Struggle of Brazilian Amazon’s Yanomami brought to life through art

Activists tour New York calling for support against the invasion of illegal mining into their territory
<p>The Yanomami Struggle exhibition premiered in New York with photographs by Claudia Andujar and Yanomami artists (Image: Flávia Milhorance)</p>

The Yanomami Struggle exhibition premiered in New York with photographs by Claudia Andujar and Yanomami artists (Image: Flávia Milhorance)

A thin layer of snow covers the skyscrapers of Hudson Yards, the newest neighbourhood in Manhattan’s expanding business district. But inside The Shed is a burst of tropical colour, as Yanomami artists and activists with painted faces and Indigenous ornaments join photographer Claudia Andujar for the launch of its latest exhibition. 

The iconic 16,000m2 cultural centre is hosting “The Yanomami Struggle”, with drawings, paintings, and videos by artists of the ethnic group, together with photographs by Andujar. 

The Swiss photographer, whose family were victims of the Holocaust during the Second World War, has dedicated most of her life to protecting the Yanomami. The exhibition’s collection of 200 photographs portrays a culture permeated by shamanism and an intrinsic relationship with the Amazon forest, as well as a long history of violence, but also resistance.

“I have worked with the Yanomami for 50 years and I will continue to defend the people and their lands, which are being invaded by miners,” says Andujar, who lives in São Paulo. In fragile health, the 91-year-old only confirmed her presence a few days before the event.

Claudia Andujar at The Shed
Claudia Andujar at The Shed, in New York. The Swiss photographer has spent over 50 years trying to protect the Yanomami people in the Amazon (Image: Flávia Milhorance)

The travelling show has been touring cities in Brazil and Europe since 2018. But it has gained unprecedented political weight as the Yanomami face an escalating humanitarian crisis, with the invasion of illegal miners into their territory, bringing disease, malnutrition, and violence. 

For the youngest members of the delegation, it’s their first time in the Northern Hemisphere winter. But not for shaman and Indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa, 66. In December 1992, he represented the peoples of the Amazon at an event at the UN headquarters in New York. That year, after more than a decade of activism, the Brazilian government finally recognised the Yanomami Indigenous territory. It covers 96,000 square kilometres, an area larger than Portugal, and is located in Northern Brazil, close to the border with Venezuela. 

In previous years, Kopenawa had visited Europe and the United States as part of an intense international campaign for support to protect his people from a violent gold rush advancing on the region occupied for a millennium by the ancient Yanomami.

Davi Kopenawa
Davi Kopenawa is a shaman and Indigenous leader advocating for the protection of the Yanomami people in Brazil and abroad (Image: Instituto Socioambiental)

“The story is long, but it repeats itself like in a soap opera,” Kopenawa tells Diálogo Chino.

History of violence that repeats itself

More than 70% of the approximately 27,000 Yanomami living today are under 30 years of age, a reflection of the near-extermination suffered by this population in past decades. 

The first wave of deaths came from the incursions of religious missionaries, government agents and the military in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, while still a child, Kopenawa lost his parents and other family members to measles epidemics carried by outsiders.

photographs by Claudia Andujar
On the wall, photographs by Claudia Andujar taken during a vaccination campaign inside the Yanomami territory. The art exhibition shows the Yanonami people in their various facets: the lifestyle, religiosity and their struggles with non-Indigenous people invading their land (Image: Flávia Milhorance)

In the early 1970s, the military government began the construction of the Perimetral Norte highway in the southern part of Yanomami land. The work was abandoned years later, but it drew attention to the presence of gold and other valuable metals, driving mining into the heart of the dense tropical forest, until then almost untouched.

In the book The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, Kopenawa and anthropologist Bruce Albert tell how the miners began to infiltrate the region in small groups, first offering food and goods to the Indigenous people. Throughout the 1980s, however, their growing presence became hostile, and caused the pollution of rivers, the scarcity of game and the spread of new infectious diseases. At its peak, the industry comprised 40,000 individuals and 90 clandestine airstrips, which facilitated the miners’ entry and departure on small planes.

The Indigenous inhabitants found themselves facing a dilemma which, according to the authors, lies at the heart of most conflicts: “The Yanomami became dependent on the economy gravitating around the mines at the very moment when the miners no longer found it necessary to buy peace with the Indians.” 

These tensions came to a head with the Haximu massacre in 1993, in which 16 Indigenous people, including children, and two miners were murdered. The massacre brought international attention and led to an unprecedented conviction for attempted genocide, although the accused were later released. The demarcation of the Yanomami territory helped cool the crisis, and operations by federal police and government agencies brought mining under control. But now the number of cowboy miners, or garimpeiros, has escalated – and Kopenawa is again trying to get the attention of the international community. 

A video installation at the show in New York combines photos of the Yanomami people from 1989 and 2018 by Claudia Andujar (Image: Flávia Milhorance)

“We hope to expel the garimpeiros from there again – this was a promise from the Lula government,” Kopenawa says. “Jair Bolsonaro did not want to listen, did not want to take care of my people.”

As well as opening the exhibition, Kopenawa spoke at Princeton and Columbia universities and again at UN headquarters in February. He then toured Washington seeking support for the campaign against mining inside Indigenous territories.

Recent socio-environmental devastation

The latest Yanomami crisis has been brewing since 2019, driven by the rising price of gold along with the permissive policies of Jair Bolsonaro’s government. As a member of congress in the 1990s and 2000s, Bolsonaro tried four times to suspend the protection of Yanomami land, without success. During his presidency, between 2019 and 2022, Bolsonaro dismantled environmental enforcement and Indigenous protection bodies, as well as pushing to relax laws against mining in protected areas. Although this new legislation has not yet been approved, his rhetoric has encouraged the devastation of the Amazon by illegal activities. On several occasions, Bolsonaro suggested there was “too much land for too little Yanomami”.

Deepening the crisis, there are suspicions that military personnel sent to the region were taking bribes to leak information about the few surveillance operations and allow gold and drugs to circulate freely. The mineral wealth of this border area has also attracted groups involved in drug trafficking, such as the PCC, today the largest criminal faction in Brazil, causing an escalation of physical and sexual violence.

Ehuana Yaira
Ehuana Yaira joined the tour in New York to show her artwork. The Yanomami artist portrays Indigenous women, many of them subject to violence at the hands of illegal miners (Drawing by Ehuana Yaira and image by Flávia Milhorance)

This is what 38-year-old Yanomami artist Ehuana Yaira shows in her drawings. She says she wants to denounce the suffering of children dying of hunger and malaria and of women sexually exploited by invaders. “The garimpeiros are making us suffer from every corner of our land,” says Yaira in New York. 

The health of the people has also been abandoned. The blocking of funds for Indigenous infrastructure and the difficult logistics in the remote territory, mostly without roads or communication, left health posts without basic supplies and staff. Medical professionals have left, fearing for their safety in the increasingly hostile environment. In early 2021, the situation was already drastic. Hunger and disease were already taking hold for similar reasons as in the 1980s. The most vulnerable, especially children, were dying from Covid-19. There was also a serious malaria epidemic, but a basic drug, chloroquine, was in short supply – partly because Bolsonaro was promoting its use to combat coronavirus, despite scientific evidence indicating its ineffectiveness.

Aerial view of mining site inside the Yanomami territory
Aerial view of mining site inside the Yanomami territory, near a river in the Surucucu region, in February. Illegal mining has escalated since Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019 (Image: Fernando Frazão / Agência Brasil)

A turning point?

Brasília remained blind to the crisis until the first month of the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Shocking new images of fragile and malnourished children were released by the independent journalism website Sumaúma in January. Urged by the Minister for Indigenous Peoples, Sonia Guajajara, the president landed at the epicentre of the crisis, in Boa Vista, a day later.

With the issue already gaining international prominence, a task force has offered treatment to the most seriously ill patients and the air force have seized control of the air space over the territory, causing miners to flee by boat – although many are not intimidated by the presence of the security forces.

Yanomamis, mainly women with their children, await help from the health task force
Yanomamis, mainly women with their children, await help from the health task force set up to address the humanitarian crisis in Boa Vista, near the Yanomami territory in February (Image: Fernando Frazão / Agência Brasil)

Kopenawa says that the withdrawal of miners will not be a simple mission: “Our land is rich, and where there is wealth, the invasions do not stop.” The demarcation of Yanomami territory, he says, does not guarantee protection against the illegal advance of mining and other activities such as cattle ranching and soybean cultivation, which are expanding on a smaller scale.

Companies have made more than 500 active mineral extraction requests to the National Mining Agency, covering over 30% of the territory. Although the areas are currently closed to exploitation, potential legal changes, such as the ones proposed by Bolsonaro,  may eventually change this scenario. And though illegal activities have reduced since the 1990s, they have never stopped.

Art as activism

“There is a peak in this crisis, of course, but the biggest issue was its invisibility,” says Hervé Chandès, artistic general director of the Fondation Cartier, one of the bodies behind the exhibition.

Yanomami artists and allies in NY
Yanomami artists and allies came together for the launch of the exhibition in February in New York (Image: Flávia Milhorance)

He has been following the Yanomami situation for over two decades, when he first met Andujar and Albert in an encounter that led to the Spirit of the Forest exhibition in Paris in 2003. For that exhibition, non-Indigenous artists, including Andujar, spent months in the territory working with the Yanomami on pieces that sought to express Indigenous lifestyles and spirituality. 

Over time, Chandès says he has better understood his position as the project’s sponsor. The big difference with the new exhibition is that “instead of going to their territory, they come here, New York, to speak for themselves.” For the first time, long-time activists for the Yanomami and the Amazon rainforest have met in the same space. “They are all together here, the stage is theirs,” says Chandès. “That is very symbolic.” 

Joseca Mokahesi
Joseca Mokahesi portrays Yanomami shamanism and his people’s struggle in his drawings (Photo by Flávia Milhorance and drawing by Mokahesi)

Among them is Joseca Mokahesi, one of the Indigenous artists who exhibited his illustrations in the 2003 show. Born in 1971, with no recorded date of birth, Mokahesi speaks the Yanomami language and requires translators to communicate. But his drawings have crossed borders and today serve as a key to the universe of his people.

“My art is my fight. The Yanomami people are suffering, but we’re fighting.”