Q&A with Brazilian indigenous leader Alessandra Munduruku

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  • Alessandra Munduruku recently spoke at the Global Climate Strike and presented the Munduruku Consultation Protocol to the European Parliament, tabling complaints about rights violations faced by indigenous peoples in Brazil.
  • While in Berlin, the Brazilian indigenous leader told Mongabay about the on-the-ground impacts of agribusiness expansion and infrastructure development in the Amazon.

SANTARÉM, Brazil, and BERLIN — I got off the mototaxi, a means of transportation that is part of everyday life in several cities in the Amazon, took off the helmet and looked for the two boys waiting for me at the front door of a house. They showed me a path in the backyard, between areas flooded by the Tapajós River. It was May, winter in the state of Pará, which means rain and flooding of the rivers. The temperature outside was 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). The two boys guided me to their mother, Alessandra Korap Munduruku.

A few weeks earlier, the three of them had moved from the indigenous community of Praia do Índio, a vital point of existence for the Munduruku people, in the city of Itaituba — one of the core areas of agribusiness in Brazil, where grain storage silos cover a greater area than forest. They now lived in the city of Santarém, where Alessandra is enrolled in the graduate law program at the Federal University of the West of Pará (Ufopa). Alessandra and the boys were still coming to terms with the fact that everything in the city had to be paid for: water, food, even playing on the soccer field next to the house. For the first time, they were living outside a system of communal production and sharing — of not only food, but also decision-making processes.

Four months later, in September, I met Alessandra again, this time in Berlin. The temperature was then 12 degrees Celsius (53 degrees Fahrenheit), she was more serious, and finding it hard to get used to German food. We met during the only gap in her agenda, which was packed full of meetings with European parliamentarians. But she was still willing to talk about the Munduruku people, who today comprise some 13,000 individuals, according to the Brazilian Ministry of Health.

It was the second time we had met in Berlin; a few days earlier we had shared a roundtable discussion at an art space called Savvy Contemporary. She caught the attention of the audience of about 120 people, making them uneasy in their chairs: “To talk about fires in the Amazon, first we have to talk about invasion, pesticides, mining, the responsibility of European companies and even researchers who enter our lands without our authorization.”

That week, she spoke at the Global Climate Strike and presented the Munduruku Consultation Protocol to the European Parliament, tabling complaints about rights violations faced by indigenous peoples in Brazil. Alessandra was the first female president of the Pariri Association, which represents the Munduruku people of the Middle Tapajós River, and has since become one of the main indigenous leaders in the country.

The gap between our two meetings emphasized just how much environmental issues in Brazil were being raised again and again at the international level. In our interview in Berlin, conducted in Portuguese, Alessandra spoke about the situation of indigenous populations under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, the rise in invasions of indigenous lands in recent months, and the role of women in the land rights struggle.

Alessandra Korap Munduruku in Berlin, preparing the speech that was read at the Global Climate Strike in September 2019). Image by Marco Mota/Fórum da Amazônia Oriental (Faor).

Mongabay: At the Global Climate Strike demonstration, 270,000 people took to the streets of Berlin, according to German police data. You spoke at the Brandenburg Gate to this crowd. What potential do you see in this mobilization and what is the role of the international claims that have been made by various indigenous leaders?

Alessandra Korap Munduruku: That day showed that the German population is interested in listening and doing something. And that there are many people with the same will all over the world. But all this attention on the Amazon was awakened by the images of fires in the trees. We, the indigenous peoples, have been shouting about it since much earlier.

The free actions of agribusiness companies and loggers, in addition to the construction of hydroelectric plants, ports and railways in an accelerated manner, are a continuous way of destroying the Amazon. We have not been heard in recent years, and the situation has worsened under the Bolsonaro government. So I hope the mobilization will continue. But there is no point in just having the will to do something. Europeans and people all over the world have to act, starting by listening to the people who really know the forests. I came precisely to show that what happens in Brazil is also Europe’s responsibility.

Germany is one of the countries with strong public environmental discourse, but whose companies, at the same time, also have negative impacts in Brazil. What was the expectation of the visit?

I had a busy schedule in Berlin: Meetings with several parliamentarians to demand that they monitor the practices of German companies in Brazil and to present the Munduruku Consultation Protocol. We have our rights of consultation, which are provided for in Convention 169 [of the International Labour Organization]. We want to know where the detailed information about German and European companies is, about their impacts in Brazil, and not only after the damage has been done. We need to be consulted before any activities are planned in our territories.

I imagine that in Germany, the population has more right to discuss infrastructure works with great impact before they start. So it is not an equal relationship. In the same way, the Europeans need to be informed about the products they consume. They are responsible for seeking this information as well. So we came to talk, and we were heard. We claim that Germany has to sign Convention 169, for instance. We, indigenous peoples, see no point in saying that Germany is one of the most forest-friendly countries yet lets companies settle in our territory, without the traditional peoples being allowed to be part of the decision-making process. That is the root of deforestation and our suffering.

Convention 169 guarantees the prior, free and informed consultation of indigenous peoples. In practice, what is the meaning of instruments like this for the communities and why have they gained such prominence at this time? Could you tell us a bit more about the goal of the Munduruku Consultation Protocol?

In most cases, we only get to know about enterprises through news in the media. Infrastructure projects are installed inside our house [the Amazon forest] and we are the last to know. This was the case of the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric plant, which we managed to get suspended in 2016. There were public hearings with everything already decided, just wanting the people to say yes. So anyone that wants to talk to us will have to read Convention 169 and the Munduruku Protocol. These documents say that we have the right to say yes or no, or show what should be done, since we know each piece of the river, the forest, everything. There is no point in seeking leadership to answer for the whole people, as the companies try; they have to respect our history. The Munduruku, for instance, have the general cacique [highest representation], who is the cacique Arnaldo. There are also associations [for communities in different parts of the forest]. So our representations need to be respected, that’s how we make decisions. And everyone has a voice, even children.

Media from all over the world have shown the Amazon burning. And data from forest monitoring centers, such as INPE [the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research], point to peaks in deforestation. In practice, what have you seen directly in Munduruku territory?

The invasions of our lands and the fires have increased. The Amazon burns with agribusiness, burns to make room for many infrastructure projects planned in our region of the Tapajós River. There is not enough monitoring or government protection against deforestation on indigenous lands. In July, just before all the news started, we expelled loggers from the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory, during one more stage of our self-demarcation process. We saw our trees cut down, trucks, heavy machinery, and we set a deadline for everyone to get out of there. All the time there are people wanting to enter and deforest illegally, destroying the forest. So it’s not hard to know who’s doing it, it’s no surprise. We walk through the destruction, it’s inside our house. The Amazon has been burning for a long time. We are much older than 519 years [the number of years since Brazil was first colonized by the Portuguese] and we have been fighting ever since.

Alessandra Korap Munduruku at her home in Santarém in May 2019. Image by Camila Nobrega.

Often the Amazon is described as the “lungs of the world.” But this perspective ends up taking the focus away from the many other meanings of the forest. What else is being devastated?

There is no separation between the forest and us, so it means an impact on everything. I went to see the Belo Monte hydropower dam, for example. I saw a pile of dead fish. The company comes, digs a hole and for them the problem is solved. The population there has gotten used to seeing the scene. I cried a lot. And the promises of jobs, health care, schools — none of this came. On the Teles Pires River, they have already built dams and destroyed a sacred place, Karobixexe [Seven Falls]. Garimpo [wildcat gold miners] pollute the river a lot, people get sick, mainly because we eat a lot of fish.

There are 41 hydroelectric projects planned for the Tapajós River. Can you imagine the deforestation, and how it would mean we would be evicted from our lands, from our sacred places? For us, everything is dying: the way we eat, the way we live, our language. The indigenous schools struggle to keep existing. The Tapajós River only has many parts that are still clean because of our struggle. Just look and see how the indigenous peoples have been living [in the forest] for hundreds of years, and the forest is still alive too.

President Jair Bolsonaro says his government is aligned with sustainable development and has reiterated the argument that indigenous peoples should go through a process he calls “insertion into Brazilian society.” One of the justifications for the construction of new projects is the need to provide access to electricity, internet and schools for traditional populations. What do you think of this?

Sustainable development never existed for us. In order to build a hydroelectric plant, it is necessary to deforest and flood. To start a monoculture of soybeans, you need to get people out of the place where they live. What is wrong is how these things are decided and who decides. Just look at the data, which shows that the energy generated in the Amazon does not go to our communities. It goes to the products that are exported to Europe, to other regions of the country, to agribusiness, to industries. However, as a result, people who live along the river will drink contaminated water. A protected forest means it must not be cut down. And we don’t want internet or anything, if it means destroying our territory. We have to be heard when we say how we want things to be done.

Something that has caught the attention of those who follow this agenda is the presence of more and more women as spokespersons for the indigenous movement and protagonists of various actions. What has changed?

More and more women are leaving their homes to fight [for rights]. We are occupying spaces, both inside the communities and in the struggle outside, including in communication matters. Today there are many instruments. We already have the Coletivo Audiovisual Munduruku [Munduruku Audiovisual Collective]. Munduruku women began to see journalists and documentary makers on our land during the self-demarcation of the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory, and decided that they no longer wanted to just carry pots, because in fact we always had an important role in our communities. They thought, “Let’s carry other things.” And they started with the cameras. Technology is an instrument, but the struggle is the same as it has been for centuries.

We also challenge the men, who sometimes get discouraged. We say, “Get up, because we can do it.” We have always had communication tools, there have always been several, not just one. There’s the cellphone, there are letters, there are assemblies. I was the only warrior woman among men for a long time in various places. I think sometimes they thought, “Will she be able to stand it? She has a husband, children…,” but I just went on. Now I am studying and there are more and more women with me [at university]. There was also the March [of the Indigenous Women, in August, in Brasília]. We get more and more united.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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