Indigenous women in Brazil have traditionally been excluded from taking on leadership roles that were often filled by tribal patriarchs. But those roles shifted in recent years as threats against their land rights and natural resources escalated.
Women are breaking down barriers, speaking out and joining the frontlines of the battle against rampant deforestation, extractive activities and the worsening climate catastrophe.
O-é Kaiapó Paiakan, a member of the Mebêngôkre people in the Kayapó tribe of Brazil, is one of those women. After her father, the iconic Kayapó leader Paulinho Paiakan, passed away from Covid-19 in June 2020, the 38-year-old took the reins as chief and is carrying her father’s legacy as one of the greatest pioneers of Brazil’s Indigenous environmental movement.
Paiakan said Indigenous women have always been powerful. But as climate and environmental threats worsen, they are stepping out of the confines of their homes to attend college and find their voices in spaces traditionally dominated by men.
“Kayapó women have always been fighting,” she said. “From us, resistance is born. From us come men, children, life. The woman completes herself with nature, and we have always been part of the resistance along with the men.”
Since becoming village chief, Paiakan has been working hard to understand the legalities of protecting Indigenous territories and how to confront structures of power who are challenging their rights. She also created an educational space for tribal women to get involved and learn more about politics and the environmental threats they face.
“Women build the culture; the elder women have a very important role in keeping oral histories alive which they pass on to the children, so we don’t lose our language and culture,” Paiakan said. “Women today have been meeting to talk about these issues and they are taking space from the chiefs, taking decisions along with them, to coordinate their communities and be part of the political space where these issues are discussed.”
While environmental threats are not new in the Amazon, the rise of the right-wing government under President Jair Bolsonaro allowed an explosion of industrial development from oil and gas exploration, logging and mining. These activities have pushed deeper into the region, razing trees on Indigenous land in search of profits.
The Bolsonaro administration and Brazil’s congress have aligned with the agribusiness, mining and timber sectors to recently bring into law what’s known as “Marco Temporal” — a rule that says Indigenous peoples’ right to land will only be recognized if they can prove they occupied it in 1988, when the latest Brazilian constitution was adopted.
As Brazil’s supreme court considers arguments against the law, Francisco Cali Tzay, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, said in August that its acceptance would “result in significant denial of justice.”
“If the Supreme Court accepts the so-called Marco Temporal (“time frame” argument) in its ruling on land demarcation later this month, it could legitimize violence against indigenous peoples and inflame conflicts in the Amazon rainforest and other areas,” Tzay said in a statement.
Paiakan says the law is a “reversal of Indigenous rights,” which essentially opens avenues for the Brazilian government to gain the right to enter “our territory without our permission.”
“It’s as if we don’t exist in our territory; it’s as if we don’t exist for the state,” she said. “They are doing all this to have access to our territory. But we are constantly aware and mobilizing, following everything going on with Marco Temporal.”
Alessandra Korap, 37 and a member of the Munduruku tribe in Brazil, said Indigenous people are slowly losing their territory, and with nowhere left to fish and harvest palm fronds, she wanted to do something. As a woman, however, she said joining the male-dominated tribal meetings was frowned upon. Even her mother warned her against it.
But in 2015, Korap said she broke from tradition, joined the chiefs, and spoke about her concerns about public officials and businesses. She says she participated in meetings outside her village, and protested against the demarcation of their land as well as infrastructure they deem hazardous to their territories.
“When I speak, many people don’t like it, because my voice reaches far,” Korap said. “I don’t only speak for me or those close to me, I speak for those beyond. Many people see this as a threat and want to get rid of me, eliminate me because I begin to speak, but I can’t be afraid.”
Threats surround her — a friend’s house was burned down, as reports of other environmental defenders being attacked increased. Then she says she became a target herself. After days of protesting logging and mining activities in Brazil, she said she and her husband came home with her children and found her home had been broken into. The thieves, she said, took their cellphones and flash drives from her camera.
“I perceived my voice was making someone uncomfortable,” she said. “But I could not stop, I need to help more, as long as I have a voice I’m going to fight.”
According to a recent report by the environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness, Brazil — which includes a large part of the Amazon — was among the deadliest countries for environmental defenders, with 20 activists killed in 2020 alone.
More than 70% of the attacks were on people defending forests — one of the planet’s natural carbon sinks — from further deforestation and industrial development, the report said. And, despite making up only 5% of the world’s population, more than 30% of all the fatal attacks targeted Indigenous people in 2020.
Tejubi Uru eu Wau Wau’s uncle was one of those killed last year. Tejubi, 21 and a member of the Uru-eu-Wau-Wau tribe in the state of Rondônia, said her uncle had long been an environmental defender, patroling Indigenous territories and protecting it against illegal logging as well as deforestation.
More than a year later, Tejubi said they still don’t know how her uncle died, but said she and the rest of the tribe blame his death on extractive industries.
“We were sad; we try to take care of everything,” she said. “Only a week had gone by after my uncle passed, my grandfather went into the forest to sing for his death and he found new invaders, two White people hunting. They don’t respect us.”
Tejubi said deforestation continues to spread deeper into the forests and into their territories. In the late summer, she joined protests against Marco Temporal, and was met with pepper spray and smoke bombs, she said. Still, she plans to continue to fight for her tribe after she graduates.
“A lot of people think maybe I can’t handle it because I am a woman; I have to deal with a lot of machismo,” she said. “Women make more of a difference, because we work harder, solve things, and we are not afraid to speak our mind.”
A UN report released in March found that, on average, forests within Indigenous land in Latin America and the Carribean have been much better conserved than other forests in the region.
But these cultural, tribal practices are constantly under threat from the effects of climate change as well as incursions by industry, including fossil fuel production, cattle ranching, soy and palm oil extraction, mining and logging. This industrial need for resources have increased road construction in the forests to make the region more accessible.
It’s what brought Txai Suruí, a member of the Suruí tribe, to the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. The 24-year-old climate activist spoke to global leaders at the conference and drew attention to the devastating ecological and climate disasters that plague her land.
“Climate change and its consequences is something nature has been trying to warn us about for a long time, but we never listened,” she said in an interview before the climate summit. “Nature is saying ‘we don’t have any more time, we don’t have time to slow down, we have to stop.’ Nature is begging for help.”
Brazil went to the summit with ambitious climate promises, including slashing emissions by 50% and it also joined other nations in agreeing to end illegal deforestation entirely by 2030, as well as achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
But many questioned the credibility of the country’s promises given its recent track record. An analysis shows that deforestation in the Amazon increased by 33% in the first ten months of 2021, compared to the first ten months of 2020. In October, a group of climate lawyers urged the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro for his alleged attacks on the Amazon forests, which they describe as “crimes against humanity.”
For now, the women intend to keep fighting to defend their land and forests, the lungs of the planet, from climate change and more industrial activities.
“The forest is our pharmacy, the supermarket, it is our way of life,” Paiakan said. “Nature is part of us, and hurting nature hurts us.”
“This is a story from our ancestors, which is part of us. We lived here a long time,” she said. “For a White man, they don’t see value. They value devastation to plant soy and big plantations. To us, nature is a natural wealth, it is capital wealth.”