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Meet the indigenous people fighting to preserve the Amazon

To mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we visit the Amazon’s indigenous activists working to defend the rainforests against deforestation and land grabs

Sarah Hutchison
Sunday 08 August 2021 00:01 BST
Txai Suruí, a young indigenous activist who lives in Rondonia in the Brazilian Amazon, is an inspirational environmentalist
Txai Suruí, a young indigenous activist who lives in Rondonia in the Brazilian Amazon, is an inspirational environmentalist (Kanindé)

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, and a vital ally in the fight against the climate crisis. Critically, the Amazon stores an estimated 200 billion tons of carbon in its soils and vegetation, yet large swathes of forest are being cleared for human use, pushing it closer to a tipping point.

More than 35 million people live in the Amazon, including almost three million indigenous peoples from over 350 indigenous groups – more than anywhere in the world. They have lived in the Amazon for millennia but face the destruction of their forest home due to illegal deforestation, habitat conversion and the resulting fires.

Recent analysis by WWF highlighted the crucial role of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) in protecting nature and biodiversity globally. It found that 91 per cent of IPLC lands are in “good” or “fair” ecological condition, demonstrating IPLC’s effective environmental guardianship.

Many of these lands, including areas of the Amazon, are home to some of the richest biodiversity in the world, while also being under serious threat from developers wanting to put the land to unsustainable human use such as agriculture or mining. There is an urgent need to uphold indigenous people’s rights to lands, territories and resources, not only to safeguard their well-being, but also to support them in their globally important efforts to tackle climate change and prevent biodiversity loss.

Awapy Uru-eu-wau-wau, a chief of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, Rondônia, Brazil (Marizilda Cruppe, WWF-UK)

Awapy Uru-eu-wau-wau, Brazil

Awapy Uru-eu-wau-wau, a cacique (chief) of the Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous people, heads up surveillance of the Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous land in Rondônia, Brazil, recording land invasions and illegal deforestation. He and his family have received death threats as they attempt to protect their home from armed invaders. “Nature is important to me because I was born in the jungle, I grew up in the jungle, and my father taught me how to deal with nature,” he says. “Nature, for us, is the life of us indigenous peoples. Why? It gives pure oxygen, it gives natural food to us, hunting, fishing, native fruits of the jungle, medicine – so, it is important to us, because we live off the jungle.”

Chela Elena Umire is a member of the Ecosystem Services Assessment Technical Team in La Chorrera, Colombian Amazon (Luis Barreto, WWF-UK)

Chela Elena Umire, Colombia

Chela Elena Umire is a member of the local community Ecosystem Services Assessment (ESA) Technical Team. She lives with her family in La Chorrera town, in the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve in the Colombian Amazon.

WWF and the Puerto Rastrojo Foundation are working with the indigenous community of La Chorrera, bringing together traditional knowledge and conservation science to survey their forest territory and analyse the value of the natural resources found within it, such as medicinal plant species, from an indigenous viewpoint. Chela shares these findings with leaders of the local indigenous community to strengthen decision-making and governance. ​

An Ecosystem Services Assessment Technical Team on the Igara Paraná River, Colombian Amazon (Luis Barreto, WWF-UK)

She also maintains local traditions by weaving baskets out of palm leaves, and designs and makes traditional dresses and accessories for indigenous community events.

Chela is passionate about protecting the forest for future generations. “My dream for the whole of the Amazon is that we all benefit from a healthy environment,” she says. “That the river follows its natural course; that the forests are kept; and we preserve it in the same way that our grandparents did, [using] the knowledge they gave us, without having to destroy it. That the Amazon could be a place where there is peace.”

Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo co-founded the Kanindé Ethno Environmental Defense Association (Marizilda Cruppe, WWF-UK)

Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, Brazil

Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo is a human rights and environmental activist who co-founded the Kanindé Ethno Environmental Defense Association to protect the rights of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples and the environment.

Although not born into an indigenous community, Neidinha married and had children with an indigenous chief and considers herself to be of the Suruí people. Neidinha stands alongside the indigenous Amazon peoples to stop the destruction of the rainforest, battling against those trying to grab their lands and exploit them for profit, an act which comes with grave risks: “We can’t walk down the road safely anymore,” she says. “At any moment, someone might come past who is fighting for the loggers, for the guerrillas, and shoot you.”

She adds: “Indigenous and local women have a fundamental role. When a woman protects the forest, she is also taking care of the culture of the people who live there, and their ancestors, because she transmits knowledge and customs to her children and grandchildren – future generations. When women go to the front line, the focus is on protecting the collective, the planet; it is not a local fight. When we go out to fight, we are more ferocious. We are like jaguars protecting our cubs.”

Txai Suruí, a young indigenous activist who lives in Rondonia in the Brazilian Amazon (Kanindé)

Txai Suruí, Brazil

Txai Suruí is a young indigenous activist who lives in Rondonia in the Amazon. She is the daughter of Neidinha, and like her mother is also an inspirational environmentalist. ​She has studied law and now works with the Kanindé legal team to protect indigenous communities’ rights and territory.

“Preserving the Amazon is to preserve human existence itself,” she says. “Preserving indigenous peoples’ rights is to preserve the animals, [the] medicinal plants. My message for everyone is to listen to what indigenous communities have to say, and support their cause, and protect their homes. Everything is linked, so to protect the forest and indigenous communities is to protect the world’s future.”

Txai founded a young people’s movement and is one of six young climate activists to sue the Brazilian government for altering its 2005 carbon baseline to meet carbon reduction goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Her family’s lives have been threatened and they are under police protection due to their activism. She harbours fears, too, around the lasting impact of coronavirus – “it could lead to a genocide in indigenous communities – our people are more prone to respiratory diseases – it could take away part of our culture.”

José Jesús Zafiama, a school teacher and a former member of the Ecosystem Services Assessment Technical Team, La Chorrera, Colombian Amazon (WWF-UK)

José Jesús Zafiama, Colombia

José Jesús Zafiama is from the La Chorrera indigenous community and is a former member of the Ecosystem Services Assessment (ESA) Technical Team. José is now a teacher at the local school and draws on his experience to explain the value of the forest to schoolchildren, and shares knowledge about the ecosystem services the forest provides with the local community.

Children in class playing a board game specially developed to teach them the value of the forest, La Chorrera, Colombian Amazon (Luis Barreto, WWF-UK)

When asked about his approach to teaching, José explained that the children are motivated by educational games, including board games that have been specially developed to teach about the value of the forest. “We develop amazing relationship[s] with the children. They get very excited. Without realising it, they are learning what we have in our territory while they play the game.”

He continues: “The hope I have for the children is that, being in this world, with all the changes it is going through, they realise that the world is just one. The idea is to share the knowledge, so that they can pass [it] on to other children, or their children, and that later this can be known on an international level.”

Polonia Supepi Cuasace is president of the Women Producer’s Association, Rio Blanco, Bolivian Amazon (Marizilda Cruppe, WWF-UK)

Polonia Supepi Cuasace, Bolivia

Polonia Supepi Cuasace lives in the indigenous Monte Verde territory in the Chiquitano Dry Forest, Bolivia, and is president of the Women Producer’s Association (WPA). The women have run a thriving business, extracting essential oils from trees and using these to produce creams, shampoos and soaps to sell. Their work helps to conserve the forest, as well as provide livelihoods for her community.

However, the past two years have been particularly tough. In 2019, fires swept through the forest, destroying 30 per cent of the oil-producing trees, and now the women are struggling through the coronavirus pandemic, which has restricted their ability to sell their products.

“In the beginning we arrived to help extinguish the fire but even the earth was burning so there was nothing we could do,” says Polonia. “I went with my husband to bring water to try and extinguish the fire, alongside the children, who helped, too, before they were evacuated. I will always [help], because these are my lands. The forest is like my second home and I feel like I always have to be there.”

However, there is hope for Polonia and her local land: following the fires, the trees have started regenerating. This year, forest nurseries began producing seedlings that will be planted to restore damaged areas.

Find out more about the issues that face Indigenous peoples and local communities in the Amazon here

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