Davi Kopenawa Yanomami

Amazonian Indian Leader and Shaman

Davi's Story

Davi Kopenawa is a Yanomami shaman and spokesman, who led the long-running campaign to protect the Yanomami territory in Brazil.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Davi watched his parents die from new diseases brought in by outsiders; in the 1980s, when thousands of gold-miners invaded Yanomami land, 20% of the tribe in Brazil succumbed to illnesses to which they had little immunity.

Watch Davi speaking about his groundbreaking new book, The Falling Sky

The deaths of his loved ones prompted Davi's lifelong commitment to fighting for his people's rights.

The first time he left Brazil was at the invitation of Survival International, which in 1989 asked him to speak out about the Yanomami when Survival was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in the Swedish Parliament.

He has visited the USA, Japan, Venezuela and several European countries, spoken at the UN in Geneva and New York and received the UN Global 500 award for his contribution to the battle for environmental preservation. He has met prominent figures such as Prince Charles, Al Gore and the UN Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.

Today Davi lives in his community Watoriki, ('The Mountain of the Wind'), on the watershed of the Amazon and Orinoco rainforests. He is President of Hutukara, the Yanomami Association, which he founded in 2004.

Yanomami women and children rest in a forest garden, Brazil.

Davi spent years training to be a shaman. He warns the world that resource-consuming behavior is destroying the systems upon which all life depends, and that the world will suffer if the rainforest continues to be destroyed. He and his wife Fatima have six children and four grandchildren whom he would like to grow up in the forest, as he did. 'I want them to be able to see the stars, but not through industrial smoke.'

In 2013, Davi released his book, ‘The Falling Sky’, to great acclaim. This remarkable account of Davi’s life story and his views on the Amazon rainforest, the destruction of nature, consumerism and much more, was written with Davi's friend, anthropologist Bruce Albert, and published by Harvard University Press.

His courage, combative spirit and tenacity are reflected in his Yanomami nickname, ‘Kopenawa’, or ‘hornet’.

Yanomami facts

  • * The Yanomami are one of the largest relatively isolated tribes in South America. They live in the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela; their combined territory is the largest area of forest under indigenous protection, equivalent in size to the state of Missouri. Today the total population is about 35,000 (19,000 in Brazil and 16,000 in Venezuela).
  • * The Yanomami live in communal homes called shabonos or yanos.
  • * Sharing is a fundamental tenet of social life. Personal property is limited; all food is shared around the same family hearth and hunters give their kill to others.
  • * The Yanomami live by hunting, gathering, fishing and by growing crops in large gardens cleared from the forest.
  • * The Yanomami use approximately 500 species of rainforest plants for food, building materials, hunting poisons and medicines.
  • * Shamanism plays a fundamental part in Yanomami life. The shamanic spirits are images of the ancestors of human beings and animals from the beginning of humanity. Shamans call on the them to assist them, for example to cure sick people or to regulate the weather.
  • * In 1992 Yanomami land in Brazil was demarcated and the miners expelled from the newly created territory, after a long campaign by Davi Kopenawa and the CCPY (Pro Yanomami Commission) in Brazil, and Survival internationally.
  • * There are still thousands of illegal gold-miners on Yanomami land.
  • * Brazilian Yanomami have seen uncontacted Yanomami, whom they call Moxi hatëtëma thëpë, in their territory.
  • * There are more requests from mining corporations to mine in the Yanomami territory than in any other indigenous territory in Brazil. These requests, numbering over 650, cover over half the Yanomami's land..

Davi's messages for the world

  • * Material possessions: 'The desire for possessions is destructive. Many people want for nothing, yet they still want more. Nothing that can be bought, or sold, has any real meaning'.
  • * The interdependence of man and nature: 'Why is it taking so long to believe that if we hurt nature, we hurt ourselves? We are not watching the world from without. We are not separate from it.'
  • * The vital role of the Amazon: ‘You cannot destroy it because it is the lungs of the world’
  • * Yanomami wisdom: 'You have schools, but we know how to look after the forest. It is very important for the governments of the world to listen to us, the indigenous people who have lived on the planet for thousands of years.'
  • * Tribal peoples are not backward: 'How can we be stupid when our instinct is to protect, not destroy, the environment?'
  • * On progress and development: ‘It is not that the Yanomami do not want progress, do not want many things that non-indigenous people have. They want to be able to choose, and not have change thrust upon them, whether they want it or not. We want progress without destruction.’
  • * Yanomami shamans are looking out for the world: 'The shamans’ role is really important: they cure sick people and study to know the world.’
  • • On environmental damage: 'The world needs to listen to the cry of the earth, which is asking for help. It is dangerous to abuse nature. The earth demands a greater respect, or we will all die. If you carry on killing people and you continue to destroy nature and you take out all the oil, the minerals and the wood, our planet will become ill and we'll all die burned and drowned.'
  • • On illegal mining: ‘When the non-indigenous people tear dangerous minerals out of the depths of the earth, our breath becomes too short and we die very quickly.’

Read more about the Yanomami

Listen to Davi speaking on National Public Radio in 1991

Read Survival director Stephen Corry’s review of Davi’s book

  "The fold behind the knee"
8 pages, PDF

Read the review online here

Visit Survival's Yanomami Shamanic Photo Gallery