June 21, 2021

A wildcat doesn’t change its spots: Gold mining on Indigenous lands in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

A shootout on May 10 between Yanomami Indigenous people and heavily armed illegal miners in Roraima state, Brazil, left three miners and two Yanomami children dead. Since then, invaders have returned by boatloads, firing on community members and even Federal Police agents. Emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the Brazilian presidency in 2018, wildcat gold miners have invaded federally protected Indigenous lands with impunity, knowing that the president has their back. 

Illegal mining on Yanomami lands has altered the course of rivers: photo Instituto Socioambiental

Bolsonaro has always had a soft spot for gold miners. During his presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro bragged about driving around with a kit of sieves in the trunk of his car so he could stop whenever he wanted to pan for gold. “Mining is addictive, it runs in the blood,” he stated, referring to his father, Percy Geraldo Bolsonaro, who joined over 100,000 wildcat miners in the notorious gold rush at Serra Pelada in the Amazonian state of Pará in the 1980s. 

Bolsonaro's father participated in the "Hellish" devastation at Serra Pelada in the 1980s: photo by Sebastião Salgado

A year after winning the election, Bolsonaro invited miners from Serra Pelada to the presidential palace, reminiscing about “happier” times for miners during Brazil’s two-decade-long military dictatorship and making the widely criticized and crude remark, “Interest in the Amazon isn’t about the Indians or the f***ing trees. It’s about mining."

"It's about mining" 

Bolsonaro’s frequent derogatory comments about Indigenous land titling, his systematic rollback of environmental policing and his promises of a “blank check” for miners fueled a massive surge in illegal mining on Indigenous lands throughout Brazil, even as the coronavirus pandemic threatened vulnerable Indigenous populations. The invasion of the Yanomami Indigenous Lands by tens of thousands of illegal miners helped spread the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed over 20 Yanomami people (out of a total population of 20,000) while increasing deforestation by 30% in just one year. 

Health studies among the Munduruku people of Pará state showed that 60% exhibited unsafe levels of mercury that has been introduced to the food chain by illegal miners. Nonetheless, Bolsonaro’s pro-business environmental minister Ernesto Salles has intervened in support of illegal mining operations in the region. More recently, Minister Salles has become implicated in an international investigation over illegal lumber exports from Brazil to Europe and the US.

Mining in Munduruku lands has fueled an epidemic of mercury contamination.

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 does not forbid mining on Indigenous lands. Rather, it stipulates that mining will only be permitted after the passage of regulatory legislation by Congress, which would include congressional hearings with affected Indigenous communities and the formalization of agreements on benefit sharing. 

Even before Bolsonaro’s time, Indigenous communities in different regions had considered the possibility of sustainable mining projects. However, experiences with informal mining prior to Indigenous land demarcation highlighted numerous risks, while calling into question the ability of governmental agencies to carry out proper oversight. There are currently over 4,000 requests for mining concessions that would affect nearly a third of Brazil’s Indigenous lands if such legislation were to be passed.

As soon as Bolsonaro consolidated majority control over both of Brazil’s congressional houses in February of 2021, his government announced a list of legislative priorities that included the legalization of mining on Indigenous lands. Bolsonaro has met personally with minority pro-mining voices among some Indigenous communities in order to move this agenda forward.

Bolsonaro has met with Indigenous leaders to promote mining as an economic alternative

Even though Bolsonaro touts himself as a crusader for Indigenous peoples’ rights to benefit from the development of mineral and other resources on their lands, a recent comparative study of data from municipal authorities throughout Brazil has concluded that gold and diamond mining operations do not bring about lasting improvements to socioeconomic indicators, but rather “leave the region poor, sick and lacking in education”.

Growing criticisms of Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 500,000 Brazilians, has weakened his political position. An open admirer of former U.S. president Trump, Bolsonaro is also facing pushback from the Biden administration for his lax attitude towards deforestation and forest fires in the Amazon. 

Just before the Global Climate Summit in April, Bolsonaro wrote president Biden promising to end deforestation in the Amazon, apparently eager to cinch a billion dollar aid deal. Brazilian indigenous leaders warned Biden not to trust such disingenuous overtures. 

Bolsonaro and Salles announce measures to monitor deforestation

The economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil as well as Bolsonaro’s falling popularity in 2022 election polls put the Biden administration in a strong position to seek major concessions for any cash-for-conservation deal. High on that list should be reining in illegal incursions and withdrawing the legislative bid to legalize mining on indigenous lands.

After over a month of inaction from federal authorities, the Brazilian Supreme Court has finally mandated the immediate removal of illegal miners from Yanomami and other indigenous lands. It remains to be seen whether this judicial victory will bring about meaningful enforcement, or whether it will only further embolden president Bolsonaro and the wildcat miners he has so vociferously supported.


This text is the full and updated version of my letter in Nature Correspondence, first published in abbreviated form on June 8.  

April 27, 2021

Unlikely Blessings: A poem on hope, despair and periwinkle

 This poem, written fifteen years ago as my youngest son began (thankfully successful) chemotherapy for a rare immune system disease, was recently published for the first time by Sapiens.

"Salvation can be danger thinly veiled"

Unlikely Blessings

Peace can be a sky-blue hospice with daffodils
a grave green lawn for innocents
bald and serene as Buddhist monks

Happiness can be written in Chinese
on a decal clinging to a jade bar of soap
at the visitors’ sink

Beauty can be simple and fragile as children laughing
the play of skin and shadow
under the unknowing sun

Fate can be exactly the size and shape of an olive
diagnosis or misdiagnosis
a surgeon squinting over a slide

Salvation can be danger thinly veiled
caustic milk of the periwinkle
halfway from malignant to benign

Faith can be a near empty chapel
waiting for you to get desperate enough
to sing with the others Ha-ha-hallelujah
Hope can be the worst kind of houseguest
hanging between the quick and the damned
counting unlikely blessings


Listen to my reading of the poem at Soundcloud.

Learn more about the composition of this poem, and how it was inspired by the work of Paul Celan, at Sapiens.

See my previous blog post about my son's chemotherapy with vinblastine, a cancer-treating drug derived from traditional medicine: "Three Cheers for Periwinkle!"

Read the prize-winning poem "The Fish Trap" featured last year by Sapiens for World Poetry Day.

Read my coronavirus haiku, "Yellow Jessamine." 

July 27, 2020

"The Camera is our Weapon": Kayapó video warriors featured in new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York

The Kayapó (Megengôkrê) people of Brazil are living proof of the resistance and adaptability of Indigenous cultures. A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York highlights the dynamism and creativity of this warrior tribe, and their historical struggle to preserve their lands and culture. Originally inhabiting the dry savannahs of central Brazil, the Kayapó were pushed farther north and west by Portuguese invaders, ultimately moving into the Amazon basin hundreds of miles from their ancestral homelands. In order to survive in this new environment, the Kayapó had to conquer, capture and appropriate new lands, technologies and knowledge from their enemies and retool them for their own ends. The Kayapó people maintain this warrior heritage through the present day, as they have seized on video cameras, international media visibility and even "Kaya-pop music" to broadcast their voices and defend their culture.

Self-portrait of video warrior Bepunu Kayapó, July 2020.

The exhibit is centered on a striking self-portrait of Kayapó warrior Bepunu in full ritual regalia gazing back at the spectator armed with a video camera. This image creates a dialog with an existing exhibit case in the American Museum's Hall of South American Indians that contains a mannequin depicting a Kayapó warrior brandishing a traditional war club. During the course of creating the exhibit, I was able to locate Kubei, a Kayapó activist who had visited the American Museum in 1990 in the company of anthropologist Terence Turner. Kayapó film maker Pat-I recorded an interview with Kubei in March of 2020, especially for this exhibit, in which he reflects on his visit to New York 30 years ago, describes his reaction to meeting his Kayapó "friend" (his name for the mannequin) and responds to how Kayapó culture was displayed at the museum. 

Above: Kayapó activists Kubei and Tapiet visited the American Museum in 1990 and gifted their Kayapó "friend" with a feather headdress and other body ornaments that remain in the exhibit case to this day (photo: American Museum library). Below: the Kayapó warrior mannequin at the American Museum (photo: David Harvey). 

The exhibit was designed by a group of graduate students at Columbia University's Museum Anthropology program in collaboration with American Museum curator Laurel Kendall, exhibit designer David Harvey and other American Museum staff as part of an annual practical course that invites outside specialists like myself to help develop a new exhibit case every Spring. Because of the COVID pandemic, installation of the physical case was postponed, and instead we prepared an online version that includes a 3D virtual reality visualization of the actual exhibit case containing various Kayapó cultural objects. 

Virtual reality 3D visualization of the exhibit case

The online exhibit includes a series of short films made by Kayapó film makers, an activity booklet for children as well as information and donation links regarding the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kayapó and other indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Playable audio files present the pronunciation of key Kayapó language terms and provide an example of the lively rhythms of "Kaya-pop" music. The exhibit also features images by photojournalist Dado Galdieri. A Portuguese translation of the exhibit website was prepared in a co-launch with the Goeldi Museum in Brazil:

Read our recent paper on Kayapó film-making in Current Anthropology 

Related stories from this blog: 


Special thanks to Laura Zanotti, Janet Chernela, Pat-I Kayapó and Bepunu Kayapó for their invaluable contributions to this exhibit.  

June 4, 2020

Fifty Shades of Green: Reflecting back on the Oscar-nominated film Embrace of the Serpent in the age of coronavirus [excerpt]

The tragic death from coronavirus of indigenous actor Antonio Bolivar, star of the Oscar-nominated film Embrace of the Serpent, has made me reflect back on all the facts the film got wrong and the truths it got right: Excerpted from Chacruna.net 

As the lights in the cinema went down and the opening scene of Ciro Guerra’s 2015 film The Embrace of the Serpent began to flicker on the screen, I was primed to be blown away. The film, based loosely on the field experiences of legendary Amazon explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Schultes, and shot on location in the Colombian Amazon with indigenous actors, was being hailed as visionary. Within the first few seconds my already high expectations of ethnographic authenticity were already surpassed. In the opening sequence, the protagonist Karamakate, whose youthful self is played by Cubeo indigenous actor Nibio Torres, brandishes a long, slender spear that buzzes like a rattle snake when shaken. As a researcher and museum curator who has worked in adjacent regions of the northwest Brazilian Amazon, I have seen identical ceremonial rattle-spears in ethnographic collections and heard them deployed in rituals. 

Antonio Bolivar, the Ocaina indigenous actor who played the elder version of solitary shaman Karamakate in the film, died at the end of May from coronavirus in the jungle town of Leticia, Colombia.

Cinematic representations of the Amazon have a long and dismal history of exoticism, sensationalism and pure fantasy, from The Emerald Forest to Medicine Man to Anaconda. At last, a popular feature film that represents Amazonian peoples accurately! And yet instants later these admittedly high hopes were dashed. When the canoe containing the German explorer “Theo” (Koch-Grünberg’s pseudonym in the movie) gets closer to the bank, Karamakate pops off the spear’s rattle-tip to reveal a blowgun which he aims menacingly at the intruder. Though indigenous peoples of the Vaupes region indeed use blowguns with curare-tipped darts for hunting, I am not aware of any culture that combines these two pieces of material into a single, interchangeable multi-purpose weapon. “Sssssss”, began the hissing sound, not of a serpent but of my rapidly deflating enchantment...

Continue reading the full article at Chacruna.net


May 21, 2020

Catching up with Glenn Shepard: Interview to launch benefit photography sale with Linda Matney Gallery

This interview launches a new partnership with Linda Matney Gallery. Proceeds from the sale of selected photographs will directly support vital health services including emergency Covid-19 prevention aid for the indigenous peoples of Manu National Park.

1. What is your connection with the Linda Matney Gallery and John Lee Matney?

I have known “Lee” since second grade and we have been friends ever since. Lee was always an avid photographer and had his own darkroom in the basement of his house. He taught me how to shoot, develop and print black and white film when I was about twelve years old. Lee’s first photos were artistic closeups of everyday objects, which his father referred to jokingly as “doorknobs.” His instinct of using the camera to look at the world in new ways was an influence on me since the very beginning.We both worked on the school newspaper and I remember he took dramatic photographs of the remarkably professional theater productions at our school’s drama department. Lee’s mother Linda was a kind and generous woman, she always had a smile on her face and a meal on her table. She had excellent taste in art and antiques, and she and my mother were dear friends. We both lost our mothers in their prime, and that has been another bond in our friendship over the years. I was happy when he opened his own gallery and named it after his mother. We went our separate ways after college, but always stayed in touch. And when Lee moved back to the Tidewater area after living many years in Athens, we renewed our friendship whenever I was home visiting my parents. We have collaborated on several creative projects over the years, including gallery exhibits of my photographs and collection of ethnographic objects from the Amazon, fund-raising events for indigenous causes and a prize-winning avant-garde film.

Taking aim. Manu National Park, 1992. 
Purchase the fine art print.

2. Give us some background about your use of photography in your work

I am an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, and I have traveled and carried out fieldwork with different indigenous peoples throughout the world, including Bedouin tribes in Jordan, hill tribes of northern Thailand, Mayan peoples of southern Mexico and numerous indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. Though I have always used photography to document the scientific aspects of my work, from indigenous healing ceremonies to medicinal plants, I always saw photography as a way to express aspects of my experiences in different cultures that don’t come across in dry, scientific studies. I especially enjoy taking portraits of people that I know. A photographic subject whom you have known for years looks at the camera in a very different way than someone who is encountering a journalistic photographer for the first time. I appreciate it when this sense of trust and familiarity comes across in my photos, such that their subjects appear first and foremost as friends, companions, fellow humans who share their experiences with a knowing glance.

Elena. Manu National Park, 1992.

3. Comment on how art intersects with your work and your life in Brazil and Peru.

Before the days of digital photography, I would always travel to the field with equal numbers of rolls of color and black and white film. Of course, surrounded by the lush colors of the tropical rainforest I would usually shoot up all my color film first, and then be left with only black and white for the second half of my trip. As frustrating as it was to run out of color film hundreds of miles and months away from the nearest film store, I always appreciated this forcing of black and white film upon myself when returning to develop the photos. As beautiful as the colors of the tropical rainforest are, and as useful are the chrome slides I used to present my work in the days before PowerPoint, I always found the black and white photos to have a more abstract and timeless feel to them, pushing aside all the distractions of color to get at the true essence of form, composition and human connection.

Ayahuasca vine. Manu National Park, 1992. 
Purchase the fine art print.

4. Comment on your piece in the New York Review of Books about Martin Gusinde's photography in the book The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego. What are your personal feelings about Gusinde's photographs? How does that work inspire you?

I was delighted when the New York Review approached me about reviewing a collection of Martin Gusinde’s ethnographic photographs published by Thames & Hudson. Many professional photographers don’t understand the first thing about anthropology, and most anthropologists are even worse at photography than photographers are at anthropology. Gusinde is that rare talent who was able to capture the surrealistic quality of the ritual life of native peoples of Tierra del Fuego in high-quality artistic images, while also conducting meticulous documentation of the last vestiges of their ceremonies before the people succumbed to disease and acculturation. His photographs speak to that unique dynamic of truly anthropological photography which is to capture our fundamental shared humanity while also respecting the deep and beautiful cultural differences that make human life so diverse and fascinating. 

Yanomami headman making an arrow point. Marari River, Brazil, 2004.

You also reviewed Davi Kopenawa's book The Falling Sky for the New York Review. Tell us about that book.

The autobiography of Yanomami shaman and philosopher Davi Kopenawa, The Falling Sky, is one of the great works of anthropology of the 21st century. Rather than using academic jargon, anthropologist/translator Bruce Albert takes advantage of his deep understanding of the Yanomami language and his long friendship with Davi to craft an elegant, direct, first-person narrative told in Davi’s own voice, as selected and edited from over 100 hours of audiotape that Albert had recorded over many years. The book provides a vivid account of Davi’s shamanic visions while also presenting his philosophical reflections on his own people’s world view. It also presents a passionate appeal for indigenous rights and a condemnation of the damage brought by missionaries and gold miners.

5. Comment on your own photography as art and the new works we are presenting

I was a slow convert to digital photography, precisely because I enjoyed the luminosity of color chromes as well as the abstract quality of black and white. I was always a big fan of the alchemical magic of darkroom work, and the ability to control every square inch of the print. I didn’t buy my first digital camera until 2007 when I got back from the field and literally spent three months tracking down a lab to develop my film. But once I began to get used to the new technology, I appreciated the way digital photography takes away so many constraints imposed by film photography, from rationing your film stock to missing photos in low light settings. So I am especially excited over this new collaboration with Linda Matney Gallery to go back to my old black and white negatives while also reworking some of my more recent digital images in monochrome.

Baby doll. Manu National Park, 2007.

6. Comment on your poetry and other fiction

From a young age I always wanted to be a writer. I saw a career in anthropology as a way of gathering tales and adventures to write about when I get too old to travel. But even in my academic writing I try to make use of my story-telling skills to share the experience of cultural difference in a direct way that hopefully anyone could read and appreciate. I have always tried to avoid using theoretical jargon in my writing, and won a number of anthropology writing awards for this more accessible and evocative style of writing. In 2011, I became so frustrated with the straight jacket of academic jargon that I created my blog, Notes from the Ethnoground. I had submitted an article to an anthropological journal, with the explicit intention of relating indigenous concepts through stories without using abstract jargon. The article was sent back requesting precisely the kind of theoretical discussion I was hoping to avoid, so I gave up on trying to rework the text and began writing short posts about my experiences in the field using accessible language and plenty of photos as well. In 2014, my first “ethno-fictional” short story, about a villager who turned into a jaguar, won a prize from the Society for Anthropology and Humanism. I hope to continue writing fiction that is firmly grounded in actual cultural experiences. I also wrote lots of poetry when I was younger, and occasionally produce new poems usually based on my experiences in indigenous cultures. Recently, my poem The Fish Trap was recognized by Sapiens.org to honor World Poetry Day.

Forest overlook. Manu National Park, Peru, 1995.

7. Tell me about how you have used your anthropological knowledge and photographic skills to help the indigenous communities where you have worked.

I have always felt a deep responsibility to provide practical assistance to the indigenous communities that have been so generous and patient with me through the years. When the Discovery Channel film that I worked on, Spirits of the Rainforest, won two Emmys in 1993, I worked through Peruvian and New York based NGOs to hold a fund raising event that benefited the community political organizations and health post. More recently I have worked with the non-profit organization Rainforest Flow to bring sustainable clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects to these remote communities, transforming their health status. Curiously, Nancy Santullo, director and founder of Rainforest Flow, was formerly a successful commercial photographer. For the past fifteen years, we have used our photography to document and spread the word about the project and draw attention to the health needs in these communities. We appreciate the support of Linda Matney Gallery over the years in hosting various fund-raising initiatives for this project. 

Because of this long term work in these communities, and the established relationship of trust and collaboration, Rainforest Flow is in a unique position to help prevent the deadly Covid-19 virus from entering Manu Park. I helped Rainforest Flow mobilize early communications between communities and park authorities to institute an immediate lockdown even before the Peruvian government took preventative action. There are currently no Covid-19 infections in any of the native communities where we work. However indigenous high school students studying outside the reserve have been stranded far from their home villages and need food, protective equipment, medicine, information, support and transportation to a safe place to carry out their quarantine. Rainforest Flow is creating an emergency Covid-19 relief fund to continue this vital work with native communities and Manu Park authorities to maintain the quarantine and develop safe protocols for the delivery of badly needed equipment and assistance. 

Safe water. Manu National Park, 2015.

Proceeds from selected photographs sold will benefit a community health and hygiene project, including vital Covid-19 prevention, in the same native communities where these photos were taken.  

---Visit the benefit photography sale on Artsy---

May 5, 2020

Covid-19: Lessons from the Yanomami [New York Times Op-Ed]

This essay, which I translated and edited from an original draft written in French by anthropologist Bruce Albert, was first published by the New York Times on April 27.
The Yanomami people are no strangers to fatal epidemics, and yet on April 9, many around the world were shocked to learn that Covid-19 had taken its first victim among this relatively isolated Indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest along the Brazil-Venezuela border.
Alvaney Xirixana was a 15-year-old boy from the Helepe community of the Rio Uraricoera river basin in the Brazilian state of Roraima, a region afflicted by a huge invasion of illegal gold miners. Malnourished and anemic from successive bouts of malaria, the teenager began showing characteristic respiratory symptoms in mid-March.
Illegal miners are penetrating the most remote parts of Yanomami territory, threatening villages with isolated and highly vulnerable indigenous populations.
Photo: FUNAI 

For 21 days he was admitted four times to a local health care facility, three times receiving treatment for other diseases and the fourth time being discharged. He was finally given a coronavirus test on April 3, when he was hospitalized yet again, this time in critical condition. He died six days later. A victim of the absurd negligence of local health services, he probably infected numerous other members of his community as well as health care workers during those three wasted weeks before he was tested. This appalling episode has raised the specter of a major new health disaster among the Yanomami people. And it is a warning for other Indigenous people of the Amazon.
Today, we are all frightened about Covid-19. What we’re feeling is perhaps not unlike what the Yanomami have historically experienced when faced with the mysterious and lethal epidemics that our world has inflicted on them.
Since their initial contacts with outsiders beginning in the 1940s, the Yanomami have lived through wave after wave of deadly viral epidemics, notably the measles and flu.
Many Yanomami still lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, trekking through the forest to hunt, visit distant villages or relocate to areas with more abundant game. 
Photo G.H. Shepard Jr. 
The expansion of the internal colonization frontier intensified in the 1970s when Brazil’s military dictatorship opened the Perimetral Norte highway in Yanomami territory. Since the late 1980s, Yanomami lands have suffered from regular invasions by illegal gold miners, who have unleashed epidemics of malaria, flu, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.
Over 20,000 garimperos, or illegal miners, are currently devastating Yanomami lands. These invaders, who are nearly as numerous as the Yanomami themselves (current population 26,780), are most likely responsible for introducing the coronavirus to the region. Even amid the pandemic, illegal mining operations have continued to expand. More generally, rainforest destruction throughout the Brazilian Amazon has accelerated, with deforestation alerts for the first three months of 2020 increasing 51 percent over the same period last year.
Yanomami territories in Brazil have suffered from a massive influx of illegal miners. Photo: Rogerio Assis.
In this context of increasing lawlessness and invasion, Indigenous people throughout Brazil face an intensified risk of infection. So far, over 80 Indigenous people in Brazil have been found to have Covid-19, and seven have died — Mr. Xirixana, three other members of different ethnic groups in the Amazon interior, as well as three residents of the city of Manaus, including an Indigenous health care worker. Yet given the precarious state of Indigenous health care, there are most likely many more cases.

Yanomami ethno-environmental agent inspects illegal gold mining operation.
Photo: Bruno Kelly.
The disease appears to be spreading quickly in poor Indigenous ghettos on the outskirts of large Amazonian cities like Manaus and Belém, which were already overburdened by an influx of Venezuelan Indigenous refugees. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on such urban Indigenous people has been overlooked in the general flood of data.
The roughly 900,000 Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable to this epidemic in Brazil. Abandoned by weak, underfunded national institutions, some Indigenous communities have taken it upon themselves to close off their villages or isolate themselves in town as best they can, suspending social and political activities and distributing prevention materials in their native languages.
The Yanomami, one of the largest and most well-known Indigenous communities of the Amazon, continue to suffer from inadequate health care and a persistent climate of indifference, negligence and lawlessness concerning the invasion of their lands by miners.
Anthropologist Bruce Albert and Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa, co-authors of the book The Falling Sky. Photo: Beto Ricardo/Instituto Socioambiental.
The press, the global scientific community and Indigenous peoples themselves must continue to expose such negligence and denounce violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights. And yet given the chaotic response of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration to the pandemic throughout Brazil, on top of its open hostility to science, Indigenous peoples and the environment, there seems little hope of significant policy change in the short term.
But something fundamental has changed: We are all united by a tragedy that is unfolding around the world.

Yanomami woman preparing for Wayamo visitation ceremony.
Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr.
We still know little about this disease. We do know that the origins of the new virus appear related to habitat destruction and the commercialization of wild animals. But we don’t yet have immunity, drugs or vaccines to stop it. We are reduced to confining ourselves at home with our families in the hope of evading infection. In some way it reminds me of the stories the Yanomami elders have told me about times when they fled to the forest in small groups to hide from the cannibalistic “Epidemic Spirit,” Xawarari.
However this time, we have become our own victims by loosing on ourselves the epidemiological consequences of this predatory hubris, just as Indigenous leaders like Yanomami shaman and philosopher Davi Kopenawa have been warning us for decades. In today’s hyper-connected industrial world, ecological imbalances or disease vectors that might once have affected only one corner of the planet now threaten us all. And perhaps now, as we are all exposed to an invisible new enemy for which we have no defenses, this harrowing experience of our shared fragility may stir global society to rethink its current course.
Photo G.H. Shepard Jr.


Special thanks to Boris Muñoz for editorial input and support.

April 14, 2020

Coronavirus Brings Back Memories: Indigenous priest reflects on the global pandemic [excerpt]

Justino Sarmento Rezende, a Salesian priest of the Tuyuka indigenous people from the upper Rio Negro in Brazil, reflects on the coronavirus pandemic from the perspective of his people’s history. Excerpted from the interview published by Chacruna.net.

“I was born far from the city, at ‘Jaguar-Creek’.

“Whenever my father heard that a dangerous disease was coming, he took us to an even more isolated place. There, we waited until the latest news finally reached us: ‘the disease has passed’.

Justino Sarmento Rezende.
Photo: Luis Miguel Modino.

“We had no doctors or nurses to take care of us. But we were watched over constantly by our sage grandparents who performed protective ceremonies using white pitch incense to fumigate the environment, the people and their pets.

“Every day the sages smoked their cigars and talked about what they had seen in their dreams, what protective prayers they had composed in their nighttime meditations...

..."They protected our lives within rays of sunlight, within the clouds.

"They protected our lives within rays of sunlight..."
Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr.

“This current time with its current viruses, with their own proper names, it takes me back to the past and reminds me of the wisdom of my grandparents who helped to defend life.

“It reminds me of our defensive technique: fleeing from the enemy, not exposing oneself, retreating to a safe place until the disease passes.”


Interview conducted by Luis Miguel Modino for Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, translated to the English by Glenn H. Shepard Jr. and excerpted for "Notes from the Ethnoground." Read the full interview at Chacruna.net.

April 7, 2020

Voluntary Isolation in the Age of Coronavirus

As governments around the world decide on public health measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, indigenous peoples across the Amazon, from the Madre de Dios region in Peru to the Xingu Indigenous Park in Brazil, have taken the lead by declaring self-imposed states of quarantine to avoid the introduction of this virulent new disease to their communities. While such drastic measures of social distancing are novel and challenging in our hyper-connected contemporary world, indigenous peoples have long used the strategy of “voluntary isolation” to protect themselves from the immunological and existential threats of European colonization. 

The Chitonahua people spent decades fleeing from intruders until they were forcefully contacted by Peruvian loggers in the late 1990s, losing about half their population to new diseases. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (1997).

Indigenous peoples of lowland South America have contributed to global health with important biomedical compounds derived from plant medicines such as quinine, curare, ipecac and pilocarpine, as well as shamanic preparations like ayahuasca, sananga, and kambô that have attracted the attention of psychonauts and pharmaceutical researchers alike. And yet, tragically, the indigenous people of South America were also highly susceptible to introduced Old World diseases like smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and influenza that, in conjunction with violence and territorial invasion, killed some 90-95% of the original population. 

The Mashco-Piro people were probably village-dwelling farmers until they were massacred by rubber tappers at the turn of the 20th century. They became fully nomadic hunter-gatherers and have only entered into tentative contact with indigenous neighbors and Peruvian Health Ministry agents in the past few years. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2015).

Especially during the so-called “Rubber Boom” at the turn of the twentieth century, rubber tappers seeking to profit from the high price of natural latex on international markets penetrated the deepest reaches of the Amazon, co-opting or enslaving indigenous people and spreading deadly diseases. To survive, some indigenous populations fled to remote regions and cut off all contact with outsiders, even their indigenous neighbors. In some cases, indigenous communities have been forced to abandon settled village life and agriculture altogether, adopting a fully nomadic lifestyle in the forest. Previous, at times misleading, descriptions of such groups as “uncontacted,” “Stone Age” or “hunter-gatherer” peoples implied that they were passive victims of some accident of geography or history — human societies left behind in the backwaters of human evolution. Today, scholars and indigenous protection agents have come to understand their isolation not as a natural condition, but rather, a conscious choice of survival and self-determination

Isolated indigenous peoples of the Amazon are increasingly threatened by the expansion of road networks, mining and oil concessions, illegal loggers and drug traffickers. Map graphic by J. You / Science Magazine using data from Antenor Vaz and RAISG.

The spike in burning, destruction, and invasion of the Amazon rainforest over the past few years, especially in Brazil, threatens all indigenous people, and isolated peoples in particular. The global outbreak of this highly contagious, virulent new disease poses a special danger to such immunologically vulnerable peoples. So, as people around the world hunker down in self-quarantine and follow the latest worrisome news, we are all getting a small taste of the kind of mortal panic that has motivated different indigenous peoples to isolate themselves from outsiders, in some cases, through the present. We all hope, as they have, that such radical measures will save us from this deadly epidemic. Perhaps we will come through this experience with a heightened appreciation of our shared fragility. 


First published March 24, 2020, by Chacruna.net

March 23, 2020

Yellow Jessamine: A coronavirus haiku

Yellow jessamine
infects a premature Spring:
Fragrant and lethal.

Gelsemium sempervirens, known as yellow jessamine or Carolina
is a toxic plant with alkaloids related to strychnine that 
figures i
the plot of an Agatha Christie mystery and an episode of House of Cards

March 23, 2020
Williamsburg, Virginia


#CoronaHaiku at the suggestion of Daniel Mendelsohn

See also "The Fish Trap," winner of Sapiens.org anthropological poetry prize