“The forest is alive. It can only die if the whites continue destroying it. If they do, rivers will disappear under the earth, the soil will crumble, the trees will wither, and the stones will melt in the heat. A desiccated earth will become empty and silent. The Xapiri spirits who came down from the mountains to play on their mirrors will flee far away. Their fathers, the shamans, will no longer be able to call them and to make them dance to protect us. They will be unable to push back the smoke of the epidemics that are devouring us. They will no longer be able to contain the evil spirits that will turn the forest into chaos. We will die one after the other, the white as much as us. All the shamans will finish by dying out. If none of them survive to hold on to it, the sky will fall.”
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami Shaman
It is a most vital and perhaps the most urgent singular Indigenous voice Davi Kopenawa brings to the outside world in his book “The Falling Sky” published in 2010: it is the conscience of the rainforest itself unlike anything we have witnessed this century. It embodies the mind of the Amazon and narrates the journey into the rarefied, inner landscape of the shamanic world. Davi, called the Dalai Lama of the Rainforest, speaks words composed of myth, of thunder and lightning and spirit beings honored since time immemorial, whose chorus is dwindling in light of what remains of the largest rainforest on Earth. Narrated by a Yanomami shaman it is a revelation of an Indigenous people facing the onslaught of the dominant society felling and desecrating their forest home. Davi wants white people and foreigners of the world to know what is happening to the forest and his people the Yanomami of southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil, a tribe of about 35,000, and what will ultimately happen to us all if the life force of the Amazon is lost.
About 30 years ago, miners killed 16 of their tribe, including a baby in Haximu village. Five miners were guilty of genocide. More recently miners from northern Brazil were confronted by two Yanomami, who died in the encounter. 2019 finally launched the global campaign to expel 20,000 gold miners who are illegally prospecting on Yanomami land. The future of the Yanomami may very well rest on how this epic struggle is resolved.
Thomas Lovejoy, who has been teaching climate change biology for 30 years and introduced the term biological diversity, along with other ecologists have long warned that mining, palm plantations, and cattle could destroy the hydrological cycle of the Amazon. Some even believe the time is now to monetize the forest in a green economy, which includes aquaculture, medical and plant knowledge and a resources base that actually looks to make the Amazon invaluable for the future. The time is now to put a price on what can renewably be cultivated from biodiversity’s “greatest showroom” the “living library” of the Amazon according to Lovejoy.
The Swiss firm Re estimates that half of the global GDP of $42 trillion depends on resilient biodiversity. Robert Costanza, an ecological economist, says the ecosystem yearly yields a return of 100 to 1. Some like Timothy Weiskel, formerly at the Harvard Divinity School, are outraged by the notion of affixing a price tag or cost benefit analysis to ecosystems. But Costanza believes it is a way of seeing nature in a pragmatic way, by putting numbers on the overall destruction and loss that results in biospheric damage. Acting on this will be the hard part but perhaps a key way to persuade policymakers to see the actual cost of exploitation. Planetary accounting writ very large.
Costanza notes that the biosphere can yearly be valued at 33 trillion dollars not as mere commodity but in terms of renewable value. The value for humanity and life on Earth may seem counterintuitive, because it is ultimately priceless, but if one attaches a monetary value to the resource base of let’s say a forest, then it becomes more tangible. One of the challenges we face is to calculate the metrics of what ecosystems are worth in monetary terms. It would be mandated by government in everything from bond markets to investment banking so that nature, our life support system, is included in the decision-making financial system. So far nature has been left out of the economic balance sheet. If humanity wishes to survive, some say, we can no longer allow this separation.
As for the president of Brazil, for the crimes he has encouraged in burning the Amazon, Jair Bolsonaro’s possible trial looms at the Hague. The world might finally take heed of punishing those who have allowed almost 17 percent of the Amazon to go up in smoke. Just 20-25 percent loss, experts say, would be the point of no return for the greatest rainforest on Earth. It would turn to savanna and one of the most irreplaceable carbon sinks on Earth will be no more. The Amazon may already have become a net emitter of carbon, at humanity’s immense peril. The vastest jungle on Earth may have already reached the tipping point. But Lovejoy also underscores that despite increasing droughts in the Amazon, it is still possible to reforest some of the destruction that has been imposed on the jungle and bring back some “margin of safety against dieback.” He encourages all the Amazon countries to come together and create an integrated management plan for the future of the Amazon. But they have to do it soon. The hydroelectric dams and the roads that have sliced through the jungle since the 1970s have fragmented the Amazon. It is very late in the game but some are finally coming to understand the immense importance of the hydrological cycle of the largest jungle on the planet. There is simply less moisture being created in the Amazon. As forests burn around the world, the implications for the world are beyond enormous.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Davi’s understanding of the rainforest, issues from an ancient and cellular order of being, the other worlds he has penetrated beyond the surface and outer reality of what we perceive. Beyond the digital surface of our super specialized technological society, is a wide web of inner vision, the larger fabric of life that spans the animate and the perceptual. Very few have access to this inner world. In this time of gold diggers and cattle rustlers it is time the world listened to the first peoples of the world, before their world and ours disappears.
To read Davi’s book is to listen to a cosmological missive to the world, as close to the heart of Earth’s mind as is possible. Years ago not far from the Yanomami territory we had just heard of Davi’s people but little else. We had occasion to see, before the great tumult in Venezuela, the majestic Angel Falls, the tallest on Earth at 970 meters, its sheer height, like the tresses of a goddess dissolving into mist from the impossible height of the Tepui formations made of Precambrian sandstone rocks. We only heard hints of a people on the far frontier of Venezuela and Brazil, people who as Davi describes, had dreams such as we the “civilized people” did not have.
In fact, Davi acknowledges that white people do not think very far ahead. The Yanomami’s world is directed by paths in the jungle rather than merchandise. We live on different planets. “White people think we are ignorant because we don’t possess paper on which to write our words. What lies. We will only really become ignorant only when we no longer have shamans. It is from the yakoana (plant) and the spirits of the forest that we learn. We can see lands very far away, we can enter the body of the sky or descend into the subterranean world,” he says. The visions of supervening forces and energies that tie life together as one web is not something most of us are privy to. Without entering or having the consciousness or the images of the beings of the first time, we cannot begin to understand what Davi has seen or alludes to. It is very reminiscent of what the Aboriginal elders referred to as the Dreamtime and the Creator Beings, wavelengths of formative primal energies we cannot really fathom because it is a psychodynamic and sensual reality we long ago lost touch with in the modern world and energies that all our technological prowess cannot see or feel.
Some of the “witches,” healers, wisdom keepers, the messengers of nature in Europe had a connection with the planet. And what did we did do to them? Many we burned at the stake because they represented another understanding entirely, another way of seeing born of the much older pagan world and not the world view of the Church. Today we are burning the world for trinkets, for the lackluster realm of the modern economic system, for vast soy bean plantations and cattle and mining operations. It is among the greatest follies of our civilization and literally costing humanity the lifeline to life itself. In Davi’s eyes, in his spiritual sight especially, the gambling machine of the business world is built on quicksand. Our civilization is burning itself to the ground. It is not just his peoples who are disappearing. It is also us.
Omama, the primal energy, is still the stuff of science fiction even for most specialists and those frequencies of consciousness we attempt to see with instruments cannot penetrate the veil of the shaman’s inner vision. Perhaps the oldest essential way of communing with nature, shamanism is a “sight” we are on the verge of losing as a species. What we are experiencing worldwide is partially due to the loss of this larger vision that a few elders still encompass. They live in a manifold world of many colors, songs and dimensions while we inhabit the world of the economic sphere and its short term returns. The two live on different planets. And worldwide, the elders are dying of the virus. What indeed will remain of their vision?
Davi is worried that the younger generation will not only lose the forest, but also that they will be beholden to the machine and motor vehicles, having to trace words on paper because our spirits are forgetful and will no longer remember our original instructions, which is to take care of the world.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Even if these realities seem arcane and primal beyond the highly specialized and fragmented modern industrial reality, the Yanomami, whose men are warriors and who can be brutal have lived in the forests for thousands of years without overwhelming their habitat. The recent invasion of 20,000 gold miners in the Orinoco basin is an affront to their way of life and is extinguishing a society much older than civilization. In light of the microbes our species has to confront and the threat of future pandemics, which could arise from the tropics, Davi’s words speak of a covenant with the very fabric of cellular memory embedded in the plants and the radical light that suffuses Creation. The extraordinary death toll Brazilians have had to endure in such cities as Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon, gives enormous relevance to Davi’s words. If we are still arguing over what we must do at the end of this decade, it will be too late.
Davi exclaims, “With these words, I want to simply warn the white man that the bad things they extract from the earth will not make them rich very long! The value of our dead will be very high and they will certainly not be able to compensate us with their paper skins (their contracts). There is no money that can buy the forest, the hills and the rivers. Their money will be worth nothing…They must understand this. The ghosts of the old shamans and their evil spirits have already started to take vengeance on far way lands by provoking droughts and endless floods. It is why, if the whites do not make us all die, we will continue to call on the spirits to consolidate the forest and prevent the sky from falling.
“The forest is intelligent and has thought identical to ours. I listen to the words of my spirits who ask with anger, ‘Why are the whites so hostile? Why do they want us to die? What do they have against us that, we have done nothing to them. Is it only because we are other peoples, the peoples of the jungle? Do not worry, they will kill you, maybe, but they will not long stay unharmed by their destruction!’ It is so. We are saddened by the idea of disappearing. But our thoughts are quieted by the thought that the spirits are innumerable and will never die.
“If we disappear, the whites will not live long after us. Even if there are many of them, they are not made of strong, any more than us. Their life breath is as short as ours. They can suppress us today, but later, when they will want to move in places where we once lived, they will be devoured in their turn, by all sorts of bad spirits. We will see if they are as powerful as they think! We will plunge them in darkness and storms. We will break the sky and its fall will sweep them away. Be finally warned! Stop pillaging our earth, because the smoke of your epidemic will finish us all off and when you build your towns on our forgotten vestiges in the forest, you will destroy yourselves. The spirits of the shamans you have killed will avenge themselves.
“If you destroy the forest, the sky will break and it will fall on the earth. The whites are not afraid, as we are, to be crushed by the falling sky. But one day, they will fear it as much as we do. The shamans know what bad things menace human beings. There is only one sky, and one has to worry because if it becomes sick, everything will be finished.”
Since a child, Davi has been warned of foreigners and missionaries who considered the Yanomani primitive heathens, and has been wary of the white man’s God. “Maybe God will punish me and will cause me to die. It doesn’t matter, I’m not white. I do not want to know anything about him. He has no friendship with the inhabitants of the forest. He doesn’t cure our children. He doesn’t defend our earth against gold miners and ranchers. It is not he who makes us happy. His words only know threats and fear. Even today, the people of God haven’t stopped terrifying me. When I have the occasion to meet them they tell me - Davi, your thinking is obscure. You are possessed by Satan. If you keep listening to his words you will burn in the fire pit. Stop answering the spirts so your thoughts can blossom anew with the words of God. It he who will really protect you.”
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
The God of foreigners have been setting the Amazon on fire for years. Everything the forest has taught the Yanomami and countless other tribes for generations is under threat ecologically and also spiritually due to the rampage of the pandemic, which is killing off elders all over the world. Their knowledge translates to perhaps 25,000 years of experiential wisdom that will never be brought back if lost. In this time of climate change their understanding of the planetary “mind” is among the most sophisticated on Earth. Davi has heard of original sin from those who preach the gospel and yet what has happened, is happening and could continue to ravage the forest, is the greatest scourge of our time. Davi defends himself against the foreign God by saying, “We are not bad. We are simply not Whites. We are such as our ancestors have always been. For us all the words of the White Man are in vain. God must be lazy because he makes no effort to cure us, even when we are in agony. We are dying without them caring in the least.”
With the word in upheaval it is time, it might seem, to listen to those who have not destroyed their world. We are beholden to “sad leaves” as Davi calls money. But Davi has known that whatever befalls his people will also befall modern civilization. This is the decade of reckoning. Either we pull back from the brink or the sky will crumble and so will the Earth. In listening to the shamans and the elders of the jungle, we might learn something about life on Earth, that might actually save us.
As Davi says, “If there are no longer any shamans in the forests, the white man will consume himself before becoming blind. He will end by suffocating, reduced to a state of a ghost, and will fall to pieces. Then we will all be carried into the darkness of the subterranean world, the Whites as well as us. There is only one sky and one has to take care of it, because if it becomes sick, everything will be finished.”
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.