The Parima hills

The Parima hills lie between Brazil and Venezuela on the border between the Amazon and Orinoco basins.  The flora and fauna of this region are diverse but very poorly known. The hills incorporate a range of habitats and environments including summit and outcrop vegetation, highland savanna, montane cloud forest, submontane forest, lowland terra firme forest, white sand formations and floodplain forest.  According to the most in-depth discussion of the area to date (Huber et al., 1984) “The main attraction of the Sierra Parima today lies in its unsolved geological history, in its puzzling climatic regimes, in its diverse and largely unknown flora and vegetation, in its almost completely unexplored fauna, and principally, in the various Indian populations inhabiting the entire range.  In addition, the Sierra Parima watershed forms the natural frontier between Venezuela and Brazil and is of primary hydrological importance as the headwater region of the Rio Orinoco in Venezuela and of part of the Uraricoera basin in Brazil.”


Figure 1: Location of the Yanomami territory in Brazil

The Yanomami

The Yanomami are a hunter-gatherer and swidden horticultural society of the tropical forests of the west of the Guiana Shield. They occupy a territory of approximately 192,000 km2, spanning both sides of the Brazil-Venezuela frontier, and constitute a cultural and linguistic group composed of four or five sub-groups speaking languages of the same family (Yanomae, Yanõmami, Sanima and Ninam/Yanam).[1]

The overall Yanomami population (Brazil and Venezuela) is around 28,000 people.[2] The western Yanomami make up the greater part of this population (56%), followed by the eastern Yanomami (25%), the Sanima (14%) and the Ninam/Yanam (5%).[3]


Figure 2:  The Tirei maloca at Homoxi

Villages generally consist of a communal house in the form of a cone, a truncated cone or a ‘doughnut’ called the yano or xapono[4] (Eastern and Western Yanomami), or else of groups of small rectangular houses (Sanima and occasionally Ninam/Yanam).            Each community considers itself economically and politically autonomous, and its members generally prefer to marry among themselves. All, however, maintain relations of matrimonial, ceremonial and economic exchange with neighbouring groups, who are considered political allies against other multi-community units of the same type.[5] These multi-community units partially superimpose themselves to form a socio-political network that links all of the Yanomami villages, from one extremity of their territory to the other.

Since the Yanomami are genetically, anthropometrically and linguistically separate from their neighbours such as the Ye’kuana (Caribs), geneticists and linguists have concluded that they are the descendants of an indigenous group that has remained in a state of relative isolation for a very long time. Having already established themselves as a distinct linguistic group (‘Proto-Yanomami’), approximately 2,500 years ago, the Yanomami would have occupied the Orinoco-Parima interfluve (1,000 years ago) and there initiated the process of internal differentiation (700 years ago) which ended with the languages and dialects of today.[6]

According to Yanomami oral tradition and to the earliest historical documents which mention this group, the centre of their territory is situated in the Serra Parima, which divides the waters of the upper Orinoco (Venezuela) and the upper Parima (Roraima, Brazil). This is still the most populated part of the Yanomami area. The dispersal of the population from that region in the direction of the surrounding lowlands probably began during the first half of the 19th century, after the colonial penetration of the upper Orinoco, Branco and Negro rivers in the latter half of the 18th century.

This geographical expansion was made possible from the 19th century on to the beginning of the 20th century by strong demographic growth.[7]  Various anthropologists consider this growth as having been caused by the economic transformations induced by the acquisition of new cultivars and metal tools through exchanges and wars with neighbouring indigenous groups (Caribs to the north and east; Arawaks to the south and west), who themselves maintained direct contact with the white frontier. The progressive emptying of the territories of these groups, which were devastated by their contact with regional society throughout the 19th century, also provided favourable conditions for the process of Yanomami expansion.[8]

The current configuration of the Yanomami land is the result of these long-term processes of population growth, community fission and geographical expansion, which were interrupted by the permanent establishment of missionaries and indigenists in the region in the 1940s and 1960s.

The Yanomami in Brazil

The Yanomami population in Brazil was recently estimated as approximately 12,795 people divided in 228 communities (Fundação Nacional de Saúde census 2001).  This population occupies the region of the Rio Branco (western Roraima) and the left side of the Rio Negro (northern Amazonas). The eastern Yanomami (including the people of Homoxi predominate in Brazil, with more than 5000 people.

The Yanomami Indigenous Area (Terra Indígena Yanomami) covers 96,650 km2 of tropical rainforest with recognised importance for the preservation of Amazonian biodiversity.  It was demarcated in November 1991 and ‘homologised’ by presidential decree on 25 May 1992.[9]

Figure 3: Indigenous territories in Roraima

Until the end of the 19th century the Yanomami were only in contact with neighbouring indigenous groups.  The Yanomami in Brazil first experienced direct contact with representatives of the national society (hunters, balata latex and piaçaba fibre collectors, soldiers working on the Boundary Commission CBDL, agents of the Indian Protection Service SPI, etc.) or with foreign travellers between the 1910s and the 1940s (see Albert, 1985). Between the 1940s and the mid-1960s, the opening of some SPI posts and, especially, of various evangelical and Catholic missions, established the first points of permanent contact in their territory. These posts constituted a network of foci for sedentarization, being sources of supply of manufactured goods and medical support but also, often, of of lethal epidemics (measles, influenza and whooping cough).

In the 1970s and 1980s the national development projects of the Brazilian State began to submit the Yanomami to increasingly intense forms of contact with the expanding regional economic frontier, principally in the west of the Roraima region: roads, colonization projects, ranches, sawmills, military bases and the first informal mineral prospecting sites (garimpos). These contacts provoked an epidemiological shock on a massive scale, causing heavy demographic losses, general sanitary degradation and serious social destructuring.

The two principal forms of contact initially experienced by the Yanomami - firstly with the extractivist frontier and then with the missionary frontier - coexisted until the beginning of the 1970s as the dominant external influence in their territory. However, the 1970s were marked (particularly in Roraima) by the implantation of development projects under the auspices of the national integration plan (Plano de Integração Nacional) launched by the incumbent military governments. These took the form of the opening of a section of the BR210 Perimetral Norte highway (1973-76), and of public colonization programmes (1978-79) which invaded the southeast of the Yanomami lands.  At the same time, a project surveying the resources of the Amazon (RADAM) in 1975 reported the existence of important mineral reserves in the region (see Ramos and Taylor, 1979). The publicity given to the potential wealth of the Yanomami area stimulated a progressive invasion of mineral prospectors at the end of the 1980s, escalating into a full-scale gold-rush in 1987.

Gold mining and other threats to the Yanomami area

Between 1987 and 1990 around 90 clandestine airstrips were opened on the upper reaches of the main tributaries of the Rio Branco (Uraricoera-Parima, Mucajaí, Catrimani), and the estimated number of prospectors in the area rose to 30-40,000: five times the indigenous population in Roraima State (see MacMillan, 1995).  The expansion of the mineral prospecting ‘frontier’ has supplanted the previous forms of contact which the Yanomami experienced with surrounding society, relegating the development projects of the 1970s to a level of secondary importance.

The tide of the Roraima gold rush was partially stemmed from 1990 onwards as a result of repeated attempts by FUNAI and the Federal Police (Operação Selva Livre) to remove the garimpeiros from the area.  However, from the 1990 to the present day, small nuclei of garimpeiros have remained installed in the area where they continue to cause violence and serious health problems.[10]


Figure 4: Aistrips in the Yanomami territory

As well as the continuing interest of garimpeiros in the region, it can be forseen that other economic activities, whether existing or planned (agricultural colonisation, logging projects and industrial mining) may also constitute a future threat to the integrity of the Yanomami area, despite its legal status.

Almost 60% of the Yanomami territory is covered by mineral claims registered by mining companies (public and private, Brazilian and foreign) with the Departamento Nacioonal de Produção Mineral.  In addition, the southeast of the Yanomami area (Rio Repartimento/ Ajarani region) along the beginning of the BR210 Perimetral Norte highway has been invaded by farms and settlers.

The colonisation projects established by INCRA and the State Government since 1978 in the municipalities of Alto Alegre, Mucajaí and Iracema, and principally the illegal occupation of lands that invariably expands their limits, have created a population and deforestation front that has now reached the limits of the Yanomami land (Apiaú and Ajarani regions).  The advance of this front presents various threats to the indigenous territory.  The first is the obvious danger of extension of the invasion process into the area between the Mucajaí and Apiaú rivers (as occurred in the Repartimento/Ajarani region in the south).  The second is the threat of exploitation and/or destruction of key resources in the indigenous area (game, fish, timber, food plants and medicinal plants).  The third risk, also of an environmental nature, is the exposure of the biodiversity at the edge of the Yanomami area to uncontrolled burning (originating in the areas of colonisation).  This happened in 1997-8 on the middle Mucajaí (Apiaú, Nova Esperança and Ribeiro Campos colonisation areas) and the Ajarani (Vila São José and the edge of the BR210).

Finally, three military bases of the Projeto Calha Norte have been installed in the Yanomami area since 1985 (Maturacá, Surucucus and Auaris) and a fourth is planned in the Ericó region.  These have caused health problems (venereal disease), social problems (food dependency and prostitution) and environmental problems (litter accumulation and general sanitation): issues that have already been raised by Yanomami leaders in Roraima.

The Yanomami system of productivity


The Yanomami obtain 70-75% of the protein necessary for their health from hunting, fishing and collecting (Colchester, 1982; Lizot, 1978).  These activities also allow them to have an extremely diverse diet.  They hunt at least 35 species of mammals, 90 species of birds and eight species of reptiles (including six turtle species) with bows and arrows (or increasingly with shotguns), tracking them or attracting them by imitating their calls.  With line and hook they take 106 species of fishes and in the forest they collect at least 130 species of edible plants (including fruits, roots and mushrooms).  They also collect various species of crustaceans (five types), amphibians (10 types), caterpillars (16 types), other insect larvae (particularly wasps and termites – 15 types) and wild honey (25 types).[11]

Hunting, which is the main activity in terms of protein supply (around 55%) is one of the few economic activities that is exclusively masculine.  It is practised by all the men, generally from adolescence to about 50 years of age, the most productive phase being between 20 and 30.  It is considered by the Yanomami to be a highly attractive and desirable activity, also being an important source of personal prestige (principally in matrimonial terms)[12].

Arduous, complex and unpredictable, hunting requires a greater investment of work than any other food production activity (including agriculture).  It takes up as much as 61.5% of the men’s working time (Colchester, 1982).  As well as using a vast extent of forest, requiring on average 10km2 per person or 500km2 per average community,[13] hunting also requires access to new territories of equivalent size every few years, since hunting returns around the villages diminish relatively rapidly.[14]

These territorial requirements are influenced less by the low population densities of the animal populations in the forest than on the limitations imposed on indigenous hunting by the characteristics of the available animals.  Of the 41 species of mammals commonly hunted in Amazonia 39% weigh less than 5kg, 54% are solitary, 73% are nocturnal and 44% live in trees (Sponsel, 1981).

It can be said, therefore, that hunting is the nerve point of the Yanomami production system.  Costly in time and space, it is relied upon for more than half of all protein intake: a fundamental part of the nutritional equilibrium of the group.  Territorial reduction and environmental degradation can therefore provoke a rapid and drastic decrease in protein consumption, and precipitate dangerous malnutrition.


The Yanomami practise sophisticated swidden cultivation that provides for more than 75% of the energy requirements in their diet (Lizot, 1978).  The productivity of this agriculture, essentially a masculine activity, is very high, with an energy production to cost ratio of 20:1.  By comparison, the same relationship is 3:1 for hunting.  Each half-hectare of plantain (banana ‘pacova’) in a garden produces 12 million calories over two years, which alone meets the calorific requirements of seven people over that period.[15]

The Yanomami traditionally plant around 100 cultivars of approximately 40 species of vegetables in their gardens, the greatest space being allotted to bananas and root crops.  The most important of these is manioc (particularly the ‘sweet’ or non-toxic varieties) but also taro, yam and sweet potato.  Sugar cane, peach palm, maize, pawpaw, pimenta, tobacco, cotton, anatto, arrow cane, gourds, fish poisons and magical plants (for hunting, love charms, children’s growth etc.) are also planted.

The planting is generally done with cuttings at the beginning of the rainy season.  Only cotton, tobacco, maize and pawpaw are grown from seed.  The technology is relatively simple and the tools used are axes, machetes, digging tools (originally made from palm wood but now from metal) and fire.  The ashes of the pre-existing vegetation (which is burned during the dry season) serve as fertiliser.  The fire also has the advantage of destroying the seeds of the weeds in the clearing.

An average community cultivates three or four hectares, which are used for around three years before a new site is chosen.[16]  This cultivated area can take the form of one or more large gardens that are used by groups of families.  However, these are not ‘collective’ gardens but rather a conjunction of family plots, which are increased annually in order to maintain a constant level of productivity.  A new site is usually opened every four or five years within a range of about a dozen or so kilometres from the previous one, generally requiring the construction of a new community house.[17]

Abandonment of a previous site is justified by the increased amount of work necessary to maintain it free from weeds and secondary vegetation, by the growing distance between the most productive parts of the site and the habitation, and by a decrease in the fertility of the soil.  Abandoned sites, however, continue to play an economic role in the life of the community for several years.  They can still be visited for collection of pawpaw, taro, certain kinds of banana and arrow cane.  Banana sprouts are also taken from them for planting in other gardens.  Also, the secondary vegetation that develops in these abandoned gardens provides certain edible fruits and useful raw materials, and can attract game animals to the area.

Although productive and diverse, Yanomami agriculture cannot provide for the dietary requirements of a group by itself, since its protein contribution is relatively low (26-30% of the requirements).[18]  Hence the crucial combination of hunting, agriculture and collecting.

Finally, it should be observed that this type of agriculture does not produce significant long-term environmental degradation.  Shortly after planting the diverse vegetation cover has developed to such an extent that significant areas of soil are not exposed, and hence soil erosion is kept to a minimum.  Because the clearings are relatively small there is a continued seed rain from the neighbouring forest areas, and after a year or two of production the garden is already beginning the process of forest regeneration (Smole, 1989; Colchester, 1982).

Space and resources

The forest area used by a Yanomami community can be described schematically as a series of concentric circles around the communal roundhouse.  These circles delimit areas with distinctive types and levels of use:[19]

The first circle, with a diameter of five kilometres, is the area of immediate use by the community.  It is used for small-scale collecting activities by the women, individual fishing or (in the dry season) collective fishing with poison, occasional short hunting expeditions by the men (a morning or an afternoon) and agricultural activities.

The second circle, between five and 10km, is used for individual hunting trips (rama huu) and day-to-day family collecting activities.

The third circle, from 10-20km, is used for the collective hunting expeditions of one to two weeks (henimou) that proceed funereal (cremation) rituals and big ceremonial inter-community reahu festivities.  It is also used for long multi-family hunting and collecting trips (three to six weeks) that are made during the time that a new garden is maturing (waiwa huu).  These expeditions usually take in areas where highly appreciated fruit trees or game are particularly common.  Abandoned and new gardens also occur within this ‘third circle’, alongside which the group will sporadically camp either for the purpose of collection or cultivation.  The game around these gardens may also be abundant.  ‘Isolated’ Yanomami (i.e. with little influence from health posts, missions etc. and their associated ‘attractions’) pass between a third and half the year camped in such places.[20]

In addition to their requirements in terms of space, this system has demographic limits for efficient functioning (around 150 people per village).  It also has temporal limitations: after two years of occupation the hunting productivity around a habitation can diminish by as much as 28% and the production of manioc (which takes 8-10 months to mature) by 40-50%.  In the case of bananas (which take a year to mature), only the fourth collection is inferior to the first.[21]

Thus, as has been mentioned, in order to ensure its subsistence a Yanomami community must have access to an area that, as well as being sufficiently large, is adjacent to areas of the same type.  In fact these adjacent areas are fundamental in providing, initially, a zone for the refuge of nomadic game animals (allowing their successful reproduction), and secondly in providing options for future migrations, either where the resources become exhausted or when fission of the group is precipitated by demographic factors (Sponsel, 1981; Taylor, 1983).

It is thanks to this division of their production activities in space and time that the Yanomami communities are able to control the wastage of the valuable natural resources necessary for their subsistence, and to maintain a high level of productivity.[22]  Respecting the limitations of space, density and mobility of their habitat, they have managed, over thousands of years, to get the best from the environment they occupy.

The Yanomami of Homoxi

The name Homoxi, given to the health post (URIHI) and FUNAI post on the upper Mucajaí, derives from the name of a place occupied by a group of villages on the Hoomoxi u river (a tributary of the Mucajaí) close to these posts.  Subsequently these communities have moved progressively southwards towards a place called Wiramapi u close to the Venezuelan border and, in 2001, to Yaritha in the Orinoco basin.

Figure 5: Location of the Homoxi region in the Yanomami territory

The 700m airstrip that gives access to the region was opened by garimpeiros in 1978 and was known as Jeremias.  The Federal Police, FUNAI and FNS health teams that arrived in the region in January 1990 to expel the garimpeiros from the region and establish health support for the Yanomami population initially operated from a neighbouring airstrip called Pau Grosso.  However, due to flooding of this airstrip and the inadequacy of neighbouring strips (Macarrão also flooded; Baiano Formiga was too short) Jeremias was eventually chosen as the base for FUNAI, FNS and PF operations.  The new post was renamed Homoxi on acccount of its proximity to the Homoxi u river.

The Yanomami population in the region of the Post is divided into three clusters of Yanomami round houses (yanos): the Tirei theripë, the Xere u theripë and the Yaritha theripë (ex-Wiramapi u theripë), totalling 359 people (see URIHI census in Appendix 7).


The Tirei theripë occupy a single yano approximately 100m from the Post.  This house, built in ‘doughnut’ form approximately 70m in diameter, appears to have been inspired by the impressive yano of the Watoriki theripë at Demini.  However, the scale of this house (itself an indication of a positive desire for renewed political affirmation among the group), combined with local scarcity of thatching leaves (yaa hanaki) and food (reduced gardens and sparse game), have resulted in the house (whose construction began in September 2001) still being unfinished in April 2002.  A fue blue plastic tarpaulins, left over from the gold mines, are still used in the fabric of this yano.

The leadership of the community in external relations is primarily secured by Maranhão, a man of 33 who acts as a strong spokesman for the interests of his group (regional delegate of the Conselhgo do Distrito Sanitário Yanomami), while various older men such as Renato (54), Antonio (51) and Romão (40) play more important roles in traditional matters.  Prior to their recent grouping in a single yano at Tirei, both before and after their fission with the Xere u theripë, they always lived in a close group of three or four smaller conical houses – the classic settlement pattern for upland Yanomami.  The Tirei ‘yano’ is currently inhabited by 85 people.

The name given to this community, Tirei, does not refer to its current or recent location but to a place where the Tirei theripë and Xereu theripë lived long ago (probably the 1970s), on a tributary of the upper Kuneamari u (Wahata u), which is a tributary of the Parima.  This lies in the Xitei region close to the Pupunha airstrip.  Before living there the group came from an area to the south of the mountain called Hëëmaki (belonging to the round mountain complex of the Xitei region) at a site called Yarenaema (probably in the 1950s).  During their migration towards Tirei, the community settled in various sites for short periods.  This was a period of warrior comflict with other groups from the Xitei region and with the predecessors of the Harau theripë (previously called Haximu theripë: victims of the massacre in 1993).

After Tirei, whilst still warring with the aforementioned groups, the community moved to the headwaters of the Parima, to a place called Potomatha in the region between the sources of the Kuneamari u and the Karatha u (tributary of the Kurema u/ Haxi u), where they built three roundhouses.  After this they established themselves during the 1908s on the upper Thoothothopi u (tributary of the upper Mucajaí downstream of the Post), where they built five houses.  Finally, on account of the lack of fishes on this river, they established themselves on the banks of the Mucajaí (Ixoa u or Uxoa u), where they came into contact with garimpeiros in 1988, who opened the Macarrão airstrip where they were living (damaging their gardens in the process).

Xere u

Xereu theri, situated four hours walk from the post on the banks of the Xere u (tributary of the Mucajaí), is made up of the conical roundhouse of the headman Bauro (68) with two smaller houses alongside it.  There are 44 people in the community.  Fifteen minutes walk upstream there are a further two houses, including that of the headman João, with forty people.  The two sites are separated by a steep hill, the second being situated on top of this hill with an open view over the large valley that opens onto Venezuelan territory a little to the south.

The Xereu theripë were originally a part of the Tirei theripë that moved away from the rest of the group from the mouth of the Xere u (Macarrão airstrip) at the beginning of the 1990s, when the rest of the Tirei began a series of micro-movements towards the FUNAI and FNS posts at Jeremias (now Homoxi).[23]  The two Xereu theripë malocas also undertook a series of ‘micro-moves’ before arriving at their current location.  After the initial separation from the Tirei theripë (to the lower Wakapoko u) they rejoined the Tirei on the Apiahipi u before finally returning to the Xere u, to an area of ‘healthy forest’ upstream of where they had initially settled.  According to their leaders this last move was primarily due to ‘meat hunger’ (naiki).

When the garimpeiros arrived on the lower Xere u it was occupied by three malocas: one from the Tirei (Romão) and two from the future Tirei theripë (Bauro and Garcia).  This site, which lay right in the mining area, was abandoned after the garimpeiros were expelled from the region in order to escape the pollution in the rivers and the outbreaks of malaria which worstened after the garimpeiros’ departure (probably because the numerous pools they left behind them bacame breeding sites for mosquitoes).

The Tirei theripë and Xereu theripë together make up 169 people with a distinct history from the Yaritha theripë cluster, with which it maintained a close although turbulent relationship for at least the last ten years.


The Yaritha theripë today form a group of four main collective truncate conucal roundhouses (Paulo/Japão, Adriano, Antonio and Menininho) and five smaller houses (Mineiro/Tarzan, Carrera, Paraiba, Nikin and Ceará) including individuals or families that have opted for relative autonomy in relation to the rest of the group.

Yaritha lies in the lowlands (yari a) approximately nine hours walk to the south of the Homoxi Post (and about 7km into Venezuela).  It is situated on the edge of the Hayathë u, a tributary of the Ruapë u which is itself a tributary of the Orinoco (Hara u).  The previous location of the group at Wiramapi u (tributary of the Hayathë u) was also in Venezuela, but very close to the frontier.  Wiramapi u lies some six hours walk from Homoxi.

The Wiramapiu theripë began to establish gardens in preparation for this move to Yaritha at the beginning of the dry season (September-October) in 2000.  The migration was essentially motivated by the lack of good quality soils at Wiramapi u.  This was a place hemmed in by high hills and all the accessible garden sites had already been used, such that the most recent had had to be sited on very steep hill slopes.  The soils on these slopes, which are orange and stony, were not good for growing cassava and the productivity of bananas was short-lived.

The main leadership of the group in the context of ‘exterior relations’ is assumed by Antonio (36), who is also a delegate of the Conselho do Distrito Sanitário Yanomami.  Thus the small house that has been built for temporary accommodation of URIHI health workers at Yaritha lies alongside Antonio’s yano.  Among the older and more traditional leaders of should be noted Paulo (51) and Menininho (46).  The rest of the leaders are of a similar age to Antonio (Adriano, 37, and Ceará, 29).  There are currently 190 people living at Yaritha.

The Yaritha theripë describe their origens as ancient, like the Tirei, from a solitary community close to the Hëëmaki mountain in the Xitei region (1960s?).  From there a group of the ancestors of the present day Yaritha theripë progressively moved away from the other Hwëëma theripë after a period of repeated fights (ritualised duels) and installed themselves at a succession of sites along the Kuneamari u (tributary of the upper Parima), possibly in the 1970s.[24] 

An important fission occurred during this period of migration.  The the group that subsequently became the Yarakapiu theripë separated from the rest and, after living at various locations along the Kuneamari u as far as its headwaters (Makayu) they crossed into the basin of the Ruapë u in Venezuela.  From there they made their way gradually towards their current location on the Yarakapi u, where they live in four communal roundhouses.

After passing through the Kunemari u valley, where they divided into two houses, the ancestors of the Yaritha theripë moved eastwards (in the 1980s) to the Paxokiki u igarapé, a tributary on the right bank of the Hoomoxi u (itself a tributary of the upper Mucajaí).  Here they were contacted by the FUNAI ‘sertanista’ Francisco Bezerra, who appeared by helicopter.  They then moved on, on account of a lack of water, close to the nearby Wakaxëno u igarapé where they stayed for a considerable time in a single roundhouse known as the Hoomoxi yano.  They were joined there by the community led by Menininho, which had moved southwards from the Hëëma region via two sites (Yarahi pora and Xitokomahi prai u) on the Amathaxi u igarapé (a tributary of the Hoomoxi u).

In this location the group was struck by a serious epidemic of ‘furunculosis (xuëxuëma a) which caused at least five deaths and caused them to flee the Hoomoxi roundhouse and head upstream.  There they established themselves in five houses in an area between two small tributaries on the right bank of the Hoomoxi u (the Waitaropi u and Mrakapi u) and one on the left bank (Watorimapi u).  It was here that they first encountered gold miners at the end of the 1980s.

Inter-community relations

As we have seen, the population clusters of the Tirei-Xereu theripë and the Yaritha theripë moved separately into the Mucajaí valley from the Xitei region.  These two clusters retained a close and constant relationship during their migrations: a relationship of alliance (reciprocal invitations and funerary reahu parties, solidarity in time of war and food shortage) but also of conflict.  This has been provoked by repeated abductions of women between one group and another (the last serious incident of this type took place in 2001 resulting in a two-hour fight), and other setbacks such as the destruction (by the Tirei theripë) of a stand of peach palms belonging to the Yaritha theripë, supposedly to prevent them from returning to Homooxi.

It should be noted that these conflicts were particularly provoked during the time that FNS was operating in the area, when there was strong competition for the services and (occasionally) manufactured goods - the Tirei attempting to resist as strongly as possible the presence of the Wiramapiu theripë at the Post.  The new working methods of the USY (and subsequently CCPY), with regular visits to all the malocas of the region and positive efforts to equalise socio-economic benefits among the communities, appear now to have convinced younger leaders such as Maranhão and Antonio that such conflicts are counterproductive with regards to their relationship with the non-Yanomami (and hence to the benefits to be derived from this relationship).

Apart from the relationships between each other, both ‘clusters’ maintain relations with communities in the upper Orinoco: the Yarakapiu theripë (splinter group from the Yaritha theripë) and the Harau theripë (ex-Haximou theripë and previous enemies).  In addition, the inhabitants of the Homoxi occasionally visit groups on the upper Toototobi (south of the Orinoco) and, to the east, on the upper Couto de Magalhães.[25]  To the north, the Tirei theripë maintain habitual relations of exchange and visits with the Yanomami in the region of the Xitei Post.  However, in 2000 a married woman from Tirei took advantage of one of these visits to stay with a local man.  This extra-marital affair provoked a fight between the Xitei people and a group of men and youths from Tirei (supported by the Xereu theripë, Wiramapiu theripë, Yarakapiu theripë and Harau theripë).  Since then visits between the two regions have been very limited in order to avoid new conflict (“the trail is closed”).

Since a series of fights over exchange goods (November 1995) resulted in an accidental death (February 1996), the Tirei entered a war with the groups to the south of the Surucucus region (Kuremau theripë, Huruna theripë) which are regularly attended by the Homoxi health post.  This cycle of incursions and counter-incursions lasted until 1999 and caused the death of a dozen people on one side or another, mainly by shotgun fire.  The last victim was a young man of 15 from Tirei who was shot in the back on the Homoxi airstrip.

This episode of warfare had a significant influence on the life of the Tirei at the beginning of the post-garimpo period, and its effects could be felt until recently in spite of hostilities having ceased in 1999.  A report written by the anthropologist J. Carrera Rubio (consultant to CCPY) in October 2000 describes the apprehension among the Tirei of further attacks by the Kuremau theripë.  The effects of this conflict were particularly important on the social and economic equilibrium of the group, reducing their mobility (cutting off access to the land below the Apiahipi u for collection and hunting), and forcing them into a greater dependence on their allies to the south (in particular the then Wiramapiu theripë).  The opening of supplementary gardens by the Tirei and Xereu for the supply of long-term hunting expeditions to the south may therefore have had as much to do with the threat of hostilities from the Kuremau theripë and Huruna theripë to the north than it did with the environmental degradation in the Homoxi region.

In April 2002, during an interview of leaders and young people of Tirei and Xereu (Yaritha had remained outside these conflicts), it was reaffirmed by all that the time of conflict was dafinitely over and that “now that there’s a school” the younger people would remain in peace.  One young trainee teacher from Tirei (Denilson) was, in fact, invited to the Haxi u region (lower Rio Canumum) close to the previous enemies of his group.  In addition, young teachers from Haxi u and the Homoxi region participated jointly in a course (organised by CCPY-USY and an ONG from Amazonas called SECOYA) in Ajuricaba in June 2002.

Environmental damage and gold prospecting at Homoxi

The Mucajaí was the river most severely damaged by the Roraima gold rush at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.  Gold mining on this river took place primarily between 1989 and 1992, although a few miners remained in the region until 1998.  In the Homoxi region this process devastated a large area along both banks of the river.  The most destructive technique employed was the deliberate erosion of large areas of the river’s floodplain using high-powered water pumps. These pumps effectively liquefied the floodplain deposits, allowing them to be pumped through gold extraction devices.  The final stage of the extraction process involved amalgamation of the gold with mercury.

The environmental consequences of this process included the destruction of natural vegetation and soil cover, disruption of watercourses, creation of artificial ponds and depressions, and pollution of the rivers and streams with mercury.  There are also large quantities of abandoned machinery lying around and several abandoned airstrips.  Ten years after the end of large-scale mining operations in the Homoxi region the effects of the mining remain pronounced.

The beginning of the garimpo on the lower Narahipi u (Macarrão airstrip)

When the garimpeiros arrived the Tirei were living in four collective houses: three on the lower Narahipi u and one on the lower Wakapoko u (see Fig. 67).  As we have seen, they had left their gardens on the Thoothothopi u relatively recently in order to move closer to the Mucajaí and the resources associated with a larger river.  As well as offering abundant fish, the area to which they moved was well supplied with good soils for cultivation (greyish earth with clay - au krõõpë – beside the rivers and orange soils on the lower hill slopes).  Game was also easily accessible, daily hunting trips being made principally to the Narahipi u (peccariy, deer, curassow etc.) and the ‘other’ Apiahipi u (paca, agouti, armadillo etc.).


Figure 6: Garimpeiros at Uaicas in 1989

Figure 7: Mine workings at Homoxi in 1989

The first garimpeiros arrived by foot at Romão’s maloca – the closest to the Mucajaí.  They searched exhaustively along the river for gold deposits and established their first camp at a place that later became known as Pau Grosso.  Following their successful prospecting they began supply drops in the forest via an increasing traffic of single-engined planes.  The number of garimpeiros in the region began to rise rapidly and a number of clearings were opened up for the delivery of machinery by helicopter.  According to the Yanomami, the ‘big men’ (pata thëpë) of the mines (i.e. the owners) left with the first gold.  The next step was the opening of a number of airstrips in the area: firstly Baiano Formiga (Sakosihiiõpë u) and afterwards Macarrão on the Narahipi u, which had a direct effect on the Tirei. 


Figure 8: Mine workings at Homoxi in 1989

Figure 9: Mine workings at Homoxi in 1989

MacMillan (1995: 40-42) described the development of the Roraima gold rush in considerable detail, including the discovery at Easter 1988 of the first important mine on the upper Mucajaí.  Within the first month there were already 400 garimpeiros working this site, which became known as the ‘Grota de Tarzã’.  In August 1988 the Chico de Malária airstrip was opened nearby at the cost of 40 kilos of gold (paying 20 labourers for 45 days).  This airstrip, which received more than thirty flights per day (light aircraft and helicopters), served as a springboard for prospecting in the region.  Even before its completion the rumour of riches at Grota de Tarzã had stimulated intense prospecting on the upper Mucajaí and, thus, the rapid discovery of new and promising sites.  This stimulated the construction of other airstrips such as Baiano Formiga, Jeremias, Pedro Jacaranda and Pupunha.[26]  At least two of these were built on sites that had been or were occupied by the Yanomami: Julio do Blefe on a recently abandoned garden and Macarrão on the garden belonging to the Tirei theripë (which then included the Xereu theripë).

Persistence of the garimpo between 1990 and 1998

Although at the time of the current survey over twelve years had passed since the first attempt to remove garimpeiros from the area, they continued to operate in the region on a smaller scale until 1998.[27]  The destruction of the illegal airstrips in President Collor’s ‘Operação Selva Livre’ had more impact on the press than it did on the ground.  The Yanomami of Homoxi relate that the majority (6 out of 10) of the airstrips were rapidly mended and returned to service:


Pedro Jacaranda: blown up and rapidly mended

Expedito (Escondido): not blown up

Chico Malária: blown up and mended

Chimarrão: blown up and mended

Julio do Blefe (Julio de Blefe): blown up

Jeremias: taken over by Homoxi Post

Macarrão: blown up and mended

Baiano Formiga: blown up and mended

Raimundo Pau Grosso: blown up and mended

Turukin: blown up

According to MacMillan (1995) the main effect of this removal operation was, initially, to squeeze out temporary garimpeiros, leaving behind the professionals to repair the airstrips.  “Ironically, this intervention actually increased the economic opportunities for many garimpeiros, particularly those who owned sets of pumping equipment (donos de máquinas).  This is because the monopoly exerted by the owners of the mines was effectively destroyed when the airstrips were dynamited.”

According to the Yanomami, the continuation of the garimpeiros in the region (albeit on a smaller scale) was aided by complicity with certain FNS and FUNAI health officials who were serving in the area, who sold them food and or gave them back the confiscated motors in exchange for gold.[28]  The area had thus only been free of gold mining at the time of study for four years or less.[29]  This timescale should be borne in mind when considering both the environmental recuperation and the epidemiology of the area.


[1] See Migliazza (1972) and Ramirez (1994).

[2] The Yanomami population in Venezuela was estimated as 15,012 from an official census undertaken in 1992 (see the site

[3] See Milliken & Albert (1996) for a detailed description of a communal Yanomami roundhouse.

[4] See Appendix 1 for explanations of the pronunciation of Yanomami words.

[5] See Albert (1985) on the social organisation of the Yanomami (subgroup Yanomae/Yanomama) and the concept of ‘multicommunity complexes’.

[6] See Holmes (1995:132), Migliazza (1982:517), Neel et al. (1972:1972) and Spielman et al. (1979: 377).

[7] See Chagnon (1974:94), Hames (1983a:425), Kunstadter (1979: ; Lizot, 1988:497).

[8] See Albert, (1985:40-41, 1990:558-559), Chagnon (1966:167); Colchester (1984), Good, (1995:118), Hames (1983a:426), Smole (1976:51).

[9] Portaria 580 (15/11/91) and Decreto s/n 25/5/92.

[10] See the report on the Haximu massacre Haximu: Foi Genocidio! – Documentos Yanomami 1 on the website (in the ‘documentos’ section).  Regarding the health problems caused by the gold rush see Pithan et al. (1991).

[11] See Albert & Goodwin Gomez (unpublished) and Finkers (1986).

[12] See Colchester (1982 and Smole (1976).

[13] According to Taylor (1983) the communities on the edge of the Yanomami area had access to 12 km2 per person in the 1970s.  Communities in the centre, where the population density is higher, have access to 8 (calculated from Smole, 1976).  The demographic density of the Yanomami in Brazil is now 10/km2 overall (DSY/FNS-RR, 1995).

[14] Reduction in hunting productivity (kg/hunt) can be 28% within the first two years of occupation (Good, 1989).

[15] The productivity of work in the Yanomami society is high: the relationship between energy gain and loss for the system as a whole is 6:5:1 and the calorific-protein composition of the diet successfully meets the requirements of the population.  A productive adult (55-60% of the population) can produce an estimated 1800 kilo-calories and 67g of protein per day for an expenditure of between three and four hours of work.  The total average work time per day for all activities is between five and seven hours (see Lizot 1978:77, 1979, 1996 and Colchester 1982:202).

[16] 0.0523ha per person according to Lizot (1980).  Colchester (1982) estimates 0.0848 ha/person.

[17] Lizot (1980) mentions a maximum limit of 5-7 years, and Good (1989) cites a minimum of two.

[18] See Lizot (1978) and Colchester (1982).

[19] See Sponsel (1981).  The areas within these circles are not necessarily ecologically homogeneous and are therefore not all exploited to the same extent (Colchester, 1982).  For graphic representations of these systems see CCPY (1982), Colchester (1982), Fuentes (1980), Good (1989) and Lizot (1986).

[20] The nutritional situation of ‘isolated’ Yanomami was very satisfactory, even in the Serra Parima region.  Although game is less abundant in these higher elevations, the protein deficit that this might engender can be compensated for by intensification of collecting activities (see the numerous articles cited by Colchester 1985 on nutritional and health studies among the Yanomami; regarding the Serra Parima see Holmes 1983, 1984, 1995 and Smole 1976:181).

[21] See Good (1989) and Hames (1983b).

[22] The average work time per day for all activities is between five and seven hours (see Lizot, 1978 and Colchester, 1982).

[23] The main attraction for this movement was the availability of health support at the Post.

[24] Only one group of their ancestors, lead by the headman Menininho, remained close to the Hëëma theripë.

[25] The ex-Poimopë theripë (now the Mõruhusi, Hayau and Toxahipiu theripë).

[26] A total of ten airstrips were built in the region around this time.

[27] The diary of the Homoxi health post (FNS) records regular removals of garimpeiros between 1997 and 1998, including the capture of a single-engine plane and its pilot on the Pau Grosso airstrip in March 1998.

[28] The Homoxi health post diary relates how, on 29/10/96, the clandestine aeroplane PT KJW landed and took off from the Homoxi airstrip with two garimpeiros and fuel, with authorisation from the local FUNAI representative.

[29] The same diary mentions on 11/10/99 that “the Federal Police agents and FUNAI staff set off for the garimpos for a possible conversation with them, but they achieved nothing.” (?)