the shaboris that are the shamans. The shaboris are the ones that have the knowledge, and they sent two of us to deliver their message. The message is to stop destruction, to stop taking out minerals from under the ground, to stop taking out the steel with which all the metal utensils are made, and to stop building roads. We feel that a lot of riches have already been taken out of the indigenous lands, and a lot of these riches are getting old and useless, and it would be much better if the Brazilian government would give these riches to the poor in Brazil. Our work is to protect nature, the wind, the mountains, the forest, the animals, and this is what we want to teach you people.
Davi Kopenawa is the son-in-law of another traditional tribal leader with whom he apprenticed to be a shaman. His wife lost much of her family to measles and other diseases brought to the area in the 1970s by road construction crews and garimpeiros (small-time gold miners). Davi Kopenawa has mentioned this as part of his personal motivation to speak out on his people's behalf. Davi was orphaned as a child when his parents died from diseases transmitted by outsiders.
After some months of staying on our territory, they started to transmit malaria to us. That means that the garimpeiros were already sick. Mosquitos bit the garimpeiros and then bit us. That is how we got the disease. The garimpeiros also brought in other diseases. There are complications of pneumonia, sometimes associated with malaria; tuberculosis; skin diseases that often are associated with other diseases, and, especially in children, can be fatal; there was an epidemic of yellow fever in the area; hepatitis.
In the 1980s, he began working for the Brazilian government organization Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) at a post in Demini in the center of Yanomami territory as an intermediary between the government and indigenous peoples with whom outsiders had little or no contact. He also accompanied health workers to Yanomami villages and has worked closely with organizations such as Comissão Pró-Yanomami (CCPY) and Survival International in the fight for the integrity of Yanomami lands in Brazil.
Since the invasion of Yanomami territory began in 1987 by illegal goldminers, Davi Kopenawa has worked for their removal from the area and for the creation of a parkland therein. His action resulted in death threats from the miners and an award from the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988. After a major international campaign led by Davi, Survival International and CCPY, the Brazilian government finally recognized Yanomami land rights in 1992 just before the UN’s Earth Summit.
Davi Kopenawa's unique role among his people has been commented on skeptically even by those sympathetic to him and his cause. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon wrote regarding Davi Kopenawa:
His non-Yanomamö supporters in Brazil, intelligent and well-intentioned advocates of the Yanomamö cause, are promoting him as a spokesman for his people. Such a role exists largely because our culture must deal with other cultures through their leaders – it is the only way we know how to deal with them. Everything I know about Davi Kobenawä is positive, and I am confident that he is a sincere and honest man. When I read his proclamations, I am moved – but I am also sure that someone from our culture wrote them. They have too much the voice of Rousseau’s idealism and sound very non-Yanomamö. My concern is that he is being put into a difficult position, fraught with consequences for the future of the Yanomamö. For one thing, there is currently no such thing as a pan-Yanomamö awareness, and so he cannot possibly be speaking for the Venezuelan Yanomamö.
Survival International and many others with extensive experience of the Yanomami have severely criticized Chagnon’s work which portrays the Yanomami as ‘sly, aggressive, and intimidating’ and falsely claims that they ‘live in a state of chronic warfare’. This characterization has undoubtedly been detrimental for them. It was referred to by the Brazilian government when it planned to fragment Yanomami land in 1988, in a proposal which would have been catastrophic for the Indians and which was only prevented by a vigorous campaign.
Chagnon's views in this matter were criticized by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney in his much-defamed book Darkness in El Dorado.
Davi has spoken out for over 20 years and visited many countries with his message about the importance of respecting indigenous peoples rights and their fundamental and unique role in conserving rainforest for the benefit of humanity.
In 2004 Davi and other Yanomami in Brazil set up an organization called Hutukara to defend their rights. As well as advocating for Yanomami rights, it runs educational projects where Yanomami teachers work in the communities teaching literacy, maths, geography and human rights.
Davi continues to speak out about the dangers facing the Yanomami. He has warned about the impact large scale mining will have on the Yanomami if the Brazilian congress votes to allow mining on indigenous lands.
We the Yanomami people think that mining will not bring any benefits to anyone. It will only destroy nature. It will only destroy the streams and the rivers and kill the fish and kill the environment. And kill us. And bring in diseases which never existed in our land. It will bring roads and people who will bring in disease, guns and violence. So we, the Yanomami people do not want the national congress to approve the law or the president to sign it. We do not want to accept this law. Our land has to be respected. Our land is our heritage, a heritage which protects us. This land belongs to us so that we can plant, hunt, be healthy, it is our home where will live for the rest of our lives.
In 2009 he was honoured by the Bartolome de las Casas award in Spain and later gave a speech to the UK parliament where he warned that the goldminers are once again invading Yanomami land and disease is spreading.