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Indigenous leader Alessandra Munduruku speaks during a meeting of indigenous leaders and family with the press and researchers, at the University of Brasilia, Brazil, Nov. 21, 2019.
Eraldo Peres/AP
Environment

Indigenous Activist Wins Human Rights Award for Her Work Defending the Amazon

By Fabio Zuker

SAO PAULO, Oct 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Alessandra Munduruku, a leader of Brazil's Munduruku Indigenous community, has seen her home broken into and has been threatened over her work defending her people and their Amazon land from illegal miners and loggers, hydropower plants, and other threats.

On Thursday, the 36-year-old received the Robert F. Kennedy 2020 Human Rights Award for "her work defending the culture, livelihoods, and rights of Indigenous peoples in Brazil."

Her Indigenous community — like many in the Amazon — has long been under pressure from outsiders but the threat has surged as the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro pushes for development of the region, she said.

"More and more, we are being squeezed, very strongly, like [by] a big snake that is trying to choke us," she said.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked her what the $30,000 prize, which she has donated to her Indigenous community, might change — and what comes next.

alessandrakorapmunduruku.pngImage: Courtesy of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

What does winning this prize mean for you and for your people?

I'm very grateful to know that we are being heard. Not only myself but all the Indigenous peoples who are in this cry for help.

[Those pressuring Indigenous communities] will not stop. They will keep going until the Indigenous people are finished. For this reason, the prize means more struggle. It comes to strengthen the Indigenous people.

Some people say, "Alessandra, wow, you are rich." No, I'm not rich.

The greatest wealth I have is this river without a dam, without mining. It means being free. It means not being bothered by any government or company. For me, "progress" is our good life.

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How did you get started as an activist?

I started to get involved in 2015. In the village, we don't have much information. I learned from the Indigenist Missionary Council about Indigenous policy. They taught us about the law.

Our village was being oppressed. Several mining enterprises were being established on our river. Then I picked up the microphone to talk about the [planned, but now suspended] São Luiz do Tapajós dam, to talk about the defense of the territory.

At first, I was very shy. I just watched. We often couldn't speak. Our mothers quarreled with us. They said that the only ones who could speak were the caciques, the leaders, and that I was a woman. But I was gaining space.

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What is the role of Indigenous women in the defense of their territories?

Some people said, "You can't have a meeting of women. What are women going to talk about?"

I had to be persistent, to show that we, the women, could fight on the side of the chiefs. We didn't want to overtake the chiefs, but to walk with them, to have an active voice. And that earned their respect.

Women have the strongest voices. Sometimes we wait for the decision of the chiefs, the warriors. But when women say, "Let's go!" they persist, even if they have babies. Despite the violence, women continue in their resistance.

Many times I have been afraid or sad. Sometimes I have been confused and had to consult the chiefs. I can never decide alone. I have to decide with my relatives.

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In 2019, you moved to the town of Santarém to begin studying law. What drove that?

I was the coordinator of the Pariri Indigenous Association. I had a lot of work within the territory: organizing events, assemblies, meetings of women, meetings with caciques, with young people.

A lawyer at Funai [the Brazilian National Indian Foundation] encouraged me. I said that I didn't have time to study, that it was a waste of time. But the chiefs were happy. "We are going to have a lawyer among us," they said.

The women gave me strength. They said that I had to go to study, that I was going to graduate. I took my children and went.

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What do you think the Amazon, and its people, will look like in another decade or so, if current trends continue?

How will the Indigenous territories be in 20 years? Devastated. The only way is to fight. Even if they threaten you, even if they say they will burn you in the middle of the street.

Mining will always bring death. Death of the river, death of the fish, death of the forest.

Those who want to legalize mining on Indigenous lands are the people who are against health, against education, against the demarcation of indigenous territories, and who do not believe in climate change.

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What can people who live outside the Amazon but are worried about the region and its people do to help?

Many products that leave Brazil [such as beef and soybeans] are consumed by developed countries.

On the other hand, turbines [for Amazon hydropower dams], for example, where do they come from? Here in the Amazon, no company builds a turbine.

There is also no way to make mercury [used in gold mining] here. Changing these imports and exports matters.

As well, people can help pressure the government to demarcate our territory [to give it official status].

(Reporting by Fabio Zuker; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)