Indigenous leader and human rights defender Alessandra Korap Munduruku of Brazil, winner of the 2020 RFK Human Rights Award, discusses her path to becoming a human rights defender, the struggle of her people, and what the award means to her. This conversation has been translated from the original in Portuguese.
What shaped your decision to become a human rights defender? Did a particular moment or experience inspire you to commit to this work?
I made my decision to defend human rights, especially Indigenous peoples’ rights, in 2015 when I learned more about how our territory has been negatively impacted by major government projects, including infrastructure projects, logging, mining, hydroelectric dams, bulk ports, railways, and waterways. We kept losing land where we walked to hunt and fish, where we would search for fruits, seeds, and roots, and even straw. The area was deforested. The machines went through it to build roads. The other impact was near the river, where ports and docks were being built to store soy. We could no longer go by the river to fish and cook or spend the weekend.
Before I joined the struggle in defense of our territory and resources, I was a teacher for two years. I taught children between the ages of 3 and 5. I realized then that my fight was not only inside the classroom. I wanted more. I wanted to fight for our lands, so I searched for more opportunities and began to participate more in my community. At the beginning, I just observed and did not speak much. I was very shy, but in 2015 I began to participate more. Then, the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) held workshops and talked about the rights of Indigenous peoples. When they told us we had rights, I realized that I had to learn more and that I had to be in this fight. I started asking more questions and I have not stopped ever since.
The person who motivated me the most was Maria Leusa Cosme Kaba, a great warrior from the Upper Tapajós. Today, she is the founder and coordinator of the Munduruku Wakoborun Women’s Association. She always inspired me to become a leader for my people. My mom used to argue with me and tell me to not speak up. She told me to stay quiet and know my place. The only people who could speak up were the chiefs, only the men could make decisions. I did not want this role, this role of only taking care of children and a husband and working in agriculture. I wanted more.
It was not easy at first because the chiefs did not accept that women spoke. That we had meetings with only women. We observed that men are better at carrying weight and hunting, but we have to look at both sides. We need to ask whether we are leaving behind animals, if the children are going to be hungry, if the plants need to be watered. We women always care for the things around us. We have to defend our territory, our rivers. Our village is a reserve, so it is small. We have to fight for the territory to guarantee its integrity for future generations. We are in a fight against big government projects that want to kill us. We are in a fight for the demarcation of our territory.
What advice do you have for young girls, particularly young Indigenous girls, about chasing their dreams and standing up for what they believe in?
I want to tell all the little girls to never give up on their dreams. When we leave our homes, we should always remember that we leave something very important in the territory. We should always remember where we came from. Humans urgently need to defend their own people. As women, we are often discriminated against, so I want to tell girls to show respect, always listen, but also always persist in being part of the collective decision.
What was the significance behind the beautiful face painting you wore during the awards ceremony?
Indigenous peoples’ face paintings represent a moment of celebration. There are specific Indigenous paintings for women and men. Each Indigenous community has its own traditional paintings. Ours has been used for a long time. In Brazil, we have more than 305 Indigenous peoples. The Munduruku have several types of face and body paintings, all of which have a meaning, including the tortoise, cotton, and kurap. My painting was more part of the kurap. I use it during moments of celebration, of festivities.
You’ve said that Amazon deforestation and devastation are about far more than fire. What are the broader threats to the Munduruku people’s health and safety, equity, and way of life?
Today, the Indigenous population suffers greatly due to mining. We also have data now about our people who are sick, contaminated with mercury. The other issue is that there is no potable water. Imagine—we are in the middle of the Amazon, in the middle of the forest, but we do not have potable water. Many Indigenous peoples have to drink dirty water because of mining, due to the invaders who have been encroaching on our territory.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the situation?
COVID-19 has entered the territory and killed many of our leaders. We had to look for a solution. The Pariri Indigenous Association and the Wakoborun Women's Association tried to prevent people from dying. Many of the people who became infected with COVID-19 and who went to the city to recover had to go to intensive care. They never returned to the village and were buried in the city. We were very worried. Even within all the sadness for our losses, we had to find our inner strength.
We launched campaigns to help the Indigenous populations. We campaigned for hospitals for our villages. We went to get respirators. We searched for masks, hygienic materials, and basic food supplies during the isolation period. While we were trying to isolate, the government was opening doors. The president himself was saying that there was no virus, it was just a little flu. He always mocked the seriousness of the virus. We knew he did not like the Indigenous peoples, but we did not imagine that he didn’t like anyone—poor, Black, Quilombolas. We had to figure things out. We knew since the beginning, since the elections, that he would not give us back or protect even an inch of land. We knew there was a high risk for us.
Despite the pain we have experienced during the pandemic, we have had to fight to survive. We have searched for traditional medicine, searched for shamans and healers. Many of our people have been cured with home medicine. This is why you should not deforest nature. The place where more home medicine exists, where there are more standing forests, is in the Indigenous lands, but they are being threatened by the government. From the beginning the president encouraged people not to isolate, but we stayed isolated. However, more and more invaders kept coming to explore mining in the territory. The government wants to take our territory to exploit its natural resources for the benefit of other countries. Its promise is that the Amazon is for sale, that it can be explored. This is dangerous for us because this is where we live, where our people are. We have to live, to survive in order to keep fighting. We cannot give up on our home, our territory, and our rivers. We cannot give up on our river, even if it is sick. We will take care of it. Despite this genocidal government, we continue fighting every day to survive.
What does receiving the RFK Human Rights Award mean to you? How do you plan to partner with the organization to create more awareness about the plight of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon?
I am so honored to receive the 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. This award will help strengthen our fight in defense of the territory and bring hope to the resistance. I dedicate this award to all the women, children, chiefs, and warriors in this fight whom many have not heard.
The partnership must continue. Not only with the Munduruku people, but also with other Indigenous peoples who are suffering from the invasions. The people in Mato Grosso, for instance, are suffering due to the challenges involving soybeans plantations. One person owns several hectares while Indigenous peoples are not entitled to land. The world must hear not only our screams of suffering but also our chants of happiness.
I hope that the RFK Human Rights Award will help us spread more knowledge about human rights, particularly the situation of Indigenous peoples who are suffering from the greatest genocide and the denial of their rights to territory, and who are currently threatened by Bill 191. This bill is in the process of the Chamber of Deputies and would legalize mining, the construction of hydroelectric dams, and oil drilling. RFK Human Rights can help raise awareness of our fight to defend our territory, and help let the world know that we are here. The government cannot hide the deaths of Indigenous peoples and the destruction of rivers and forests. The world needs to know that we have human rights. Our people, forests, and rivers must be respected and protected.
Lastly, it is important to note that many Indigenous peoples do not know what is happening within their territory. It is of paramount importance that we bring them this knowledge and information.