Gold Fever, COVID-19 and the Genocide of the Yanomami – update

I’ve been dreading this news ever since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Brazil on February 25th. Now it has happened. After testing positive for coronavirus, Alvanei Xirixana, a 15 year old Yanomami boy died on April 10th in the hospital in Roraima, the Brazilian state where most of the Yanomami territorial reserve is located. The teenager complained of chest pains, difficulty breathing, a sore throat and a fever. Reportedly, his community had to threaten the health team after his transportation request was denied in order to have him taken to the General Hospital of Roraima. When he arrived at the hospital, he was sent to the intensive care unit and intubated. The boy was from a community on the Uraricoera river which has long been plagued by gold miners.

photo montage: Yanomami boy targeted – Barbara Navarro

As of June 22nd, there are at least 168 cases of COVID-19 in Yanomami communities; five deaths and three more suspected deaths from the virus. Gold miners are vectors of the disease. They also bring violence; two Yanomami from the Xaruna community in Parima were murdered by gold miners this week.

For many decades, Yanomami territory has been invaded by tens of thousands of gold miners. Previously, gold miners propagated influenza and measles which have historically been deadly for the Yanomami. Indigenous peoples lack resistance to external diseases and living all together in communal dwellings makes social distancing impossible to achieve. If an indigenous person is infected with the coronavirus, their entire village could be decimated.

Yanomami leaders say that wildcat gold miners are responsible for bringing coronavirus into their communities. They are very concerned because over 25,000 gold miners are now operating in their preserve, destroying the forest to clear spaces for mining pits, polluting the rivers with mercury and contaminating fish. Deafening noise from their machines and high powered hoses scare off game animals, leaving nothing for the Yanomami to hunt. As the virus spreads throughout Brazil, the gold rush in the Amazon continues unabated, accelerating the devastation among the 850,000 indigenous people in the country. 

Yanomami territory, Uraricoera river, January 2016 above and August 2019 below, satellite photo:

Meanwhile, the current exhibition “The Yanomami Struggle” at the Cartier Foundation includes this description: “Representing a people whose very existence is in jeopardy, Davi Kopenawa paints an unforgettable picture of Yanomami culture, past and present, in the heart of the rainforest–a world where ancient indigenous knowledge and shamanic traditions cope with the global geopolitics of an insatiable natural resources extraction industry.” 


The publicity for the exhibition continues with this statement: “The situation further deteriorated in the 1980s when Yanomami lands are invaded by 40,000 GOLD MINERS. More than 15% of the population dies from malaria and infectious diseases.”

Claudia Andujar, La Lutte Yanomami, 2020, Fondation Cartier, Paris. LUC BOEGLY 2020

Now, in 2020, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, proposes allowing commercial mining in indigenous areas and is contemptuous of ecological efforts and indigenous interests. He also minimizes the serious health disaster that coronavirus represents.

What can we do about this intolerable situation? We obviously would never accept contamination to our drinking water supply, nor mining destruction in our gardens or our own towns.

photo montage: Swept under the red carpet – series “Pas de Cartier” – Barbara Navarro with ad for Cartier and photo João Laet/The Guardian

If you are planning to wear gold jewelry or offer gold items as a gift, please reconsider. The Yanomami and all indigenous peoples whose lands are being ravaged to extract gold and diamonds as well as other minerals are worth more, far more, than any ostentatious adornments. 

Please stop buying and wearing gold and diamond jewelry and instead help defend the world against the predatory madness of Cartier and other businesses that promote the idea of “luxury”  as the accumulation of useless baubles.

Real luxury is living and thriving in a healthy and unpolluted world. Let’s support, encourage and promote that vision of the future.

“When you cut down the trees you assault the spirits of our ancestors. When you dig for minerals you impale the heart of the Earth. And when you pour poisons on the land and into the rivers – chemicals from agriculture and mercury from gold mines – you weaken the spirits, the plants, the animals and the land itself. When you weaken the land like that, it starts to die. If the land dies, if our Earth dies, then none of us will be able to live, and we too will all die.” – cacique Raoni Metuktire

About Barbara Crane Navarro - Rainforest Art Project

I'm a French artist living near Paris. From 1968 to 1973 I studied at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, then at the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco, California, for my BFA. My work for many decades has been informed and inspired by time spent with indigenous communities. Various study trips devoted to the exploration of techniques and natural pigments took me originally to the Dogon of Mali, West Africa, and subsequently to Yanomami communities in Venezuela and Brazil. Over many years, during the winters, I studied the techniques of traditional Bogolan painting. Hand woven fabric is dyed with boiled bark from the Wolo tree or crushed leaves from other trees, then painted with mud from the Niger river which oxidizes in contact with the dye. Through the Dogon and the Yanomami, my interest in the multiplicity of techniques and supports for aesthetic expression influenced my artistic practice. The voyages to the Amazon Rainforest have informed several series of paintings created while living among the Yanomami. The support used is roughly woven canvas prepared with acrylic medium then textured with a mixture of sand from the river bank and lava. This supple canvas is then rolled and transported on expeditions into the forest. They are then painted using a mixture of acrylic colors and Achiote and Genipap, the vegetal pigments used by the Yanomami for their ritual body paintings and on practical and shamanic implements. My concern for the ongoing devastation of the Amazon Rainforest has inspired my films and installation projects. Since 2005, I've created a perfomance and film project - Fire Sculpture - to bring urgent attention to Rainforest issues. To protest against the continuing destruction, I've publicly set fire to my totemic sculptures. These burning sculptures symbolize the degradation of nature and the annihilation of indigenous cultures that depend on the forest for their survival.
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7 Responses to Gold Fever, COVID-19 and the Genocide of the Yanomami – update

  1. Now that Yanomami are dying from coronavirus transmitted by gold miners, the exhibition at the Cartier Foundation shocks with: “Representing a people whose very existence is in jeopardy, Davi Kopenawa paints an unforgettable picture of Yanomami culture, past and present, in the heart of the rainforest–a world where ancient indigenous knowledge and shamanic traditions cope with the global geopolitics of an INSATIABLE NATURAL RESOURCES EXTRACTION INDUSTRY”, indeed, the very GOLD extraction industry represented by Cartier! Despicable and abhorrent!

  2. The fever for Gold is a destructive disease. For years, thousands of illegal gold mining camps throughout Yanomami territory in Brazil and Venezuela have been polluting the rivers with mercury or cyanure and destroying the forest. The gold miners have historically spread disease, and now COVID-19. If this gold folly isn’t stopped now, the Yanomami, other indigenous people and, ultimately, all of the Amazon will be destroyed.

  3. czls says:

    What is happening to the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples all over the nine countries that make up the Amazon region with the ravages of gold mining is tragic and appalling.
    What we consider of value and the way we consume will require a critical, thoughtful revision.

  4. xcdrew says:

    Very sad news! Thank you for sharing it.

    This quote from you really resonated with me: “Real luxury is living and thriving in a healthy and unpolluted world. Let’s support, encourage and promote that vision of the future.” I completely agree.

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