In the largest jungle in the world lives a tribe whose traditional way of life is slowly fading away. The age-old way of life for the Sanema is changing and ancient balances between man and nature are thrown awry.
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The Sanema are a branch of the Yanomami tribe who live in the tropical rain forest on both sides of the Venezuelan and Brazilian border, on the watershed between the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers. Until recently they were nomadic hunters, and shifting cultivators, living off what they caught in the forest. But in recent times most of them have settled in villages. This decision to stay in one place is undermining their most fundamental traditions.
It's not just the authorities which have brought about this change. In fact, the Venezuelan government has now adopted a policy to respect the rights of indigenous people but this policy is yet to be put into practice in the Caura, where most of the territory of the Ye'kwana and Sanema has been set aside as a forest reserve for logging. A land claim filed by the people for the whole area has yet to be accepted.
The intrusion of the outside world into Sanema life is having irreversible effects. Contact with the outside world has brought new diseases to which they have no immunity. In turn, this has helped destabalise traditional medical practises and led to an increased reliance on western goods and medicine.
The need for these new medicines has encouraged the Sanema to leave their semi-nomadic lifestyles, and settle in permanent villages near to medical posts and clinics. Along with their dependency on another tribal group, the Ye'kwana, it has meant a fundamental shift in the lives of the Sanema.
As one woman explains: 'I preferred it when there was better hunting. We moved from one place to another, that's what we did before. But I don't mind living close to the Ye'kwana because I am old and need medicine.'
Sanema and their neighbours
The Sanema have been neighbours of the Ye’kwana for a long time. They followed them to this part of the forest after being pushed out of their previous home by tribal conflicts. The Ye’kwana already had strong trading ties to towns outside the tribal areas. It is through them that the Sanema can get hold of metal for knives, and access to medicine.
Most of the Sanema still have little direct contact with outsiders. The few external goods they possess have all come via their neighbours. They hunt and labour for the Ye'kwana in return for metal tools, blades and cloth - although it seems the promised goods aren't always delivered.
As one Sanema elder puts it: “We thought the Ye’kwana would give us machetes and help us out if our crops failed. Now we do what the Ye’kwana tell us but return home without payment - it happens all the time. The Ye’kwana always exploit us.”
Where traditionally the Sanema moved location every two or three years, now they live in fixed villages of up to 150 people, made up of several extended families.
Strictly speaking, there are no headmen in Sanema society, though the most powerful shamans are respected by all. Decisions are made by consensus. Equally, no one person owns land; it belongs to the whole group, though you own the things that you produce from the land. A person's status is measured not by their possessions, but by their generosity.
First marriages tend to be arranged to secure family alliances and social networks. Securing the assistance of a new son in law in the hearth group is a major consideration for parents arranging the marriage of their daughter. Sanema women marry young, often before puberty, though marriage won't be consummated for some years. Men can have as many as five or six wives though this is increasingly rare. Most later marriages are entered into by personal choice and 'love matches' are usual.
Within the village, women make the meals, look after the children, tend crops and gather wild food from the forest. They produce the village's cotton, pots and baskets. The fire has to burn continuously; it's the women's responsibility to gather and chop wood to tend it, helped by their sons in law who have to work for their parents in law for several years as bride service.
The men's work is to hunt for peccary (a kind of wild pig), monkeys, jungle fowl, anteater and occassionally armadillo. Tapir - a large herbivore - is the prize catch. The hunters tip their arrows with poison harvested from forest plants, and hang bones and feathers above their hearth believing it strengthens their arms. Hunters gain prestige by sharing out the game they catch between their relatives and friends. Those who don't share will not be successful in the hunt and are despised for their meanness.
Traditionally, the Sanema moved through the forest finding game then moving their camps on to allow animal stocks to recover so there was always plenty of food to be had. Now game animals are scarce around the village. It takes several days' walking to reach the good hunting grounds.
One Sanema villager sees it this way: “Our grandparents caught a lot of animals because they dreamt with the animal spirits. For example, they dreamed of the tapir spirit, and the next day they caught a tapir. But now the outsiders have come and told us, to stop dealing with the spirits. So we catch fewer animals than our grandparents.”
The Sanema are now heavily dependent upon their crops rather than wild game. The staple is cassava made from the roots of yuca (manioc), alongside bananas, papayas, yams, palm fruits and sweet potato. In the villages, women and men share the responsibility for tending crops while women have the main task of processing and preparing food. Men's hunting and fishing skills have become less important, but are still essential adjuncts to sound nutrition.
The Sanema believe in a dream world inhabited by the spirits of everything around them. The trees, the animals, the rocks, the water all have a spirit. Some can be used to heal, others to bring disaster and death. The shaman's dreams are as much part of reality as their waking life. It's in his dreams that the spirits visit him and may foretell the future.
Four out of five Sanema men are practicing shamans. Anyone can be initiated but it requires intense training and not everyone has the strength. The women usually just watch. Some don't even like to enter the spirit world in case they expose their children to attack from evil spirits.
The shaman's chief work is to dispel the evil spirits they believe cause illnesses, but they have other practises, including sorcery directed against enemies. To induce a trance they take a powerful hallucinogenic drug, sakona, made from the dried sap of the virola tree. It brings visions of the shaman's particular spirit guides, or hekul a - bright miniature demon. The Sanema believe the hekula enter the chest of the shaman and string up their hammock between his ribs. Each one has a particular song. When the shaman chants it is the voices of these spirits which can be heard.
“There is the tortoise spirit, the armadillo spirit, the frog spirit, the anteater spirit,” explains a Sanema shaman. “I know all the spirits. The tortoise spirit is small, but very old, his voice is not clear. But in your dream, you will know it is the tortoise speaking, and you will see the spirit... It is the spirits that give you your song.”
Hekula spirits are not just benevolent, the shaman must work to control them. A powerful shaman in control of many Hekula spirits can cure a variety of diseases.
But now the Sanema face new diseases from the outside world. Western infections like measles have devastated the Yanomami and the shamans have no cures. Western infections like measles for which the shamans have no cure have devastated the Yanomami. Access to western medicine through Ye’kwana villages is weakening traditional beliefs.
The transition from nomadic jungle life to a settled existence can have dire consequences on a group's morale and sense of self-worth. Compared to the jungle environment, the village is bleak - and if feelings of uselessness and powerlessness take root, lethargy descends.
As the Sanema men's hunting skills becoming increasingly redundant, this traditional community begins to lose its harmonious balance with nature - which is the backbone of their belief system. One consequence of this is that the men now take their hallucinogens recreationally.
Another is involvement in a growing bush meat trade. Tapir and peccary meat are caught and salted for sale in port towns. There is demand among those who live along the borders of the tribal territories, and dugout canoes with large ice chests are a regular sight on the local Caura river. Most of this trade is carried out by outsiders, but some tribesmen - often the best hunters - now work with them to earn money to buy medicines for their families.
But it's hard to argue with the view put by at least one of the Sanema villagers. “If local people come and ask us for land we will say no because we don't want more houses, villages and cleared forests,” he says. “Leave us alone with our village, that's what we say. But if people came from the big cities and cleared all the trees away to build a big village with a hospital, we would be happy about it because then our children would not die.”