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Tech-ready, the Yanomami take charge of their message

Romeu Iximaw????teri Yanomami (behind the camera) and?? Silvano Ironasiteri Yanomami to his right, organise Yanomami children for a video shoot. Romeu Iximaw????teri Yanomami (behind the camera) and Silvano Ironasiteri Yanomami to his right, organise Yanomami children for a video shoot.
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From left,?? Ricardo Pukimapiweiteri Yanomami, Silvano Ironasiteri Yanomami and?? F????bio Iximaw????teri Yanomami work on their audio visual skills.??

“The white people come here to take images and do not show them back to us,” says Octavio Yanomami from the Marauia River, where the Brazilian Amazon forest licks the Venezuelan border, as he holds a camera for the first time.

A simple Google search with the keyword “Yanomami” shows more than 50,000 results for videos alone, many of them produced, distributed and commercialised without proper consent or benefit to this indigenous group, often erroneously romanticised around the world as the “last primitive” people of the Amazon.

The Yanomami are native to the northern parts of the Brazilian Amazon forest and the southern parts of the Venezuelan Amazon and are threatened by white people’s diseases and invasion of their traditional and legally protected territories by gold miners, loggers, hunters and cattle farmers.

“Along with white people, the problems arrived. Many negative impacts. With this equipment, we have autonomy,” says Octavio, who is the coordinator of the Xapono Media Centre created to convey the impact of development on the richest ecosystem on the planet.

“It will help us become more proficient, but also as a weapon to denounce, to have proof against invaders and to register our history and our fight.” /**/

Last month, the Brazilian army dismantled a massive clandestine gold prospecting operation on Yanomami land housing around 1000 people. The illegal venture, one of many, generated revenues of around 35 million reais ($12.8 million) a month, the army said.

Illegal gold mining has been taking place on Yanomami land for decades, despite numerous campaigns and laws protecting their territory. Not much has changed since 1990, when Prince Charles described their suffering as collective genocide.

“We have no illusion. We know these [gold diggers] will establish themselves in another place,” General Gustavo Dutra said, referring to Brazilian authorities’ inability to monitor the country’s vast and open borders.

Gold mining heavily pollutes the pristine Amazonian rivers and contaminates their fish with mercury. A 2014-2016 study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, which works with the Health Ministry and not-for-profits in Brazil, found mercury contamination in 92 per cent of Yanomami people sampled in 19 villages. Mercury is a highly toxic metal used in gold mining that leads to loss of vision, heart disease and other cognitive and motor impairments. It can cause birth defects.

The Yanomami people came to the attention of the English-speaking world in the late 1960s, when Western anthropologists such as the controversial Napoleon Chagnon depicted them as “the last major primitive tribe left in the Amazon basin, and the last such people anywhere on Earth” living “in a state of chronic warfare”. Such accounts were contested by other anthropologists and the indigenous peoples themselves.

Along with Trobriand Islanders, the Nuer and the Navajo – who became shared points of reference in anthropological textbooks – the Yanomami needed to learn and tolerate the presence of foreigners, with their cameras, recorders and interpretation of culture. But now they are trying to take back control over their own stories.

The Xapono Media Centre seeks to counter misrepresentations and misappropriation of Yanomami image rights and give a voice to the people.

“The Yanomami have a peculiar way of representing us white people, but they also need the means to tell their own struggles,” says Frenchwoman Anne Ballester Soares, who organised the workshops.

Soares has lived among the Yanomami since 1994, organising publications in their language. She believes the Yanomami will be better off communicating autonomously.

“They are not free to express themselves and yet they have so much to tell. Indigenous health is worsening due to misuse of funding. Their own healing methods are not respected and there are new threats from mining prospects … they want to be able to resist,” she says.

Using crowdfunding, the media centre is running two workshops to teach the indigenous community how to use audio and video capture and editing, how to best use language, presentation and analysis as well as scriptwriting, post-production, compression formats and broadcast media.

“We are developing ethnic media to speak from an indigenous aesthetic. The Yanomami have a distinctive way of seeing the world, their vision is educated in different ways,” says Daiara Tukano, radio reporter of the indigenous online station, Radio Yande.

She tells Fairfax Media that apart from independent initiatives, different indigenous peoples are getting together to reflect on their place in the world and develop strategies for survival.

“We are trying to break with the Eurocentric ways of seeing native peoples by showing how dynamic our civilisations are,” she explains.

Shaman and activist Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, co-author of the acclaimed 2013 book The Falling Sky – Words of a Yanomami Shaman, spoke to Fairfax Media over a mobile phone on his way back from visiting neighbouring Roraima to his isolated community further down the Demini River, in the western part of Yanomami territory.

“The Yanomami need to tell their own story to keep Yanomami [culture]. Today is much different from 50 years ago. Today the Yanomami thinking is way too confused. The white men brought diseases, invasion of our land, cutting the forests. They only think of money.”

As a child in the early ’60s, David Kopenawa saw his community wiped out by two successive epidemics of infectious diseases brought by missionaries and government employees. He grew up to condemn the white man’s way.

“They only talk about work or things they want to possess. They live with no joy and get old earlier, always busy and always yearning for new products. Then their hair gets white, they die and the work, that never dies, survives all of them. Then, their children and grandchildren keep doing the same,” he wrote in the book.

Despite adopting the Christian faith, Kopenawa gave it up for what he perceived to be its fanaticism and obsession with sin.

“We will never be white. We refuse to be assimilated. We have our lands and culture. Before we were free to hunt, work, raise children, shamanism,” he tells Fairfax Media.

“The government now wants to oblige us to speak Portuguese, go to school, live in cities. Very complicated. There’s no housing, there’s no one to trust. The government needs to accept our sovereignty, keep loggers, miners and squatters out of our land.”

The interview finishes with a plea: “Please tell the people who the Yanomami are. We are the ones who keep the lungs of the world alive.”