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  HOME | Brazil (Click here for more)

Spain Honors Brazilian Indian Rights Activist

By Belen Anca Lopez

MADRID – Brazilian shaman and Yanomami Indian leader Davi Kopenawa received Tuesday a tribute in Madrid for his defense of his people’s rights and those of Brazil’s other indigenous communities at a ceremony where he said he was “born to fight” and will continue to do so to improve the quality of life there.

Kopenawa, whom the press christened the “Dalai Lama of the Amazon,” was given an honorable mention by the jury of the Bartolome de las Casas Prize, an award sponsored by the Casa America in Madrid and the international cooperation agency of the Spanish Foreign Ministry.

The prize honors efforts made on behalf of understanding and harmony with indigenous peoples, the protection of their rights and respect for their values.

At a press conference in Casa America in Madrid, the Yanomami leader said he was “very happy” and grateful for the prize.

The Yanomami, located in the Amazon, were invaded in the 1980s by tens of thousands of Brazilian gold prospectors whose arrival finished off 20 percent of the indigenous population in just eight years.

Kopenawa brought his people back from the edge of extinction by leading a campaign together with Survival International and the Pro Yanomami Commission, or CCPY, to get the boundaries of their lands established, which was done in 1992.

“I was born to fight, to defend my people,” said the Brazilian shaman, who warned that he will continue the struggle to save his land and its inhabitants.

Though the land now has boundaries that are officially recognized in Brazil – but not in Venezuela – the Yanomami continue to deal with “a lot of problems,” Kopenawa said.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration “should take a closer look” at the indigenous peoples, Kopenawa said. “He’s halfway a friend of the Indians but not entirely.”

Health is one of the worst problems for this community, with a high incidence of malaria and tuberculosis, diseases brought, he recalled, by the gold miners.

“We’ll continue the struggle to improve health so that the deaths that were inflicted 500 years ago are not repeated,” the Indian rights activist said.

In 2004, together with other regional leaders, Kopenawa founded the Hutukara organization with the goal of widening and strengthening Yanomami defenses by uniting and working together.

“It’s a question of defending our rights, the environment, the water, health, the animals, the rivers,” he said, adding that they don’t let “white men” onto their land because “they want more and more natural resources and they make off with all of them.”

Mining companies and the “invasion” of gold seekers are another problem facing the Yanomami. “They’re disrupting our lands and once again we have to get them out of there,” Kopenawa said.

The 22,000 Yanomami are distributed in almost equal parts in Brazil and Venezuela.

The Yanomami are one of the communities having the least contact with western civilization among Brazil’s Indians and occupy the country’s largest reserves, with close to 9.6 million hectares (24 million acres).

“We’re not politicians. Our policy is to not destroy the land. May they let us live and protect nature that gives us health and happiness,” Kopenawa said. EFE

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