The Yanomami are a large and ancient population of indigenous people residing deep within the Amazon rainforest in both western Brazil and southeastern Venezuela. Today, there are approximately 21,000 Yanomami people that live in 363 known Yanomami communities. These communities are generally small, with anywhere from 30 to 90 inhabitants. Some groups may be larger with over 200 individuals (Birx 2006). The Yanomami inhabit some 75,000 square miles of land, which is extremely rich in biodiversity and natural resources, including gold (Ricciardi 1991). These ancient people of Brazil and Venezuela have existed in isolation for thousands of years (Schomberg 1998) and have been a separate population for about 2,000 years (Birx 2006). The Yanomami are unique in the fact that they are foraging horticulturists. Additionally, their diet reflects the natural resources around them. The most important crops in the Yanomami diet are plantains and bananas, composing 75 percent of their diet. Hunting is equally as important to the Yanomami and their diet. Due to the fact they live in the rainforest, especially near rivers and streams, hunting game and fishing brings protein to the Yanomami diet (Hames 1996).
These people are extremely connected to nature as well. One notable example is the connection that Yanomami men share with the forest. Each male hunter has a counterpart in the forest in the form of an animal spirit. He cannot kill this type of animal without severely injuring himself. Anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami have noted that this interconnectedness with nature is what has allowed these people to sustain themselves for thousands of years. To the Yanomami it is both a religion and a philosophy, and these people hold nature as a high value in their societies. Ecological harmony is the reason for their existence (Birx 2006). It’s important to note that the Yanomami people have been known to be warrior people. They often carry long bows and arrows and believe that it is best to be known for having a brave reputation, especially among neighboring Yanomami communities (Ricciardi 1991).
But although the Yanomami people have existed for millennia in isolation and self-sustainability, their way of life has been severely threatened by the impeding outside world and through globalization.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that vast amounts of gold were found on the resource-rich Yanomami territory, especially in Brazil. When gold was discovered, Brazilian civilians who dreamt of riches started to encroach on to Yanomami lands, bringing numerous problems with them. By the late 1980s there were some 40,000 Brazilian miners on Yanomami land mining during the year’s dry season. Starting in the early 1980s, these problems would impact the Yanomami people and their way of life in unimaginable ways, so unimaginable that many would consider it a genocide of the Yanomami people. And in some cases 90 percent of Yanomami communities would die off from the atrocities brought about by the miners invading their lands in search of gold (Birx 2006).
Globalization and Food for the Yanomami:
As previously mentioned, the Yanomami diet consists mainly of plantains and bananas, as well as larger game and fish from the forest and bodies of water. One issue that arose from the gold mining in Brazil was mercury pollution, which occurred from poorly sealed and maintained mining sites. Mercury pollution quickly infected nearby rivers, poisoning fish and other wildlife that the Yanomami depended on. It also greatly polluted their pristine drinking water which had been unaffected for thousands of years. This mercury pollution sickened and killed many Yanomami people who relied on water that had become polluted from nearby mining activities (Ricciardi 1991).
With this impact on their diets, the Yanomami could see that their own food was poisoning them. Additionally, large game animal populations were being depleted by the miners as well and their other food sources were being impacted too. Because of this, many Yanomami had to beg for food from miners or go hungry, which completely went against their culture of self-sustainability. For the first time, the Yanomami were experiencing poverty and hunger, something they had never had to deal with before the miners came on to their lands (Birx 2006).
Today, many Yanomami people have worked hard in different ways to cope with the changes brought about by modernization and globalization. Many refuse to be subjected to poverty and begging. To cope with this, many Yanomami people have organized themselves in cooperative groups that produce honey and cultivate vegetables for local markets. With this production of goods, they can receive useful items and food in return, which can help Yanomami people avoid a life of poverty and begging, two things which go completely against traditional culture for them.
Globalization and Disease:
One thing that greatly impacted the Yanomami people when the miners came on to their lands was the spread of disease and infection. Introduced disease was and is an immediate danger to practically all Yanomami people. The Yanomami people had been so isolated for thousands of years that they had no resistance to other diseases and infections from the outside world. The miners brought many different and extremely contagious and fatal diseases. Of the diseases they brought, the worst included tuberculosis, venereal disease, and AIDS, many of which were spread through prostitution that the miners brought which them. Although the Yanomami weren’t completely disease and infection free before, occurrences of malaria and onchocerciasis (African River Blindness) skyrocketed when miners came in contact with them (Birx 2006).
The spread of these diseases greatly impacted traditional Yanomami medicine. Yanomami people believe that serious illness is caused by evil and enemy shamans. These shamans have demons in which they have personal control over and use to sicken enemies. In order to cure a person, shamans from the sickened person’s community will attempt to figuratively pull the enemy shaman’s demons out of the person’s body. Sickness can also be caused by not properly conducting Yanomami rituals or by committing a taboo. In addition to ridding the body of a demon, the Yanomami also use herbal remedies that they extract from plants from the nearby forests (Hames 1996). With the spread of diseases, the Yanomami could no longer use traditional medicine to cure infected people. Additionally, the Yanomami could see that the herbal remedies no longer worked for infections either. This greatly impacted the medicinal and shamanism aspects of their culture.
Globalization, Massacres, and Guns:
The Yanomami people are known to normally be a society of warriors and aggressive in general. When Brazilian miners began to invade their lands, they attacked and often injured or killed miners. However, the Yanomami warriors’ bows and arrows were met by guns, a technology that they had never seen before. Their bows and arrows were no match for this modern invention and many proud Yanomami warriors were massacred by miners with guns (Birx 2006). It didn’t end there though. If a Yanomami group was on land that miners wanted to excavate for gold, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill children, women, and the elderly either. In fact, miners would even shoot Yanomami children hiding in the nearby trees (Ricciardi 1991). One of the documented homicides occurred from June to August of 1993. Twelve of the victims were women, children, and the aged. Many of their bodies were mutilated or decapitated by the miners who murdered them. With the massacres increasing, the Yanomami knew that they could no longer fight with bows and arrows. Instead, many Yanomami warriors began to trade their own goods for guns, which completely changed their culture and traditional way of life (Birx 2006).
Globalization and the impeding world have greatly impacted the Yanomami way of life in several different ways. Pollution of waterways has changed how the Yanomami obtain food and has even led to many communities to begging for food from miners. Globalization has also brought disease to the Yanomami people who have no traditional medicinal means to combat disease and infection. Finally, globalization and the impeding western world have thrust death upon the Yanomami people. Warriors once carrying bows and arrows now must resort to trading for guns in order to keep their lands and people safe from invaders. Today the Yanomami are nowhere where they once were. They used to be a thriving people that sustained themselves on tradition and the goods that the surrounding rainforest offered them. Although the number of miners that enter the rainforest every dry season has declined greatly from the 40,000-something miners in 1987, there are still regular invasions of outsiders every year on to Yanomami land.
Many of these outsiders kill Yanomami mercilessly, especially ones who stand in their way of gold and fortune. Many anthropologists say that the problem lies within the governments of Brazil and Venezuela and that these governments have failed to promote the basic human rights that these Yanomami people have. Although these two countries have come together numerous times to create agreements and treaties on human rights, little has been done for the Yanomami people. In 1991, the Brazilian President made a promise to secure the Yanomami land as a single area instead of divided up areas. But promises still don’t mean much to the Yanomami people. Action is what they require now (Ricciardi 1991).
However, many Yanomami people refuse to sit back and watch their culture and societies deteriorate simply because the governments of Brazil and Venezuela have refused to step in. One notable Yanomami leader who has stepped up to the global plate is Davi Kopenawa. Kopenawa has traveled all over the world to bring awareness to the issue of the Yanomami people. He has spoken in front of both the British House of Commons and the United Nation to bring awareness to the issue that affects Yanomami people in South America (Birx 2006). Today, over 60 books have been written about the Yanomami people in Brazil and Venezuela. Many anthropologists have done a variety of different fieldwork on the Yanomami as well with hopes of improving the understanding of these ancient and intricate people. Anthropologists believe that with ethnographic accounts can come change, especially the kind of change within the promotion and acknowledgement of human rights of the Yanomami people (Birx 2006).
Birx, H. James. “Yanomamo.” Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2006. 2347-351. Print.
Hames, Raymond. “South America.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Vol. 7. New York: Macmillan Reference, 1996. 374-77. Print.
Ricciardi, Mirella. Vanishing Amazon. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. Print.
Schomberg, William. “Brazilian Yanomami in 1998.” Reuters. 27 Feb. 1998. Web. 20 July 2010. http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/book98/com.ch1/yanomami.980227.html>.