WORDS BY ELIANE BRUM
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LILIANA MERIZALDE
No one understands the violence being committed against the Amazon Rainforest like the Indigenous women who call it home. With deforestation rates at an all-time high under a tyrannical right-wing regime, the women of the forest are fighting for their lives to save the most biodiverse place on Earth.
On July 6, 2019, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro made the following public statement: “Brazil [referring to the Amazon] is the virgin that every foreign pervert wants.” In the vast archive of racist, misogynistic, homophobic, violence-inciting sentences uttered by Bolsonaro in his 30 years as a professional politician, none have so effectively revealed how Bolsonaro views and treats the planet’s largest tropical forest, which is strategic for controlling global heating. For Bolsonaro, the Amazon is a woman whose body belongs to him, for him to do as he pleases with. Not long before making this declaration, he had criticized “gay tourism” in Brazil, though not without giving hetero tourism the green light: “[But] whoever wants to come here to have sex with women, feel free.”
For this far-right head of state, the issue isn’t sexual assault but rather the power to define which bodies are available for assault—based on his own personal morality. He deems himself a “righteous man” because he does not accept the exploitation of one man’s body by another. According to the way he interprets the Bible, in line with Brazil’s increasingly influential neo-Pentecostal Evangelicalism, only women’s bodies can be exploited by men. Once the bodies have been defined as female, the remaining dispute is over which “perverts” are going to abuse both forest and women. As Bolsonaro sees it, Brazilian women are available for the foreign perverts who come to spend their dollars in Brazil. In the case of the forest, however, the foreign perverts are said to be using the excuse of protecting the Amazon to challenge Brazil’s sovereignty over a land rich in ore. So, the problem is not abuse but an alleged threat to body ownership. For Bolsonaro, it’s impossible to understand any discussion about the forest or women outside the logic of exploitation and ownership. Bolsonaro thinks and acts like a pimp: His priority is ensuring rule over exploited bodies in order to guarantee profit. In an age of elected despots, Brazil’s president shows us to what degree the moral dogmas founded on the pillars of patriarchy and gender binarism are intrinsically bound up with an exacerbation of the capitalist model, which has consumed nature and brought the planet to this climate emergency.
In the Amazon, women’s leadership in the fight against predatory exploitation has grown during the twenty-first century, a trend that became even stronger in the 2010s—and that continues growing. This represents a major turning point, reflecting an emerging phenomenon throughout conflict zones across much of the planet. Last year in Brazil, hundreds of indigenous women occupied Brasilia, the country’s federal capital and political center, in what was the first women’s march in the history of the movement of indigenous peoples in Brazil. Long before that, starting in 2000, tens of thousands of women from Brazil’s countryside, forests, and cities began staging periodic marches known as Marchas das Margaridas. The namesake Margarida was murdered because she fought for agrarian reform in a country where land is concentrated largely in the hands of the few. Much before Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who inspired millions of teens to engage in civil disobedience in order to force adults to wake up to the climate emergency, women of all ages have been leading the fight against the system that has exhausted the Earth. They know they are hardest hit by the climate apartheid that proceeds apace under such rulers as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro. In Pará—the most violent state in the Brazilian Amazon, the leader in deforestation, and the epicenter of the deliberately set fires that devastated the forest in 2019—women are likewise at the forefront of the struggle. Maria Leusa Munduruku, Juma Xipaya, Bel and Anita Yudjá, and Socorro do Burajuba have emerged as leaders in a forest stained by their people’s blood.
These women place their bodies in the way of the accelerated advance of Bolsonarism’s key project, announced during the 2018 election campaign: to open protected areas of the Amazon to mining, soybeans, cattle production, and massive construction projects like hydroelectric dams, highways, and railroads. Since taking power, Bolsonaro has raced to dismantle the environmental legislation crafted over recent decades. The thieves of public lands known as “grileiros” went so far as to proclaim a “fire day” in support of the president’s project—and no one stopped them. On the announced date, August 10, 2019, the number of fires increased by more than 700 percent in the city of Altamira. In December, Bolsonaro signed a provisional measure legalizing the areas that had been invaded over the previous year, rewarding this forest thievery and handing the criminals land deeds. The measure fueled land conflicts and resulted in more death threats and murders of forest dwellers and family farmers, who combine food production with ecosystem preservation. Bolsonaro inaugurated 2020 by introducing a bill that authorizes mining and major construction works on indigenous lands.
Since 60 percent of the Amazon lies inside Brazil’s borders, Bolsonaro now has the power to doom the world. The far-rightist doesn’t have a nuclear arsenal like his colleagues Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, but he has used the state apparatus to destroy the forest that quite literally serves as the planet’s heart, pumping not blood but an estimated 20 trillion liters of water into the atmosphere every 24 hours. Scientists like Antonio Nobre name this a “flying river.” It’s a daily apotheosis of science and poetry: The forest breathes and saves the planet every day. But with deforestation having exploded during the first year of this extreme-right government, the Amazon is now closer than ever to the tipping point, the dramatic moment when the forest will become a savanna. A climate denier, Bolsonaro and his court argue that the climate emergency is a “Marxist plot.”
Women’s leadership in the fight for the biome on which the future of the species depends has altered the intensity of this resistance: They have proven themselves to be tougher combatants, less pervious to all brands of corruption. Because of this sense of determination, Maria Leusa Munduruku, one of the Amazon’s most amazing warriors, has a price on her head: one hundred grams of gold. When she speaks up at public events, she usually has a baby sucking on her breast or snuggled against her chest to sleep closer to its mother’s heart. It’s tempting to compare her to a warrior Madonna. It’s even right there in her name: Maria. But years ago, her people sent a letter to the white world’s authorities, voicing their rejection of hydroelectric power plants in the forest. And they made a point of reminding the pariwats, as they call both non-indigenous people and their enemies, that “our ancestors are more ancient than Jesus Christ.”
The grileiros and miners want her dead. Maria Leusa, however, won’t retreat. And she misses no public opportunity to repeat, “Our inspiration is the old warrior Wakubaran, who fought for justice many years ago. He cut off his enemies’ heads. We follow this line. If need be, we’ll cut off some heads.”
For the Munduruku leader, breastfeeding her baby is in no way incompatible with simultaneously threatening to cut off heads. The connection is obvious. It’s the same love that moves her to do the former and threaten the latter. The Munduruku women warriors built their own, much more radical version of the Me Too movement a long time ago.
“We’re on the frontline because we’ve realized men are too trusting of authorities. And they take money easy, too. It’s true, mining makes more money, but we’re showing them that mining destroys our children’s future,” says Maria Leusa. “It’s up to us to protect our people. We know we can’t wait for the government or police to do it. We do it.”
And they do. Side by side with the men, the women of the Munduruku people have destroyed the equipment of the wildcat miners who invade their lands or dig up river bottoms to wrest out gold. They also burn boats built with timber stolen from the forest by loggers. Under the administration of the center-left Workers’ Party, they auto-demarcated the Sawré Muybu territory, where the authorities had wanted to build a hydroelectric dam and therefore refused to recognize their rights. In recent years, they have become the main force in resisting the ambitions of all the administrations that have tried to dam up rivers in the Tapajós basin, where their people live, and on other Amazon rivers as well.
Damming the Tapajós, a river so blue it almost burns the eyes, is the declared goal of the far-rightist Bolsonaro, as it was the goal of his predecessors. The tragedy of the Brazilian Amazon is that when in power, both the left and the right have treated the forest as an object. What rulers call “resources” the indigenous call “mother.”
However, none of the earlier administrations have proven as brutal as Bolsonaro. The Munduruku women warriors are preparing for an even more violent year of struggle. They already gave a show of strength in late 2019: They went into the Alta Floresta Museum, in the state of Mato Grosso, and took back what whites think of as tombs, but what the indigenous know to be their ancestors’ spirits. They took them back because the imprisoned spirits were crying out. They wrote in a letter:
“We rescued the mother of fish, the mother of peccaries, the mother of turtles, the mother of tortoises, the mother of tracajás, and others that you, pariwat, don’t understand. They are our ancestors’ spirits. They have been suffering ever since the Teles Pires and São Manoel hydroelectric power plants destroyed our holy places (Karobixexe and Dekoka’a) and left them imprisoned in a place they shouldn’t be, leaving our people to suffer the consequences…Guided by our wise pajés, who hear the spirits’ lamentations, we entered the museum to fulfill our obligation to visit them and take them food. When the pajés spoke to the spirits, they were very angry. The pajés heard a lot of crying and saw their suffering, and that’s why they had to be freed urgently. It wasn’t only the pajés who felt it; everyone felt the spirits screaming odaxijom [help]. What the pariwat see as objects, our pajés know to be our ancestors.”
The Munduruku women warriors walk together, taking their children to what urban activists would call “direct actions.” The children learn how to resist and act collectively from the example of their mothers. They are raised in a community, taken care of, fed, and educated to have confidence in the collective. Milk and war. This image of women fighting as their babies hang against their breasts is in direct opposition to the current administration’s project—both in terms of objective economic relations and in terms of the view of women and maternity from the perspective of patriarchy. As Bolsonaro’s declarations have shown, conservatism in customs and the exploitation of the Amazon obey the same logic and serve the same body-colonizing project. Unless this intimate political relationship is understood, it’s impossible to understand the brutal destruction of the forest.
Shortly after taking office, Damares Alves, current minister of women, family, and human rights, released a video where she proclaimed that Brazil was entering “a new era”: “Girls wear pink, boys wear blue.” The minister, who is a neo-Pentecostal Evangelical pastor, had previously founded an NGO suspected of trafficking and kidnapping indigenous children and inciting hatred against the indigenous, in addition to having adopted an indigenous girl through irregular channels. Alves’s prime credentials for her office are her frenzy to control women’s bodies and her fervor to evangelize indigenous people—simply another way of controlling bodies, also with economic goals. If the minister of women is an opponent of the feminists who take to urban streets with their chests bared to say “my body, my rules,” her power project, expressed through moralization, also puts her in direct opposition to the female warriors of the forest, like Maria Leusa.
Since women began playing a leadership role in the Amazon struggles, the tone of public meetings has also changed. Today, the first rows of chairs are filled mostly by women. In hearings to discuss reparations for the environmental and human damages caused by construction of the Belo Monte dam, Bel Yudjá’s remarks are always the most anticipated. When Bel gets up to speak, whoever has nodded off wakes up. Tiny, with delicate features, she points her finger and does not mince words when she aims directly at those she considers “assassins of the Xingu River and its people.” Bel becomes a giant, and large men shrink—neck-tied white men don’t know how to handle such direct speech. Bel obliterates protocol and rips the suit-and-tie armor off the authorities from Brasilia. When asked where she gets the strength of hers that silences hundreds of people, she tells me, “It comes from anger. Anger at those people with the same old talk as always, while our river dies and our people are threatened. There are times you feel like doing something stupid and raising your hands to one of those guys.”
Bel and her people live in the region known as Volta Grande do Xingu. And Volta Grande do Xingu is experiencing ecocide. The Belo Monte hydroelectric power project, touted as one of the world’s biggest, was built by violating a long series of human and environmental rights. More than 20 lawsuits have been filed against it with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. In the words of public prosecutor Thais Santi, who has relentlessly denounced “the imminent death of the Xingu”—one of the Amazon’s biggest and most important rivers—“today, one company holds life and death power when it decides how much water there is in the river.”
Norte Energia S.A., the company that operates Belo Monte, denies all accusations against it. When contacted by Atmos, it stated that the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant has followed the steps required by the Brazilian government for obtaining authorizations for project implementation and that the project has been duly licensed and has a valid Operating License. The company also said that its operations are grounded in best practices in social and environmental responsibility and human rights policies.
In the same region, the Canadian mining firm Belo Sun has been pushing for years, through attorneys and lobbyists, to obtain a license to operate what has been announced as “Brazil’s biggest open-pit gold mine.” Belo Sun has been pressuring indigenous villages and traditional forest peoples in Volta Grande, but it has never enjoyed as favorable a climate as now, when the Brazilian government is explicitly defending the opening of indigenous lands to mining. If these two destructive forces—Belo Monte and Belo Sun—come together, scientists say the entire Volta Grande do Xingu region will be finished off, unleashing a chain of repercussions. And likewise finishing off the long saga of Bel Yudjá’s people.
When contacted by Atmos, Belo Sun sent a note: “The licensing of Belo Sun Mining’s Volta Grande Project follows all pertinent rites and the company is always at the service of the communities, bodies, and agencies involved in the licensing process. Belo Sun Mining stands by its commitment to the Volta Grande do Xingu region, respecting Brazilian law at the federal, state, and municipal levels.”
“Respect the Amazon, respect our people… We’ve been defending the Amazon with our own lives for centuries! The Xingu, the Amazon, are beings you aren’t capable of seeing or respecting, you know why? Because you aren’t connected to the land, you don’t know what this bond with mother nature is like. Because what kind of child fights to deforest and kill its own mother?”
The Yudjá, also known as the Juruna, see themselves as the great navigators and fishers of the Xingu. For centuries, that was precisely what they were. Being Yudjá without the river is the same as dying. In the late nineteenth century, when white-sponsored persecution and slaughter endangered the existence of the Yudjá as a people, many fled to the river’s headwaters. To grasp the extent of this extermination, note that in 1842, there were 2,000 Yudjá. Less than a century later, in 1916, there were 52. Only 12 people stayed in the Volta Grande region, taking refuge beside the mythic Jericoá waterfall.
Like all the Yudjá fighting today for life in Volta Grande do Xingu, Bel’s family descends from this small nucleus of resistance. They suffered violent repression, to the point of relinquishing their own language to survive, mimetically becoming white. Today, they go on exchange programs to visit their much more numerous relatives, those who migrated to the headwaters. These Yudjá have been able to continue handing down ancestral knowledge thanks to the protection of Xingu Indigenous Park, the first indigenous land recognized by the Brazilian government, in 1961.
Anita Yudjá, Bel’s niece, undertakes the long journey to her relatives’ territory every year. Her mission is to relearn her people’s language and culture and pass it down to new generations, breaking the silence to which they were condemned by the threat of extermination. Language is home, and the Yudjá know they will only have a home when they can reclaim the words capable of saying who they are. At 18 years old, Anita is being prepared to take on the leadership of the Yudjá in the hard years looming ahead, equipped with ancestral knowledge. “If Belo Sun manages to start up, it’s all over,” she warns. Anita knows her ancestors experienced the last end of the world, when whites reached the Middle Xingu. Now, she’s getting ready to face the next.
In November 2019, Anita had a chance to meet young European activists from the Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion movements, along with Russian activist Nadya Tolokonnikova, from the band Pussy Riot, who spent almost two years in a Siberian prison for challenging Vladimir Putin. Gathered in Terra do Meio—Middle Earth, one of the most magnificent regions of the Amazon—the young people of the forest and the young Europeans endeavored to weave an alliance to save the Amazon, as well as a possible future for all. In the climate youth movement inspired by Greta Thunberg, most of the leaders are women, too—like Anuna de Wever and Adélaïde Charlier of Belgium, both of whom reached the Amazon for their meeting with the forest youth after a long sailboat journey from Europe.
The gathering that began in the forest continued in the city of Altamira, the most violent in the Amazon. Under the name “Amazon Center of the World,” the movement is demanding that the centrality of the forest be recognized in the age of the Anthropocene, when the human species has become a force of destruction capable of radically altering the planet’s climate. In the name of shifting what is center and what is periphery at this historical threshold, activists, intellectuals, and scientists from Europe and Brazil met with representatives of the peoples of the forest in the heart of the Amazon, not in a European city. Individuals with ties to grileiros and large landowners went on a social media offensive, labeling the meeting “an attack on Brazil’s sovereignty.”
They were confronted directly by Juma Xipaya. At 28 years old, she has been receiving death threats since the age of 16, due to her fight for the forest. At one time, an anthropologist deemed her people, the Xipaya, extinct. They had to fight not just for their territory but also to prove that they exist. Juma was the first “cacica” (female chief) in the history of the Xipaya indigenous people, according to oral records. From 2015 to early 2018, she led the Tukamã village, on the left bank of the Iriri River, at a time when most leaders of the indigenous peoples impacted by the Belo Monte dam had been paid off with goods from the electrical power company Norte Energia S.A.—such things as flat-screen TVs, mattresses, and processed foods like soda and snacks (which prompted unprecedented food insecurity, including among recently contacted people, and child malnutrition). Brazil’s Public Prosecutor’s Office defined this process as “ethnocide,” but the power company officially justified it as a form of environmental mitigation.
Additionally, Juma has had to deal with what she defines as “machismo” among the indigenous men from her own and other ethnic groups. She tells me that when she was still an adolescent, one of her uncles was bothered by the fact that a young woman was playing such an active role and threatened to “eat out her still beating heart.” As a leader of her people, she stood up against powerful interests involved in the Belo Monte process. She says five attempts were made on her life within six months in 2017, but the authorities have no registered crimes or suspects. When her second child was three months old, she tells the threats forced her to hole up in a house in the city for 30 days. Her sister took food to her. Juma denounced her situation to the United Nations and considered seeking exile in Switzerland. But she preferred to go back to the Amazon. Today she’s a medical student in Altamira. Armed men have gone after her twice at the university.
At the “Amazon Center of the World” gathering in Altamira, the grileiros and their supporters huddled together on the right side of the audience because, as they declared, “the right is our place.” Then, they started engaging in provocation. When it was Juma’s turn to talk, she stood up and pointed her finger directly at them: “If you say the Amazon belongs to Brazil, why aren’t you fighting to defend the Amazon? You don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, you don’t know what it’s like to have your homes invaded, you don’t know what it’s like to be kicked off your land.” At this point one of the most dangerous grileiros, linked to a number of conflicts and suspected of ordering various murders in the Amazon, stood up and almost jabbed his finger into the young indigenous woman’s chest. For men like him, being challenged by a woman is a humiliation not to be forgotten.
Juma was not intimidated. She raised her voice louder and went on, “You invade our lands, you hand over our ore, you do away with our life, and you don’t want to hear our voice. Respect the Amazon, respect our people, who die every day, whose women are raped every day, who have their hands cut off for defending their lands. We’ve been defending the Amazon with our own lives for centuries! The Xingu, the Amazon, are beings you aren’t capable of seeing or respecting, you know why? Because you aren’t connected to the land, you don’t know what this bond with mother nature is like. Because what kind of child fights to deforest and kill its own mother? What kind of children are you? What kind of Brazilians? I feel pity. Not for you. I pity future generations. Your children and grandchildren. You don’t have the right to wipe out our future generation.” Before leaving the gathering, Raoni Metuktire, Brazil’s great indigenous leader and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, called on everyone to protect Juma.
Yet, why is it that women have taken this place on the frontlines of these forest struggles? In each of their stories, their shift in position occurred right when the threat of extermination grew too great. Mining operations by large transnational companies and the projects to build major hydroelectric dams in the Amazon—the latter first put in place by the Workers’ Party (2003-2016) and now resumed by Jair Bolsonaro—were decisive in making women realize that, since men had been corrupted by money and material goods, they needed to take over the struggle for the future. In other cases, women took charge because the men had been murdered.
With an understanding of their bodies as linked to the cycles of nature and the reproduction of life, these women also seem to have perceived the emergence of the climate crisis. Indigenous, they do not own the forest. To the contrary, the forest owns them. Flesh of their flesh, the living forest suffers, explains Maria Leusa Munduruku: “Because of the government, the forest is shedding tears. Tears that fall like milk from our breasts.”
The battle for the Amazon is the great battle of our day. It will be fought by women like Maria Leusa, Juma, Bel, Anita, and the many others who will continue to appear. In one of the many versions of Greek mythology, the Amazons were portrayed as having torn off their right breasts to more easily use their bows and arrows. The real Amazons of the climate collapse would never mutilate their bodies. They use their breasts to nourish women warriors.
Special thanks to Maurilo Clareto. Translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty.
This article appears in Volume 03: Flourish/Collapse of Atmos.
Nature is a delicate balance of expansion and collapse, flourish and famine, growth and decay. Have human beings permanently disrupted this cycle, throwing the wheel off its axis, or are we just paving way for the next species to thrive? Is it still possible for us to return to a point of flourishing without collapse? Explore these questions with the Extinction Rebellion, the women warriors of the Amazon, and more of our heroes on the frontlines of conservation. Featuring contributions from Sylvia Earle, Elizabeth L. Cline, Ben Toms, Sam Rock, Stefanie Moshammer, Liliana Merizalde, Kristin-Lee Moolman, Gareth McConnell, Pieter Hugo, Simon Armitage, and more.