Yanomami 1 of 2 - The Curse of El Dorado

Yanomami 1 of 2 - The Curse of El Dorado

For this blog we look back at life on the ground with the Yanomami during the 80's and 90's and see how this links more than ever to the struggles in Brazil today. Michael Stuart Ani shares his experiences and thoughts with us.

From 1988 to 2002, he set the groundwork for rainforest protection and environmentalism in Los Angeles, California by founding the Amazonia Foundation, a central part of a medical outreach program introduced to fight the epidemics among the Yanomami tribe of Venezuela.

Michael was instrumental in fighting the epidemics among the Yanomami in the rainforests of Venezuela. He introduced the plant Artemisia annua which proved to be a much more effective antimalarial than the WHO pharmaceutical used at the time. Ani also helped to create a school to teach local indigenous people to be healthcare officers in the emerging Alto Orinoco Biosphere Reserve.

Michael's journey through the most remote tribes of the Americas has been in search of last remnants of the ancient Ghost Dance ritual, learn more here:




Ever since I first visited the evangelist 2000 Tribes pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, my fate and the fate of the evangelist missionaries in the Amazon has been intertwined. This troubled relationship came to a head in 2001 when the New Tribes Mission attempted to fulfill their prophecy of 2000 Tribes by converting the remote Yanomami tribe of the Venezuelan Amazon. The events that took place between 1987 and 2001 in Venezuela give a frightening (and also enlightening) insight into the evangelist involvement in the genocide against indigenous people taking place in Brazil today.

In 1987 I was working with my partner, Francisco Fuentes, the retired head medical officer of the Venezuelan National guard, to bring medical aid to the tribes of the Alto Orinoco region of Venezuela’s Amazon rainforest. Later that same year, the Brazilian media would broadcast a story about a satellite locating the legendary gold mines of El Dorado. Within weeks, I watched thousands of Brazilian goldminers illegally crossing the jungle border into Venezuela with dreams of striking it rich. Although the Brazilian media portrayed the gold miners as poor indigents, a clandestine group of international industrialists had secretly financed the invasion. They had supplied the airplanes needed to bring in high-powered mining equipment and helicopter support to transport the raw gold out. The impact of the invasion was immediately felt by the Yanomami Nation.

With a population (at that time) of 20,000, the remote Yanomami were considered the last intact indigenous nation on earth and the invasion into their homeland put their survival at risk. The first threat they faced came from a Brazilian prostitution ring that began to kidnap young Yanomami girls and boys to sell at the mining camps. When the ravaged Yanomami children returned to their villages, they unknowingly infected their tribes with the diseases they now carried.

During the rainy season of 1988, a triad of deadly epidemics including hepatitis C, African River Blindness and malaria hit the Yanomami. Diseases like malaria were unknown to the tribe until the Yanomami began to come down from the mountains to acquire trade goods. The aluminum cooking pots, machetes, red cloth and beads were brought in by the US based evangelist New Tribes Mission on the Padamo River.

Upon realizing that the missions were also the source of epidemics, the Yanomami began to call the mission at the Padamo River “Malaria,” and the one on the Ocamo “Measles.” The missionaries, fully aware that they were bringing disease to the remote tribes, rationalized their role in microbe-genocide as the collateral damage of bringing salvation to the soul. But the Yanomami were not interested in salvation, they just wanted to stay alive.

Thirteen-years after the epidemics hit, both the sexual slavery and the death toll had continued to rise with no end in sight. As the epidemics grew, the Amazonia Foundation health project, (which I had started in 1990,) could no longer keep up with the growing demand for medical aid. So we approached the Venezuelan government for financial and government support.

In a response, president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela declared the tribe a national treasure and created a much larger medical project to try to control the epidemics. His first step was to try and create a coalition of scientists, government officials, medics, anthropologists, NGO’s, Catholic church leaders and the New Tribes Mission (now called Ethos 360).

Chavez asked the members of the coalition (groups and individuals who had feuded incessantly in the past,) to put their grievances aside and work together towards finding a solution to the epidemic crisis. But one of the coalition members, the New Tribes Mission, were reluctant to get involved with the project, standing by their belief that their job as missionaries was to save souls, not lives. The New Tribes Mission’s mission statement was: By unflinching determination we hazard our lives and gamble all for Christ until we have reached the last tribe regardless of where that tribe might be.” (Brown Gold magazine, Issue 1, May 1943).

 Although the New Tribes Mission resisted joining the coalition, their involvement was necessary. They controlled many of the airstrips and owned most of the refrigerators in the region that were needed to transport medicines safely. During the negotiations with the government and the missionaries, I discovered that evangelized Yanomami tribesmen were acting as paid jungle guides for the sex traffickers who had been raiding the remote villages.

President Chavez used this information to pressure the New Tribes Mission’s leaders Jim Bou and Aunt Marg to agreed to participate in the coalition. Bou and Marg agreed under the condition that they would choose the project’s coordinator. Bou chose the North American group Tribal Outreach Medical Assistance, or TOMA.

Earlier that year, TOMA had successfully delivered medical aid to some of the evangelized tribes on the Padamo River, a region controlled by the New Tribes Mission. Although TOMA’s mission was to deliver medical aid to all the Yanomami, it appeared that they were favoring evangelized, over traditional tribes and this brought up questions for the Venezuelan government about TOMA’s hidden agenda.  A subsequent government background check revealed a troubled past. 

TOMA was run by MK’s, aka “Missionary Kids.” The directors of TOMA were the children of Orville Green, one of the most notorious elders of the New Tribes Mission. Years before, Mr. Green had been deported from Colombia for his involvement in possible crimes against indigenous people. In spite of their father’s past, TOMA remained the spearhead of the coalition, which now had military support.

In March of 2001 I found myself sitting in the back of a military cargo plane, with over a quarter of a million dollars of medical supplies and eight TOMA medics. From the window of the plane I could see the Orinoco River as it snaked through the browning canopy of a drought scorched jungle. As the Airbus approached the Parima mountain range, the view from the window grew increasingly apocalyptic.
Hordes of goldminers were tearing down entire mountains with high pressure hoses, while mercury used to collect the gold had destroyed the fertile jungle around the mudslides and turned it into a wasteland. The drought brought on by the deforestation on the Brazilian side of the border was so severe it was already changing the climate. In this weakened environment the vectors of disease were thriving and the infection rate among the Yanomami continued to multiply.

The Yanomami’s Xapori medicine men had their own way to deal with an epidemic and called for a mass Wayumi (a “leave taking” ceremony). Hearing the call to Wayumi, the Yanomami quickly collected their few possessions, lined up and began to sing the anteater song, “Bone-in-a tame-a” as they marched out into the jungle. In the deep forest they separated into small family units so they would not infect each other. But shortly after the initial Wayumi began, the tribes started running out of room. At that point, their only hope was to leave the big river of the bottomland with its insect swarm and return to their high-altitude ancestral homeland where the mosquitoes that carried malaria could not survive.