The Curse of Xawara

The Yanomami people of Brazil face the unrelenting curse of global capitalism.

The tragedy being enacted in Northern Brazil appears to be moving towards its last act. It is a tragedy that has been enacted throughout the history of private property.

The fate of indigenous people invaded by a more economically developed society makes a sorrowful catalogue of human misery. The Native Americans slaughtered in the United States in the last century, the butchery of the Aborigines in Australia and now the destruction of the Yanomami people in Brazil.

It has been estimated that there were over 100,000 Yanomami roaming the watershed of the Rio Branco and Orinoco rivers in the Northern Amazon basis when the Spanish colonises reached the New World. It is reckoned that they have lived in these tropical rain forests for something like 40,000 years but it is now though that only 22,000 of them survive, 9,400 in Brazil and the rest in Venezuela.

Unlike many other tribal groups, the Yanomami have managed to resist integration with modern capitalism. Portuguese exploiters, who attracted indigenous people into their settlements and into slavery, failed to lure the Yanomami from their traditional communal culture. Likewise, early missionaries failed to convert them to their guilt-ridden religious opium. The Yanomami preferred inhaling the Yakuna (a hallucinogenic tree extract) and practising their traditional rites and ceremonies. Modern anthropologists consider them to be one of the last remaining societies on earth that still live in kinship groups and inhabit “malocas” (communal huts). They exist on a staple diet of cassava gathered from their manioc plantations and game from the jungle, such as monkeys and turtles. They live the semi-nomadic life that once was the norm for all of humankind. They are a living example of humanity’s communal past. Tragically, they appear doomed. Modern capitalism will probably see to that.

Many of them were killed in the 1970s when the Brazilian military government, in an attempt to open up the amazon to gold speculators and cattle barons, built the first highway through the Yanomami’s terrain. The road was never finished but thousands of the Yanomami were. They were killed by the infections, such as Yellow Fever, brought by the road builders. The 1990s were to see an increase in the encroachment of capitalism in their way of life. Their reservation of 9,000 square kilometres was reduced to 2,000 and the government allowed another 256 square kilometres of their land to be exploited for gold mining in 1990. Little attention is paid to “human rights” when capital becomes involved. Some 45,000 gold miners have poured into their land, polluting their rivers with mercury, blowing up villages, and shooting children (they call them “monkeys”) out of the trees for sport.

The recent forest fires have devastated even more of their forests. Many of these fires were started deliberately to clear land for cattle. The Yanomami must have to forest to live, without it they must die. There are laws in Brazil that debar the exploitation of the shrinking rain forest area that the Yanomami inhabit, but these are largely ignored by a government desperate to advance the development of capitalism in Brazil.

These last remnants of a former stage of human society have at present little chance of survival. Neldo Campos, the state governor, voiced the insatiable voice of modern capitalism when he said; “There is too much land for the Indians, and the devastating economy of the state will make it inevitable that hungry colonisers will want to move in on the indigenous reserves.”

The Yanomami language is a linguistically isolated one with many dialects, making anthropologists believe that they once occupied a much larger area than at present. Their word for disease and epidemics is “Xawara” which they see as an evil spirit that lives in the bottom of the world. They have the same word for gold. They see the “nabebe” (white men”) as having an insane desire to bring disease and gold from the bottom of the world.

The working class of the so-called “civilised” world must establish World Socialism very soon, otherwise, the men, women and children of the Yanomami people have little hope of survival. After all, as workers, we also suffer from the curse of Xawara.

Richard Donnelly