Violation and Invasion in the Amazon

What happened when 20,000 illegal miners moved into the Yanomami Indigenous Territory?

Photographer Pablo Albarenga asked the Yanomami women profiled to draw what they see, feel and fear most. The images they drew—of polluted rivers, helicopters, planes flying over their houses and men harassing women with their exposed genitals—were superimposed on the photographs, each drawing matched with an image of the woman who made it. To ensure the safety of women from the invaded villages, their names were withheld, and their faces were not photographed. The women whose faces are visible live in villages that were not invaded.

The Yanomami woman sits on a wooden bench, swatting away relentless mosquitoes. A necklace of long yellow beads crisscrosses her naked breasts and drapes over her pregnant belly. As her four-year-old snuggles up, she laments how skinny he is. “He’s been eaten away by malaria,” she explains. In a forest invaded by mining interests that now control the area, children like him die of disease after days or weeks of high fever and persistent vomiting. Malnutrition has been a reality for several years, and it has worsened in a number of villages. In territories under the control of illegal mining, Yanomami children vomit out worms. Medicine is slow to arrive, if it arrives at all. Then the woman starts telling us what she fears more than hunger or malaria, even more than children throwing up worms. She tells us what the miners do to the women.

The body of the world’s largest tropical forest, a major regulator of the planet’s climate, has been violated and invaded by some 20,000 illegal miners in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, an area of over 37,000 square miles (96,000 square kilometers) between the states of Roraima and Amazonas in northern Brazil, close to the Venezuelan border. The invaders open craters in the ground, dig up riverbeds with their huge dredges and dump vast amounts of human waste, mercury, gasoline and diesel fuel into the forest waters. Some miners are equipped with military-grade weapons, and organized crime factions are involved in some of the regions’ narco-mining. Moreover, the miners are advancing, since under right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president from 2019 to 2022, they were given plenty of room to expand their exploitation of Indigenous lands.

In March 2022, 100 miners in search of gold reached the vicinity of this Yanomami woman’s village and anchored their six barges an hour from her home. A young man from the community went to the mining site with his wife. Their eyes on the wife, a group of miners goaded the man into drinking so much that he fell down drunk. “He was drunk, passed out. That’s why they screwed her,” the woman on the wooden bench says. And the raping went on. A seventeen-year-old girl was enticed to one of the barges by another young Yanomami man, who was working there as a boatman. “He told her ‘We’re going to get a rifle for your father [to hunt with]; I want to get a motor [for a boat]!’” When the two of them reached the barge, the miners gave the girl some cachaça liquor—and one of them raped her. And then another did. And then another. “There were so many, like this,” she continues, gesticulating a quantity she cannot count.

After this collective rape, the teenager’s family was given packages of rice, black beans, pepperoni, flour and sardines. There is no one to report the crime to. Even if a formal complaint were filed, locating men who move in and out of the forest illegally, when and how they want, would be problematic. In a territory demarcated over 30 years ago and now under the constitutional protection of the Brazilian state, there are nonetheless regions controlled by illegal mining forces where mining bosses have supplanted the state. During the nearly four years that Jair Bolsonaro was in office, the situation deteriorated further, as public authorities failed to take any consistent or truly efficacious action. Under international pressure, the government engaged in ostentatious one-time operations, during which they spent two weeks destroying machinery and aircraft. This yielded good photo opportunities but changed nothing. Three such operations were conducted in 2021. Only one was conducted in 2022, in early August, and shortly after, the miners returned.

The woman eventually asks us in her language, pain and outrage in her voice: “Why do the miners screw Yanomami women?”

Why? How do we respond to this question, asked by a woman who has been witnessing the destruction of her world ever since the first napëpë (white, foreigner, enemy) set foot in the forest? Where do we start?

My team from Sumaúma went to the Yanomami communities to investigate the oral reports we’d heard of the rape and exploitation of Indigenous women. We wanted to understand what the Yanomami people are experiencing, in their own language. Because we were after precise words, we asked the Indigenist expert and anthropologist Ana Maria Machado to accompany us. She is among the few translators and interpreters of one of the six languages spoken by the Yanomami and has maintained close relations with some of their communities for 15 years. But even Ana Maria was not prepared for what she heard and witnessed. Young girls she has known since they were toddlers have been raped and abused; teens she knew when they were growing up lure their friends into prostitution in return for cell phones. It is a world that is falling apart, and Ana knows these marks will remain even if the miners leave, because what is changing is a way of being forest and of being in the forest, as the great shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami makes clear. Like the Amazon rainforest, the Yanomami may be approaching the point of no return. This ongoing process of extermination is not merely physical, produced by guns, disease and contamination; it is the extermination of a way of life that planted part of the forest that is now being trampled.

We knew it would be extremely hard to reach the regions dominated by illegal mining interests because criminals control not only the ground but also the air. They have information on everybody who arrives, and even health-care teams have trouble providing services. The forest has become a territory controlled by a kind of militia, similar to what has happened in favelas and communities in Brazil’s big cities, such as Rio de Janeiro. We have seen Indigenous adolescents ensnared like the Black youths in urban communities, first by drug trafficking and then by militias, composed of former members of the public security forces. This is happening now. Given the meager response on the part of the authorities, the main resistance has come from leaders like Davi Kopenawa, organizations such as the Hutukara Yanomami Association and socioenvironmental activists.

Data we obtained under Brazil’s Access to Information Law indicate that health-care hubs inside Yanomami territory have had to close their doors 13 times since July 2020 due to threats to providers or armed conflicts, often instigated by miners in the territory. In Homoxi, miners kicked the health-care team out and turned the place into an aviation fuel storage facility. When Bolsonaro took office, 90 percent of Yanomami children were receiving regular medical care, compared to just 75 percent at the close of his term. Four in every 10 Yanomami children suffer from malnourishment, and 570 died from 2019 to 2022 of causes that health care could have prevented.

When in urgent need of help, the Yanomami who have cell phones are forced to ask the miners’ permission to hook up to their internet hubs, installed by the criminals themselves. In despair, they turn to the Special Office of Indigenous Health (SESAI) for aid. The only helicopter assigned to provide the Yanomami with health assistance is sometimes out of commission, according to health-care providers; meanwhile, dozens of miner-owned aircraft fly illegally through the skies without any trouble. In the Xitei region, where the local health-care post was closed for five months in 2022—for the third time since mid-2020—official data show that 11 children died from a lack of medical care in 2022. In the Yanomami territory as a whole, 99 children under age five lost their lives in 2022 due to the lack of diagnosis and treatment.

After the price of gold shot sky-high, criminal factions added this commodity to their illegal business portfolio and are advancing in regions like the Yanomami territory. They often count on the complicity of public employees as well as the support of a portion of the local elites whose relationship with the forest is marked by predatory extractivism. While the Indigenous number around 30,000, there are some 20,000 invaders–according to estimates by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—and the figure for the miners is trending upward. Their weapons are capable of taking on the Federal Police and the National Public Security Force. The Illegal Mining Monitoring System, maintained by the Hutukara Yanomami Association within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, has detected the presence of miners in areas affecting 273 of the 350 villages, impacting regions occupied by 56 percent of the Yanomami population.

What is left for women and girls, the main victims of all wars? How can we begin to respond to the question asked by the Yanomami woman?

One woman we spoke to was from the region of Missão Catrimani, an area that is part of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. It was not possible to reach the place she lives without jeopardizing our lives. Mining command now extends into this area, and entry is restricted. In each region we intended to travel to, people whom Ana Maria has known for over 10 years warned us that if we entered, we might not come out. The Yanomami are under siege, and their voices are increasingly silenced. We tried to figure out a way around this hurdle without falling victim ourselves—as happened to Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, executed in June 2022 in the Javari Valley, another Amazonian region invaded by organized crime. Ultimately, the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA)—one of Brazil’s largest NGOs—helped us fly witnesses and victims to Demini, the region led by the shaman Davi Kopenawa, where we could listen to their stories of what they were going through without running any risk. We launched a complex journalism operation in a territory under war—a war between such lopsided forces that a more precise term would be “massacre.”

We took another group of women to a house in the country, not far from the capital of Roraima, Boa Vista, a city where the main monument is a statue of a miner. There we asked the women to draw images of what they had heard, seen and suffered. These are the drawings superimposed on pictures taken by the third member of the Sumaúma team, the photographer Pablo Albarenga. Since the women would have to return to the territory under criminal control, where they or members of their families or community might run the risk of execution, their identities had to be concealed. None of the photos show their faces. Pablo had the challenging mission of documenting in images the dramatic reality of life in Yanomami territory without identifying the women. The solution was to juxtapose photographs of the women with their drawings. Each photograph in this story ties a woman to her personal interpretation of how illegal mining has affected her community. These are the images they reveal to the world, with faces they are forced to hide.

One of the women is wearing an old white T-shirt and short black skirt. At home, she always dresses in a wool loincloth and decorates her body with beads, but she is in the city for medical treatment right now. She makes a point of painting five red stripes of annatto paste across her face just minutes before her interview. This is a show of self-affirmation and affirmation of her Indigenous identity, even though her full face cannot appear. Forest women use dye from this Amazon fruit to adorn and perfume themselves and also as sunscreen. Once the woman is ready, she does the opening drawing for this story: a nightmare sketched out as disproportionate-sized penises. She tells us she was pregnant five months earlier and had to be rushed from her village to a hospital in the city. “I lost the child in my belly. He was born dead in the hospital.” She shrinks into her chair. This is her third straight miscarriage in recent years. Before that, she had two children, now 20 and nine years of age. She tells us that lately she’s seen many women going through the same, but that before, such pregnancy losses were not common in the lives of women like her.

It is impossible to know exactly what caused the death of these women’s children without an investigation. But the mercury used in illegal mining operations to separate gold from the rocks can cause fetal malformation. “The metal contaminates aquatic animals and ends up ingested by people when they eat. Then it spreads throughout the body’s organs and tissues,” explains Paulo Basta, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), one of Brazil’s leading health research institutes. In 2014, Basta led a study that detected elevated levels of mercury contamination in the bodies of the Yanomami. Another Fiocruz study, released in August 2022, estimated that 45 percent of the mercury from illegal mining is being dumped into rivers in the Amazon without any treatment or precautions. In early 2021, researchers collected samples of fish from the Uraricoera, a river that passes through Yanomami territory and is one of the hardest hit by illegal mining. They found that six in every 10 fish displayed mercury levels above those stipulated as safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Mercury poisoning can lead to hallucinations, seizures, persistent headaches and visual and auditory loss. In addition to miscarrying, pregnant women exposed to the substance may give birth to children who present developmental delays. This damage will be felt by generations to come since mercury can remain in the environment for up to 100 years. “What is happening with the Yanomami is an unprecedented public health and humanitarian crisis,” Basta stated.

Here is another question we don’t even know how to begin to answer: Why was the woman who draws disproportionate penises condemned to have three miscarriages? Why is she condemned to fearing her next pregnancy as much as she fears the proximity of the men who possess the penises she draws? Who is going to keep these criminals from violating the bodies of women, rivers and the forest?

A flight over Yanomami territory shows that the forest’s body is covered in open sores; its trees swallowed by huge muddy craters, brown encroaching on green. The image resembles the devastation left by an aerial bombardment. A single hole can extend over one square mile (2.5 square kilometers) of forest—imagine a patchwork of 422 official soccer fields. In August 2022, the latest month for which data are available, illegal mining-related deforestation had reached 17 square miles (44 square kilometers), the equivalent of nearly 6,000 soccer fields.

On the ground, this violence has an odor. “The water stinks,” says a Yanomami woman from the region of Parima. The miners are close to her village and throw their feces in the river where her community bathes, fishes and gets their drinking and cooking water. “They crap in the water and we get diarrhea,” she reports. “When there weren’t any miners, we were fine. We’d catch good crab and fish, we drank very good water, but now it’s all gone bad. If they send [the miners] far away, if the water goes back to being clean, do you suppose the fish will taste good again?”

This wasn’t the first massive invasion of the Yanomami territory. In the late 1980s, 40,000 men spread across the region, bringing with them viruses, bacteria and guns. Fourteen percent of the population was exterminated as a result. The main source of documentation on this era comes from the photog- rapher Claudia Andujar, a central voice in denouncing the massacre of the Yanomami people to the international press. Xawara is the Yanomami word for the tidal wave of diseases that killed their people. The territory had not been demarcated yet, and the ensuing global uproar was decisive to ratification of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in 1992, seven years after the democratization of Brazil and four years after the country’s new constitution recognized the rights of original peoples for the first time.

Davi Kopenawa—who lost his mother and part of his family to measles, a disease brought in years earlier by evangelical missionaries—became the voice of his people. The Falling Sky, co-authored by Kopenawa and the French anthropologist Bruce Albert, is a landmark text and a turning point in anthropology. The book is both the testimony of a shaman about the colonizing advance on the forest and the bodies of forest beings as well as the testimony of a forest human about the climate collapse. Shamans hold up the sky, but shamans are being killed by napëpë and their xawara. Employing poetic
expression consonant with the best science, Kopenawa shows how the action
of the forest—this complex being formed through constant exchange among so many other beings—is what “creates” the sky, that is, the earth’s atmosphere. If today’s accelerated destruction means the forest ceases to act as a forest, the sky
will fall.

Following on the heels of 21 years of business-military dictatorship, which transformed the forest into a body open for predatory exploitation, the demarcation of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory and the democratization of Brazil represented the possibility that we might change how we treat both nature and the people who have never cut themselves off from it. But Brazil’s democratic governments were never able—or never wanted—to halt the destruction of the Amazon. In recent decades, the forest and its peoples have been attacked by illegal mining interests, large transnational mining concerns, agribusiness, logging companies and grilagem (the theft of public lands), and usurped by major government projects such as hydropower plants, highways and railways. When Perimetral Norte federal highway was opened in 1973 under the military dictatorship, prior to the mining invasion, once sporadic contact with the Yanomami became incessant. Some Indigenous experts say the inauguration of this road signaled the beginning of a holocaust for one of the planet’s most complex cultures.

More than 40 years later, Jair Bolsonaro, a notorious defender of the period of dictatorship, magnified and accelerated the destruction of the forest during a time when the climate collapse is triggering ever more extreme weather disasters. He did so with the collaboration of Congress, dominated by representatives of agribusiness and predatory mining. Bolsonaro, a prominent face in the reenergized global far right, did his own illegal mining when he was in the army. He made his agenda abundantly clear during his campaign: “You can be sure if I get [to the presidency], there won’t be any money for NGOs. If it’s up to me, every citizen will have a gun at home and not a single centimeter will be demarcated for Indigenous reserves or quilombolas (descendants of rebels who escaped enslavement),” he declared at a public event. After taking office as president in 2019, he oversaw the structural dismantling of the agencies charged with oversight of environmental crimes in Brazil, at the same time making public statements to incentivize exploitation of the forest. “For my part, I would open up mining. There’s a project to open up mining on Indigenous land,” he said in 2020. During the pandemic, the International Criminal Court received official requests to investigate Bolsonaro for Indigenous genocide, based on the president’s actions. His veto of a measure to provide original peoples with potable water was among various decisions that hampered an effective fight against Covid and resulted in the deaths of some of Brazil’s key Indigenous leaders—at least one of whom was the last elder of his people, the Juma. NGOs working to defend nature and its peoples were also driven from the forest by the pandemic, but the predators were not. Much to the contrary. The phrase “The destroyers of the Amazon aren’t working from home” gained circulation in a number of languages.

When Bolsonaro ran for reelection, he lost by a narrow margin to the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former two-term Brazilian president (2003 to 2010). Lula, as he is known, took office in January 2023 and created the unprecedented Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. At the inauguration of Sonia Guajajara, the newly installed Indigenous minister, Kopenawa sat in a place of honor, next to the president. This brought hope that the invaders will start to be withdrawn soon, but Lula will need to establish a long-term policy that keeps criminals away.

Pandemics like Covid are linked to the deforestation of rainforests and other biomes because viruses previously confined to narrow stretches of woodland have lost their habitat, crossed boundaries and reached humans. In Brazil, the pandemic was used to expand destruction of the Amazon even further. In October 2018, two months before Bolsonaro was sworn in, the Hutukara project, which monitors mining-related deforestation, found that some 4.6 square miles of demarcated area had been devastated. By December 2021, almost two years after the first case of Covid was reported in Brazil, this destruction had more than doubled, reaching 12.6 square miles (32.6 square kilometers). By August 2022, illegal mining activities had consumed another 4.24 square miles (11 square kilometers) of forest. Monitoring by the federal government indicates that in January 2022 alone, 216 deforestation alerts about mineral extraction inside the Indigenous territory were issued, averaging nearly seven a day. There are even more alarming cases: in the region of Xitei, the deforested area soared 1,101 percent from December 2020 to December 2021.

The incidence of malaria has risen sharply in Yanomami territory because miners act as vectors of various diseases. A woman from the Hakoma region crosses her arms over her chest, squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her whole body to describe the 104-plus-degree fever she had when she contracted the illness. She says she was poremu, meaning she was in a “specter state” because her vital essence was affected. She couldn’t do anything, not even get up out of her hammock. They medicated her in her village, and she recovered. A while later, she caught malaria a second time, her condition worsened, and she had to be taken to the hospital in Boa Vista.

From her home in the village, the woman listens all day long to the noise of the gold mining equipment inside the forest. “Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow,” she says, pounding out with her fists a rhythm that is now part of daily life. The noise doesn’t stop even when night arrives. “Lots of planes land there. In the place where they’re digging holes, rifles, cartridges, bed linen, food, fuel, all those things are landed there,” she says. Data we obtained through Brazil’s Access to Information Law point to a steep climb in the incidence of malaria. From 2018—when the number of illegal miners in the territory skyrocketed—to 2021, cases of the disease rose 105 percent. While 2,928 cases were reported in 2014, the number surged to 20,394 in 2021. At least 15 people died of malaria in 2021, 10 of them children aged one to nine.

Brazil has run out of the medicine used to treat the disease, which is caused by the protozoan parasite Plasmodium vivax. This information was admitted in a technical note by the Brazilian Health Ministry, signed in June 2022 and obtained exclusively by the independent investigative journalism agency Amazônia Real. The medication in question is chloroquine, falsely touted by Jair Bolsonaro as an antidote to Covid when taken at the onset of the disease. The lie spread by the Brazilian president himself not only conveyed a false sense of security during the pandemic but also led to a shortage of an essential anti-malarial medication, aggravating the tragedy among the Indigenous. “The health-care system has collapsed,” said Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, the president of the Yanomami Indigenous Health District Council (CONDISI). “There’s no medication for worms, no chloroquine. Hunger is coming. Our history is being interrupted.”

Hunger and malnutrition come hand in hand with disease. In their traditional way of life, the Yanomami spend most of their time tending their gardens, gathering fruit and other forest foods, fishing and hunting. When many of them fall ill at once, nothing is gathered, and their garden produce is lost. The contamination of fish and other river animals with mercury and other toxic substances has exacerbated food insecurity. When thousands of men invaded the forest, opening their camps by force, game animals disappeared. The Yanomami food system is being destroyed link by link, suddenly making their agelong way of life impossible. They are then forced to beg their tormentors for food, generally ultra-processed varieties. And always at extremely high prices.

“Our gardens were all flooded. There was a lot of water. Our cassava rotted. My grandson says he’s hungry,” another Yanomami woman tells us. “There’s no cassava, and so my husband and I went into town [to try to get government food assistance]. Our new gardens are still so small. All the children have lost weight, and it makes me so sad!” The woman lives in Palimiu, where deforestation grew 228 percent from December 2020 to December 2021. She also tells us the miners pump river water into the machinery that separates gold from rock and then discard the contaminated liquid in the forest.

In April 2021, a group of Yanomami from the settlement of Palimiu intercepted one of the invaders’ vessels when it was passing by the village and apprehended 314 gallons (1,190 liters) of fuel being transported to the mining site. Miners in another boat shot at the Indigenous. Nine other gun attacks followed through August 2021. During one of these confrontations, two children who were with their relatives got lost. They were found dead in the river, with signs they had drowned.

In other villages, however, miners have encountered no resistance. Men in the community are often the ones who invite them in. In the year 1500, when the first Portuguese invaders landed in Brazil, there was the classic swapping of trinkets, such as mirrors, for gold. The same pitiful trading takes place now, more than five centuries later, in Yanomami territory and other regions of the Amazon. Indigenous youth ally themselves with the destroyers in exchange for the contemporary version of mirrors—anything from cachaça to cheap cell phones. More recently, the youth have also come to want gold. Davi Kopenawa often refers to whites as the “commodities people” because they like baubles and trade them for life. This taste for commodities is beginning to seduce Yanomami adolescents.

According to some reports we received, young Yanomami men are enticing newly menstruating young girls to have sex with miners in camp brothels. There are also growing reports of alcoholism among the Indigenous in mining settlements. The liquor is usually purchased with the money they receive for work with the miners. “When they want to buy cachaça [at the mining canteen], they buy it and come back drunk!” says one of the women we interviewed. These camps eventually turn into small settlements with a number of little stores and brothels. If the growth of these settlements mimics the colonization of Brazil and the state fails to block it, then small, completely illegal towns will soon exist inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, an unprecedented affront to the Brazilian Constitution and international law.

One of the women we interviewed is actually still a girl. Her pink flip-flops are a children’s size 12, typically worn by six-year-olds of normal height. Although she is 18, she is under four feet tall and speaks so softly it is sometimes impossible to understand her. She is in Boa Vista now but does not remember exactly how she got there.

The girl was living at an illegal mining site close to her village and sleeping on the veranda of a wooden house with three other Yanomami girls, two of them 14 years old and one, 13. She says it was a brothel. A young man from her community persuaded her to run away from home, along with a female cousin, and she says she stayed for the food. Her 14-year-old half sister had been taken there earlier. The girls would have sex with the invaders in exchange for rice, cookies, pasta and sugar.

The non-Indigenous women slept inside, while the Yanomami teens hung their hammocks outside. The girl contracted malaria there. There was no help around; she lost consciousness, and the miners abandoned her in her village. After her community called emergency services, she was flown directly to an intensive care unit in Boa Vista, and she woke up alone in the city. A pink lollipop clutched in her hand, this small Yanomami girl does not admit she was receiving food for sex, but she says the other women were. She has no idea condoms exist.

In the Demini village, the artist Ehuana Yaira Yanomami helped us out by interpreting other Yanomami languages. She lives in a corner of the forest not yet reached by mining. She and her two sisters are the only ones who expose their faces in our photographs. Ehuana listens to the sound of macaws and of leaves fluttering in the wind. She walks among trees she has known since she was a child, clearing the path with a machete to reach a stretch of river where fish still swim. She is accompanied by the women we have brought to a gathering, women from other regions laid waste by mining. Here they reencoun- ter a lifeway that is slipping away; here they remember what has been torn from them. Here they are able to organize a traditional collective fishing expedition, using leaves from a woody vine known as timbo, gathered from their gardens. After crushing this toxic herb and mixing it with soil, they throw it into the river. Temporarily deprived of oxygen, the fish rise to the surface, where they can easily be caught. With their precise movements, girls and women carrying machetes and baskets and boys and men equipped with arrows guarantee their own food. They repeat the gestures of their ancestors, while the threat draws closer to Demini.

“When we wake up a little before dawn, sometimes we think: ‘Do I need to dig up some cassava now, early? We don’t have any beiju [starch cake made from tapioca], we’re going to be hungry!’ Then we go dig some cassava. But first we eat a little, waiting for the day to get lighter. We eat a little bit of banana before we go out; we don’t go out hungry. When we go out to dig up cassava, we take our daughters; the men don’t go with us. Then we carry firewood home, so we can cook. This is what our thoughts tell us to do. If we want to go into the forest when we wake up, if we went to bed hungry and want to fish, we go into our gardens and pick some timbo leaves. We take the leaves and do our fishing. When we come back home with the fish, we cook it and eat it, and so our bellies are full and we lay down in our hammocks. After that, we go bathe ourselves and, at the end of the day, when it’s almost night, we feed our family again. If there’s any game meat, we eat a little.”

This is how the day goes, as narrated by a woman from Demini. Every day, she and other women from the village wear red wool loincloths; beaded necklaces cross their chests while their breasts hang free so their young children can nurse when- ever they want. Like almost all Yanomami women, they have an average of three to six children. They always go around with their youngest in a wool sling, held fast to their bodies, with their other little ones perpetually under foot.

Walking down the many paths through the forest near their community, these women know the name of every tree, plant or insect. They hate it when they have to go into the city for health care, preferring the fresh air of the forest. Some have never left the woods. The forest is their home, food, medicine, water, light and shade—a life that suffices because it is in constant exchange with everything alive. Here, families live together without any walls separating them. Chitchatting back and forth in their hammocks, the women roar with laughter.

But they know that their world is convulsing and that if it keeps on, the sky will fall.

There, in Demini, land of the shaman Davi Kopenawa, they are not at risk, not yet. But they are wary. Those who have come to tell them about the dangers advancing into the forest overwhelm them with omens. “In the future, the whites are going to finish us off,” says one of them. “The napëpë are ruining the Yanomami.”

The women of Demini look in fear at the visitors’ drawings of big moxi xawarapë—the Yanomami words for “diseased penises.” They know what the napëpë and their moxi xawarapë have in store for Indigenous women. One of them says: “If the miners screw our asses, they’ll make us suffer. They’ll kill our children and screw our daughters.”

None of the women know how to respond to the question of why they screw Yanomami women, why they invade the forest and their bodies, why they rape them and the forest. Not a single answer, not even whispered. Only the napëpë understand this brutal mystery.


Talita Bedinelli

Talita Bedinelli is a Brazilian journalist and a winner of the IAPA Excellence in Journalism Award. She worked for the newspapers Folha de S. Paulo and El País and is a co-founder of SUMAÚMA, a trilingual journalism platform, which aims to place the Amazon rainforest at the center of global journalism.

The Amazon is famous for its biodiversity, as a home to innumerable types of animals and plants. Less frequently extolled is the extraordinary human ecosystem that’s grown around the river and its surrounding jungle. Indigenous tribes, missionaries, loggers, miners, soldiers, ...

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