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Brazil

Day 1: Demini, Roraima

 
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At Demini airstrip. At least someone's interested in my holiday snaps.
Michael Palin - BrazilI'm quite relieved by their affability, for my new friends are from the Yanomami tribe and have a history of being fearless and often ferocious fighters. The Yanomami are one of two hundred or so indigenous tribes still left from the days when the first Europeans set foot in the country. There were estimated to be some five million Indians in Brazil when the Portuguese began to settle here early in the sixteenth century. Today, after the depredations of slavery, disease and loss of land to loggers, farmers and miners, they number no more than 300,000.

It's a walk of just over three kilometres (two miles) from the clinic to the maloca, the home of this particular group of Yanomami who are to be our hosts for the night. We leave the modern world behind at the end of the airstrip and follow them deep into the forest. A very beautiful walk it is too, with sunlight filtering through the foliage and a great quiet, broken only by low voices and the occasional screech of a bird. After forty-five minutes the maloca appears abruptly, at the end of the trail. A long circular construction similar in dimension to a small football stadium, which, despite its size, seems to melt into the surrounding forest. Rising protectively behind it is the smooth grey bulk of a granite outcrop, fringed with scrub.

This huge circular house, which they call a yano, measures some 400 metres in circumference and twenty-five metres across. The outer wall, a jumble of beams and planks, is topped with a palm-thatch roof which slopes down at a sharp angle towards a central, sand-covered plaza. Beneath the roof is a beamed and pillared space about fifteen metres deep, accommodating beneath it about 180 people. The hammocks and living areas are at the back, leaving the front clear as a walkway. There are no partitions. Everyone can see everyone else around the circle. Privacy is respected without the need for separate rooms or enclosures and as they help me sling my hammock no one makes me feel conspicuous.

Until the 1950s no one knew much about the Yanomami. Their isolation from the rest of the world enabled their way of life to continue as it must have done for thousands of years: hunting, fishing and living off the fruits of the forest like bananas, yams, manioc and maize. Then, as John Hemming writes in Tree of Rivers, his history of the Amazon: 'That tranquillity was destroyed by three inventions: the plane, the chainsaw and the bulldozer.' This combination pushed the Yanomami to the brink of extinction. In the late 1980s this remote border area saw a gold rush, which drew thousands of garimpeiros – gold prospectors – into the forests, far outnumbering the Yanomami. Trees were felled and streams and rivers poisoned by the mercury needed to extract the gold. Alcohol, prostitution and diseases like syphilis accompanied this new invasion. Despite a demarcation area being drawn up to protect the tribal land, the lust for gold continued unabated until, in 1993, the killing of a number of Indian men, women and children and the attempt by the perpetrators to burn their bodies led to serious attempts to expel the garimpeiros. In the last twenty years a local NGO, working closely with the Yanomami, has improved their conditions and things are looking better for them, with numbers rising to some 20,000 on either side of the border with Venezuela.
 
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Yanomami children wait for health checks at the clinic.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 1: Demini, Roraima
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Demini, Roraima
  • Book page no: 16

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