Just as Brazil and Nigeria lie Geographically parallel to each other along the Atlantic, the fates of their seem sealed in a similar fashion. The Yanornami of Brazil and the Ogonis of Nigeria are both victims of humankind's inexorable march towards 'progress'. If one has been slaughtered to satisfy the lust for gold, the other has been sacrificed for the sake of petro-dollars; both are fighting for their age-old rights over their natural resources
A tale of two peoples
For the handful of surviving Yanomami tribals left in the Amazonian rainforests of Brazil and Venezuela, the recent moves to end their rights over their home - the forests - could very well sound their death knell
From June this year the pressure started building on both sides of the Yanomami front. Brazil's minister of justice, Nelson Jobim, started pushing for the amendments to the Decree 22/91, which enshrines for the Brazilian Indians, most noted among them being the Yanomami, their right to live in demarcated areas. Internal, rift appeared within the government, when the attorney general Aristides Junqueria's office strongly protested. The public prosecutor (PP), Aurelio Rios, told the Supreme Court, "The prosecutor's office must oppose all attempts, based on false aflegations ofthe unconstitutionality of Decree 22/91."
The Pp's reference to "false allegations" related to Jobim's statement that reservation of areas for the Yanomami was unconstitutional, because it does not allow those who have settled in, or invaded Indian land, the right to challenge the demarcation boundaries. But the PP was categorical: the original rights of the Indian populations to the lands they traditionally occupy cannot be altered. "No new right is created by demarcation. It only delimits lands which have always belonged to the Union government," Rios asserted.
The Comissao pela Cria@ao do Parque Yanomami (or Commission for the Creation of Yanomami Park, ccpy in short), the frontline non -governmental organisation (NGO) fighting for protection of the reservations, stepped up its campaign (see box. The park lobby). It termed Jobim's attempts as the worst threat to Brazil's Indians since the military regime proposed compulsory emancipation in 1978."
On June 22, leaders ofvarious organisations from different regions of Brazil occupied the office of the ministry of justice to meet Jobim, but were denied a hearing. The rift within the political elite also showed when a group -of Congressmen, cutting across party lines, asked for a Presidential audience to spell out the risks of such a change. The Catholic Indian Missionary Council (cimi) urged that the situation in the indigenous territories was turning critical. Although not within the Yanomami, but there has been noticed an alarming rise in suicide among other Indian tribes. "By changing Decree 22 the Brazilian government is, in fact, inverting the roles, and transforming the Indians into invaders in their own lands," the ami said.
Throughout July and August the strife over this issue dogged the government., On September 5, the Council for the Articulation of Indian Peoples and the Organizatione of Brazil Capolb, representatives of the church, Indian agencies and pro-Indian Congressmen met in Brasilia to discuss how the Forum in Defence of Indian Rights can be strengthened. And on September 7, the Brazilian Catholic Church, at the initiative of the Social Pastorate of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, organised a countrywide 'Shout ofthe Excluded Ones', which, among other things, articulated the rights of the Yanomami.
At the centre of all this din are just 8,268 Yanomami spread out in 188 communities. Between 1987 and 1994 the tribe lost 21 per cent of its people, 2,200 of them, as a direct result of a malarial invasion, tuberculosis and respiratory diseases. However, no perfect figures can be arrived at, because the Yanomami have a taboo on talking about death. But a survey in one community 2 alone, the Mararis, showed that 80 per cent tested positive for malaria, 8, and 50 per cent have the fatal falciparum strain.
Like other native peoples, the Yanomami have no natural immumties to the so-called white man's diseases such as malaria, measles, . ......... mumps, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and respiratory infections. Uncontrolled contact with the outside society, especially gold prospectors, ranchers and construction workers is the real reason behind this population decimation (see box: Gold- plated genocide).
Many anthropologists believe that the Yanomami were a part of the second wave of Paleo-Indians who crossed the Bering Island bridge into North America about 25,000 years ago. For thousands of years, they wandered southwards, arriving in their present home between 20,000 to 12,000 years ago. Today, their settlements span only a degree or two on either side of the equator.
The Yanomami are unique in their relative isolation from their national societies. They are probably the largest indigenous group in the Americas which still maintains its traditional ways of life as semi-nomadic hunter-horticulturists. They live communally in large circular houses called xaponos; rarely does a group number more than 120. With the exception of sex and defecation, they carry on all their activities in public.
The Yanomami are an isolated linguistic family, and their various dialects and extremely rich culture suggest that they once lived spread over a huge area in their land of origin. The majority speak their native languages (of which there are four: Yanomama, Yanomami, Sanumami, and Nimam). Those who speak the neighbouring dialects understand each other easily, but intermarriages are not normal. Those few Yanomami who also speak Portuguese (in Brazil) and Spanish (in Venezuela) are generally males who have had prolonged contact with whites, particularly priests, cattle ranchers, construction workers and mineral prospectors. Fatima, the wife of Davi Kopenawa, (who is the only Yanomami spokesperson to have carried the campaign outside the country) is one of the few women who can speak a smattering of Portuguese.
The Yanomami survive on fishing and gather forest prod- ucts. They maintain gardens of bananas, plantains, manioc, sweet potatoes and other crops. They move their villages every three to five years, as the soil and game in one area become depleted. Their lifestyle and traditional practices are perfect examples of sustainable use of resources, as they do not extract more than what they really need to survive.
They eat much of what they gather, like wild -fruits, especially from varieties of palm trees, grub larvae found in rotten palm trunks and numerous types of wild honey. They used both seeds and juice from the fruits of the genipap tree for body painting. They also use hundreds of trees, vines and other plants for house constructing material, medical and magic purposes, for making hammocks, bows and arrows and virtually everything everything they need for their daily lives.
Tva&tionally, the Yanomami wear no clothes; they paint irbodies inserpentine and circular designs with red onotoIpme. Their thick black hair is cut in a regular bowl fashion,gosrwtimes tonsured. Among men, body hair is sparse; most wonwn have none at all. The personal aesthetics of the often very pretty women is remarkable. Girls and women adorn their faces faces by inserting slender sticks through holes in The lower lips at either side of the mouth and in the middle, And throubh the pierced ears, into which women insert flowers And men feathers.
Ted6nologically speaking, the Yanomami are a primitive People. They have no system of numbers: they talk in terms of 'one','twO.'and'many.'Their only calendar is the waxing and wanning of the moon. On treks, they carry everything they own on their backs. They do not know of the wheel. They know nothing of the art of metallurgy, and interior villages might boast only of a few worn machetes and battered tin pots, acquired many moons ago in trade with groups living closer to the nabuh, the-non-Yanomami. Until recently they made fire with fire drills by the rubbing together of two sticks.
Children of the forests
In tropical forests a close relationship exists between the environment, indigenous inhabitants and their human rights. For all indigenous people, in fact, that right is directly linked to their rights to the lands they inhabit and the resources found on these lands. And that is the basis of conflict between them and the outside world: both need the land. But one needs it for sustenance, the other to make megabucks.
The Yanomami's socioeconomic system, and especially their system of shifting cultivation and other subsistence activities are predicated on the availability of large tracts of land to promote soil regeneration and the replenishment of animal and plant stocks. The forest has for many generations provided them with everything they need to survive physically, culturally,and spiritually. Vast networks of foot-trails link villages, which maintain inter-community trade and social alliances.
The interrelationships among the villages are a continuation of the kinship network of the Yanomami who live in groups. There are no hierarchical social or political positions. Many village leaders are also respected spiritual preachers, or shamans, who have an important role in interacting with the Yanomarni's spiritual world.
Until this decade, the plight oT the Yanomami, a society that had no knowledge of the modern technological societies that surrounded it, has been told exclusively through NGOS and the unions of the workers for the Northern Perimeter Highway (BR-210). So when modernity started stalking their reserves, they didn't know what hit them.
During the '50s and '60s, contact with the outside world was sporadic and limited to individuals or small groups, such as government personnel, and missionaries. It was not until the '60s that the Brazilian National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) made its initial contacts with the Yanomami. FUNAI was set up in 1967 to replace the Indian Protection Service, which was founded in 1910 to pacify the remaining 'hostile Indians', so that the land issue could be peacefully settled. FUNAi has a number of outposts in remote areas, which are supposed to provide medical aid and act as the government's contact with tribal peoples. In reality, it is one of the most poorly funded and inadequately staffed organ of the federal government; which speaks volumes of the government's ideology and politics.
During the '70s, two events broke the Yanomami's isolation in a major way and with devastating effects. One was the beginning of construction of the Northern Perimeter Highway (BR2 10) from Manaus to Caracarai; the other was the publication of the results of an aerial survey of the Amazon, carried out by the Radar Amazonia (RADAR BRASIL) project.
RADAR BRASIL produced satellite photographs of the Amazon basin, indicating the location of potential mineral MWooW woo re, weave traditional cotton hammock deposits. This, of course, brought immediate attention to the development potential of the Amazon region and attracted mineral prospectors as well as large mining companies to the area. Since the discovery in 1975 of large deposits of cassiterite (tin ore) in the Serra de Surucucus region in the centre of Yanomami territory, illegal invasion of the land by mineral prospectors have remained a continuous threat. Subsequent discoveries of uranium, gold, diamonds, and titanium have been made on Yanomami lands. Illegal invasion of the Yanomami territory by go@d prospectors,-or garimpeiros, took off in 1976, culminating in the gold rush of 1987. These invasions brought disease and death of genocidal proportions.
The BR-210, begun in 1973, cut through the southeastern part of their territory in the Brazilian state of Roraima. Twenty-two per cent of the Yanomami living near the construction sites died in the first year itself, principally from respiratory diseases. Those living near the Ajarani River suffered a population decimation: from 400 in the '60s to just 79 peo ple in 1975. The workers also introduced the indigenous pop ulation to prostitution and begging, which contributed to the social breakdown of these communities. Even after the con- struction was abandoned in 1976 due to a cash crunch, the effects of contact continued to devastate the Yanomami in these areas. In 1977-78, a measles epidemic killed half the population of four communities in the Upper Catrimam region.
Even though the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve has been legally created, itJs clear that a permanent solution needs to be fQund to prev@ent further invasions and to protect the Yanomami so that they can prepare themselves for the future. Their physical survival remains as threatened as ever by the Proverbial scourge of white man's diseases. Advocacy work is Only a part of the ccpy's effort to defend and protect the nomi people (see box: The park lobby). It began vaccination in Yanomami villages in the '80s, and since 16 bas supported medical teams providing health care throughout Yanomami territory.
In 1990 following the devastating effects of gold rush, Davi Kopenawa requested that ccpy open a health post in the Village of Derneni. Since then, ccpy has expanded its work to Include health posts in two other regions, serving 1,207 Mewhom i among 35 communities. An. outgrowth of the health project is an ethno-linguistic project conducted by the the author and French anthropologist Bruce Albert. The result is a bilingual health manual in Portuguese and Yanomama , one of the native languages, for use by the medical teams m a the field.
The cnwial project on education is in the final planning W_ It includes a bilingual literacy programme at the hW level to enable the Yanomami to deal directly a brazilian officials and other outsiders who impact their 1wwal and their future. Davi Kopenawa says, "We newasni need support for a school in Watorik (Demeni village We need to learn to write our own Yanomami language to, to read, and to keep accounts. And then we need to learn a little Portuguese in order to defend our rights,our land When a gold panner arrives in the reserve we need to be able to talk to him and not to allow him to approach us here in the reserve. And when we have learned to read well and to keep accounts, we are going to learn to work with the white 'health workers."
These projects anticipate a new reality for the Yanomami, one in which they can become the actors rather than the recipients of someone else's conception of their future. The basic right to life for all indigenous peoples requires that they have control over their lands and resources.
In a world striving to overcome racial injustice and environmental degradation, indigenous peoples must be consulted as part of the process of solutions. They are certainly not the problem. The demarcation of the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve certainly has the potential for success, but it can be achieved only when the interests of conservationists, human rights activists and organisations and indigenous peoples coincide. Nevertheless, the conflict over land and natural resources between the indigenous people and the dominant society in which they live remains. The draconian amendment to Decree 22/91 now being proposed has been stalled at the moment due to mounting pressures at home and abroad. The only person who is in a position to get them dropped is President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who can force justice minister Nelson Jobim to withdraw the proposal. And unless that happens, there will be no Yanomami left, and the last great human treasure of the Amazonian forests will be wiped out.
--- (With inputsfrom S Sudha in Washington).
IN my innocence of the false charges f face here, in my utter
conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the people of the
Niger delta, and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to
stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their
rights," said Ken Saro-Wiwa, the 54-year-old leader of the
Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (mosop), after
the special tribunal appointed by the ruling military junta in
Nigeria pronounced his death sentence. And that is precisely
what the struggle of the Ogonis, that began in 1990 and has
now taken a momentous turn with the execution of the person
who spearheaded it, is all about.
It is not really about the violation of human rights on
which the West is raising such a hue and cry. Environmental
degradation of the Niger delta, thanks to indiscriminate oil
extraction by multinationals, is also not what Saro-Wiwa
fought against and finally died for. He was the torch bearer of
self-rule - he wanted to wrest for his people the right to
demand a price for their natural resources.
"He sensitised his people to both the politics and
economics of soil," comments Clinks Iloegbunam, a Nigerian
journalist who was a close friend of the dead leader. And the
General Sani Abacha regime silenced him by sending him to
Ogoniland, located in Nigeria's south-eastern River
State, has been blessed with the presence of oil beneath it.
Foreign oil companies, most prominently the Royal Dutch
Sbell, have - for decades - exploited the reserves. An
estimated us $30 billion worth of oil has been extracted
From Ogoni lands since 1958 when Shell struck oil here.
The military government has, naturally, benefitted handsomely
from this. In fact, it is flushed with petro-dollars. Oil accountants fiat 80 per cent of the Nigerian government revenues 90 per cent of its export earnings. For the 6 million Ogoni people however, it is quite a different story. They have remained dirt poor, while the lush green mangrove swamps and rain forests around them were reduced to wastelands.Their once fertile farmlands are ravaged by constant oil spills and acid rain. Puddles of ooze, the size of football fields, dot their landscape.
The waterbodies in the region are the worst affected. They
are swirling pools of ink-black fluid, bereft of fish or any
kind of marine life. In short, the Ogonis have lost their
their water and their livelihood. They have been left with
ing except a legacy of rusting pipelin6, thousands of unsightly wells and refineries. Their share of oil revenue has been
while the military bosses stole and squandered petro-dollars,
stashing them away in British banks outside the country.
Saro-Wiwa wanted all this to change. Five years ago, he
founded the mosop, which came up with some very specific
demands on behalf of the Ogonis. It presented a Bill of Rights
which demanded - from Shell - several billions of dollars in
compensation and back rent. It also called for self-determination for Ogoniland, virtually declaring it an autonomous state.
The mosop did not stop at that. It pressed for greater
national representation for the Ogonis who had till now -like the other 200-odd minority tribes in the Niger delta -been practically disenfranchised by the army chiefs. Attaining
a more decisive control over the environment was the other
issue which figured prominently in the mosop agenda.
Nothing could have rankled more with the military rulers.
Managing the vast oil reserves of Ogoniland was a job they
wanted to keep exclusively for themselves. Any strident assertion of rights on the part of the Ogoni people instantly raised
their hackles. For, a threat to the oil revenue was a threat to the
government itself. Already the administration was under pressure. In 1990, even before Saro-Wiwa emerged on the scene,
the people had begun demonstrating
against Shell. They were peaceful enough.
But on one such occassion, the Shell Gen Abacha
authorities pressed the panic button and
called for police protection. The Mobile
Police Force (MPF), a wing of the ruling
military junta, notorious for its brutality,
arrived on the scene and proceeded to
massacre 80 people and destroy 495
The movement spread like a raging
bushfire since that incident, with SaroWiwa managing the front ranks. In the
summer of 1992, the MPF was despatched
to villages in the Gbaran oilfield, where
it shot 30 persons and beat up 150
others. Deeply disturbed by the growing turbulence at home, Saro-Wiwa
decided that the only option left
before him was to attract the attention of the international community.
In July 1992, he adoressed the UN
Working Group on Indigenous
Populations in Geneva and followed this
up with a visit to the UN in New York. "Oil
exploration has turned Ogoni into a wasteland. In
and . Indin an return, we have recieved nothing," he said in an
emotionally charged speech in Geneva. "The Ogoni
tear case has exposed simmering hatred that could tear
As it turned out, his sense of the future combat
strategy of the Sani Abacha government was very accu
rate. The government now sought to subdue the Ogonis
by playing the neighbouring ethnic groups against them, even
encouraging them to attack the villagers. By this time, the
mosop had issued an ultimatum to Shell, asking it to provide
us $ 10 billion or leave.
The military regime, scared out of its wits by this blatant
act of defiance, turned vicious. The worst act of repression hit
the Ogonis in January 1993 after a mass rally. This time the
police did not just kill, although the number of their victims
reached 2,000. They burnt down 27 villages and forced 80,0
people to flee. Under such pressure, the Ogoni movemel
too, began to show signs of disintegration. It was split betwee
the moderates who were willing to compromise and the fl
lowers of Saro-Wiwa who resolved to maintain their belligerent stand.
At this juncture, in 1993, the Abacha government
announced the presidential elections. The turmoil within tic
communities of the Niger delta was palpable. The conservatives, the older generation - including some of the tribi
chiefs - supported the businessperson and civilian candidate
Moshood Abiola. On the other hand, Saro-Wiwa and his s4
porters were hell-bent on a total boycott of the elections,
which they termed as "completely farcical". He was prov
right once again when the elections were summarily annuille
by the junta and Abiola was thrown behind bars.
As for the 'defiant' Ogonis, now it
open war against the junta. The
stooges covered the region with troops
special forces. But when elections for repri
sentatives to a national constitutional conference were contemplated once again in M I
last year, splits erupted in the Ogoni community. Four Ogoni chiefs, who were consider
to be rivals of Saro-Wiwa,
during a riot.
This was all the provocation that Abacha
and his goons needed. Although Saro-wiwa
himself was incarcerated at the time of
murder, the military claimed that he
incited his followers to "go for the enemies.
He and nine of his colleagues were put 10
trial. The court sat as a Civil Disturban,
Special Tribunal, presided over by two judge
and a military officer. They could not be ovelm
ruled and there was no right of appeal.
they sentenced Saro-Wiwa to death.
authority which confirmed the conviction
the Provisional Ruling Council, in effect
Saro-Wiwa's death has driven a particle
larly disconcerting message home: that international opinion amounts to nothing
rogue regime is determined to have its wa
General Sani Abacha not only brushed as
the fervent appeals made by the state leader
to pardon the Ogoni leader but he confirmed the sentence of death b
carrying out the execution just a day beil
the summit of the Commonwealth heads of government was
to begin in Auckland, New Zealand. He flung his decision
the face of politicians who seemed confident till the Iasi
minute that the Nigerian rulers could be won over by the hoe
eyed words of their respective foreign offices. Even Nelson
Mandela, the South African president, preferred "quie
words" to sanctions despite the inceasingly desperate pleas ot
help from Saro-Wiwa's son.
Of course there was a wave of shock and outrage after the act was done. The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria's membership. This was the first time ever that such a drastic step was taken against a member state. Several countries including France, Britain, and Netherlands and Germany recalled their envoys from Nigeria. "It is judicial murder. I do not see how Nigeria can stay in the Commonwealth until they return to democratic government," raged John Major, the British prime minister. He was backed by Mandela, who till a few hours ago
woclhn; cautious appproach vis-a-vis the Abacha
like that is whether within the Nigerian economy they would
cause worse unmployment, worse poverty, worse misery and
worse starvation than is already being suffered," he said.
So the best effort the international community could come
up with was a decision by the private sector lending arm of
World Bank, the International Finance Corp (IFC), to halt its
planned funding for a us $3 billion natural gas project in
Nigeria. Prohibited in its by-laws from making decisions based
on a country's internal politics, the 1FC which was to to
two per cent stake in the venture, ascribed its move to
"insufficient progress in economic reforms".
While Saro-Wiwa's mourners across the globe are bitterly
disapponted at the delayed and pathetically inadequate
response of the world community, their anger is mainly directed towards the Shell company, which they view as the primary
accomplice of the murderous Abacha regime. The companys
subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company, operates
a joint venture agreement with the Nigerian National
Petroleum Corporation and
its capacity is one million
barrels a day. In other words,
as a source of revenue,
Nigeria is a goldmine for
A report - The
Environmental and Social
Costs ofLiving Next Door to
Shell - published by the
two days after the brutal
murder of Saro-Wiwa says,
"Since the beginning of
Shell's operations in the
Niger delta, the company has
wreaked havoc on neigh-
bouring communities and
their environments. Many of
its operations and materials
are outdated, in poor condition.and would be illegal in
other parts of the world."
Even though it was the
main factor behind it, Shell
has always conveniently distanced itself from the raging
conflict between the Ogonis
and the Abacha regime. It
claimed that it was the
Nigerian ' government's
responsibility to look after
the people's demand. It was,
after all, operating legally in
Nigeria and could not inter-
vene in a conflict over self-determination between the people
and their government. It was, however, forced out of
Ogoniland in 1993 after direct clashes with the long-suffering
locals. As of now, it is a party to a us $3.6 billion natural gas
deal in Nigeria.
The company wrung its hands in ritual sorrow after the
news of the hanging of Saro-Wiwa hit the world. "It is with
deep regret we hear this news. From the violence that led to the
murder of the four Ogoni leaders through to the death penalty having been carried out, the human cost has been too high,"
rued the official statement issued by the company. But the
activists who are determined to punish the "murderers" of
Saro-Wiwa are in no mood to listen to such rhetorics. "Shell
has blood on its hands. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged for speaking out against Shell," rages Lord Melchett, chairman
Greenpeace UK. He and his colleagues are convinced that
company could have saved the Ogoni leader's life if it had
desired. The Nigerian military rulers would not have risk
inviting the ire of the biggest producer of oil in their coun
- the commodity which is the lifeblood of their regime.
Instead, Shell adopted an appproach of 'quiet diplomacy',
which cost Saro-Wiwa his life. The only way it can atone for its
sins is by scrapping its natural
gas plant there and by scaling
back its huge oil operations.
insist the campaigners. The
controversy has certainly land
ed the company in trouble
Especially so because it is drawing comparisons with last sum
mer's Brent Spar brouhah
when the company found its
at the centre of a Greenpeace-led campaign, blocking it froc
sinking an obsolete oil rig in the
North Sea. It had buckle
under pressure then, but this
time it has no intentions 19
doing so. The top rung execu-
tives of Shell have very firrrc
reiterated their stand that noth-
ing will prompt a change in tic
company's strategy in the
African state. "False aid
grotesque accusations," were
being hurled at Shell, they complained. The company has beer
active in Nigeria for 50 year
and has big operations there
which it intends to maintain.
The projects were, after all,"an
investment in the long-term
future in Nigeria and the Niger
delta region," was the line of
defense taken by Shel.
It is true that global business has routinely refused to
indulge itself in the quagmire of domestic politics. And that is
definitely the correct strategy. After all, the business of world
business is business and not fine-tuning unfamiliar or broken
political systems. But it is also true that investors from abroad
contribute significantly to nation building. Their search for
profit often encompasses a long-term commitment to creating
jobs for people, for the general upliftment of their lot.
The Ken Saro-Wiwa case could have been made an
exception to the rule of multinationals avoiding poilitical
controversies, for he was trying to seek the most basic of
human rights - the right of the people over their land and
their water. But it was not. And the rum-amock regime of Sani
Abacha was given a free hand to execute the most brutal form
of censorship - murder.
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