Davi Kopenawa, traditional shaman and internationally renowned spokesman for the Yanomami people in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, has demanded urgent police protection following a series of death threats by armed thugs reportedly hired by gold-miners operating illegally on Yanomami land in Roraima state. In June, armed men on motorbikes raided the Boa Vista office of Brazil's non-governmental Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), which works closely with the Yanomami, asking for Davi. The men threatened ISA staff with guns and stole computers and other equipment. After the assault, one of the men was arrested, and reportedly told police that he had been hired by gold-miners. In May, Yanomami Association Hutukara, headed by Davi, received a message from gold-miners saying that Davi would not be alive by the end of the year.
Davi told advocacy group Cultural Survival, "They want to kill me. I don't do what the white people do, who go after someone to kill them. I don't get in the way of their work. But they are getting in the way of our work and our fight. I'll continue to fight and to work for my people. Because defending the Yanomami people and their land is my work."
Since the attack, a climate of fear has surrounded the offices of Hutukara and ISA, as men on motorbikes intimidate the staff and repeatedly ask for Davi's whereabouts.
In collaboration with Hutukara, Brazil's government launched a major operation to evict hundreds of illegal miners and to destroy mining infrastructure in February. But Davi told the BBC: "Illegal gold miners are still invading our land. They have leaders who organise the supplies and transport and support the invasion of our land. Ranchers have also invaded with their cattle. This group is angry with me because I send the police and FUNAI [Brazil's indigenous affairs agency) in to destroy their rafts and dredgers. The gold dealers in town have money to hire gunmen to get rid of me."
Davi, who has been called the "Dalai Lama of the Rainforest," has been at the forefront of the struggle for the protection of Yanomami land for over 30 years. He has traveled abroad on many occasions to raise awareness of the urgent need to protect the Amazon rainforest from destruction. He has spoken at the United Nations and received the Global 500 award, among others, for his contribution to the battle of environmental preservation.
Survival's director Stephen Corry said in response to the threats, "The rule of law means nothing on the Amazon frontier, which is as wild and violent as the American West used to be. Anyone standing in the way of this aggressive colonization risks being killed in cold blood. These are not empty threats—indigenous activists are frequently assassinated for resisting the destruction of their land. Davi Yanomami's life is in danger. Those behind the threats and this latest attack must be brought to justice—the authorities need to act now to prevent the murder of another innocent man.”
Brazil's Federal Police and Public Ministry said they have opened an investigation into the threats.
Brazil's Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) issued a report this month finding that over 600 indigenous people have been assassinated in the country over the past 11 years. Global Witness meanwhile reports that nearly half of all assassinations of environmental defenders in 36 countries recorded between 2002-2013 occurred in Brazil. (Globo, July 30; Survival International, BBC News, July 29)