From left to right: Elaíze Farias, Marinete Kokama, and Vanda Witoto are Indigenous women working to protect the Amazon. (©Michael Dantas for the UN Foundation)
During a UN Foundation press trip to Brazil last fall, we met three Indigenous women — a nurse, a journalist, and an activist — who are working to protect the Amazon and its original inhabitants in distinct and important ways.
Below, Vanda, Elaíze, and Marinete share how they are standing up and speaking out for Indigenous communities in the world’s largest rainforest.
Vanda Witoto: Fighting for Her Community’s Right to Well-Being and Representation
The road to Vanda Witoto’s house on the outskirts of Manaus, Brazil is rutted with holes and hills of fire ants. She is welcoming a group of global journalists who have come to see firsthand how she and roughly 2,000 other Indigenous residents of the Parque das Tribos (“Tribes Park”) live. Together, the neighborhood contains 35 ethnic groups that speak 14 different languages. When the rains come, she explains, the once-paved streets turn into streams that carry the community’s trash into the nearby Amazon River and one of its tributaries, the Rio Negro. There is no sewage system. There are few street lights. In many ways, residents of this historically neglected neighborhood often feel like they’re on their own.
This proved especially, and devastatingly, true during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The community’s lack of health and sanitation infrastructure meant the virus was able to spread unchecked. “I saw my leader die without oxygen,” she told the Washington Post in 2022. “I saw my relatives being buried.”
Without enough well water to support new hand-washing recommendations, families like Vanda’s couldn’t implement even the most basic of preventive measures. In fact, it wasn’t until January 2021, following months of back-and-forth with municipal agencies, that piped water finally came to Tribes Park.
“The tragedy of the pandemic allowed a kind of magnifying glass to spotlight Indigenous issues,” Vanda says.
Nurse and community leader Vanda Witoto stands in front of her home in the Parque das Tribos in Manaus, Brazil. The historically neglected and mostly indigenous neighborhood is home to families from 35 communities across the Amazon. (©Michael Dantas for the UN Foundation)
For many of her neighbors, there was nowhere else to turn but toward each other. It’s how Vanda, a trained nurse, emerged as a leader in her community and an “ally for our population’s health care,” as she describes herself. When the city’s ambulance refused service to Tribes Park, she drove her sick neighbor to the hospital herself. Even her mother got involved, sewing hundreds of face masks to distribute across the neighborhood. When COVID-19 vaccines became available, she volunteered to be among the first to receive a dose to help quell rampant misinformation and distrust among Indigenous communities.
Last fall, compelled by her experience during the pandemic, Vanda decided to run for a seat in the country’s parliament, joining a historic wave of Indigenous women who sought elected office in Brazil in 2022. “We can’t ask for help from the state when we don’t have representatives who are sensitive to our cause,” she told the Washington Post. “They don’t even know about our existence and have no reason to defend it.”
Her cause extends far beyond health care. She is also fighting for better access to education and political participation for Amazonian communities like hers. Both, she says, are crucial for “rescuing the self-esteem of the Indigenous being, because there is violence against our identities.” Her Indigenous name means angry ant in the Witotoan language — a fitting namesake for someone who believes in the power of the seemingly small but mighty. The ant symbolizes community and collective action in her culture.
Due to a lack of sanitation infrastructure and access to local ambulance services, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the Parque das Tribos neighborhood. (©Michael Dantas for the UN Foundation)
She also goes by another nickname, “Professor Vanda,” for her work mentoring and volunteering with local children. Vanda says she prefers to teach outside — either in her backyard or on the banks of the river — to foster a closer relationship with nature. “We learn about who we are, our mother tongue, how to care for the environment and keep our culture more and more alive,” she shared in an Instagram post last year. During the pandemic, this looked like a revival of Indigenous medicine that draws on a broad array of plants, nuts, flowers, herbs, and seeds found only in the Amazon. In this way, Indigenous health care depends on the health of the rainforest.
Though she lost her first election, Vanda says her experience campaigning across the state of Amazonas and meeting with other Indigenous voters — especially children and young people — only made her more determined to preserve and protect their way of life. Suicide rates among Indigenous youth are disturbingly high, she says. “I don’t want future generations to continue in this struggle. We cannot live like this.”
In the meantime, Vanda continues to speak out. She recently attended the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, where she shared how economic vulnerability and environmental degradation are forcing Indigenous people in Brazil to leave their families and migrate to urban areas like Manaus in search of work, food, and even safe drinking water — a particularly cruel paradox: “The Amazon is the longest freshwater river in the world,” she told the journalists who had gathered at her house. “Yet one of the biggest public health problems faced by riverside and Indigenous peoples is access to uncontaminated water.”
Despite being home to Brazil’s largest Indigenous population, the state of Amazonas has never had an Indigenous representative in congress. But Vanda remains hopeful this will change soon. “We have so many dreams of being able to do so many different things — of not just fighting to exist,” she says. “By electing Indigenous people to this space where decisions are made that affect our rights, maybe we can change this reality.”
As co-founder of the news outlet Amazônia Real, Elaíze Farias has dedicated her career to “decolonial journalism” that centers the perspectives and experiences of indigenous people. (©Michael Dantas for the UN Foundation)
Elaíze Farias: Highlighting Indigenous Stories through Journalism
The newsroom at Amazônia Real — an Indigenous-owned media outlet headquartered in Manaus — has never been busier. And for journalist and co-founder Elaíze Farias, the stakes have never been higher.
As Elaíze will tell you, it is an especially tumultuous and consequential time to be a reporter in Brazil. Last year, the country’s voters turned out for a historic presidential election that, in many ways, could decide the fate of the Amazon and its indigenous inhabitants. In 2021, deforestation in Brazil hit a 15-year high, thanks in large part to record funding cuts for federal agencies tasked with protecting the rainforest. The country’s newly elected leader has vowed to reverse these trends, including forming a triple alliance with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia to halt deforestation and finance multilateral forest conservation. Importantly, all three countries contain the world’s last remaining “megaforests” — massive woodlands that produce oxygen, sink carbon, regulate the Earth’s water cycle, and sustain biodiversity, and carry out other crucial ecosystem services.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to let our guard down,” Elaíze says of the new political leadership. “We will be in permanent mobilization in defense of the Amazonian population.”
A surge in illegal mining, logging, and ranching on protected indigenous territory in Brazil has led to a rise in violence and contamination of local waterways and soil. (©Michael Dantas for the UN Foundation)
This includes covering the ongoing plight of the Yanomami people, an Indigenous community in Brazil whose land was plundered by illegal gold miners during the previous administration. Since then, the Yanomami have reported disturbing accounts of sexual violence perpetrated by miners, as well as mercury contamination in the water and soil that has led to a rise in malaria and other infectious diseases along with cases of severe malnutrition. Earlier this year, Brazil’s new leader likened the mining’s disastrous impact on the tribe to genocide.
“We have been covering since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis,” Elaíze says. “We’ve published hundreds of reports.” For her reporters, this means traveling to meet with the Yanomami and speaking directly with those affected — a task made even tougher by the reserve’s remoteness and vastness: The Yanomami’s territory is roughly the size of Portugal.
Elaíze just received a Global Human Rights Defender Award from the U.S. State Department for her newsroom’s reporting, including coverage of the murders of journalist Dom Philips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Javari Valley, one of the country’s largest and most remote Indigenous territories. As she knows too well, Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries to investigate environmental crime.
Part of what makes Amazônia Real stand apart is the newsroom’s unique approach to reporting. When Elaíze and her colleague Kátia Brasil first launched the news outlet 10 years ago, it was founded on a philosophy of what she calls “decolonial journalism” that not only highlights indigenous knowledge and perspectives — which too often go unreported by Brazil’s mainstream media, she says — but also incorporates traditional values of cooperation, transparency, and trust. This means building relationships instead of merely extracting quotes from one-time sources. “When you tell the story of someone, when you turn them into a character or subject matter, you’re committed to them forever,” she says.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Elaíze explained that by treating those they interview as collaborators in the reporting process, Amazônia Real’s coverage is less extractive and more nuanced, enabling the oppressed to speak for themselves: “It’s about putting the voices of marginalized people first.”
Activist Marinete Almeida addresses reporters at the headquarters of COIAB, one of the Amazon’s largest indigenous coalitions. (©Michael Dantas for the UN Foundation)
Marinete Almeida: Advocating for the Amazon and its Indigenous Inhabitants
Across the city of Manaus, a short drive from the Amazônia Real newsroom, Marinete Almedia is meeting a group of global journalists at the headquarters of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), one of the largest and most respected coalitions of its kind in the Amazon Basin. COIAB represents more than 160 different communities, and Marinete is one of the many indigenous activists who make up the organization’s network.
“Being at this table talking is very rewarding because we need to echo our voices for the visibility of our struggles,” Marinete, who is a member of the Tukano people and serves as a coordinator for Makira E’ta, an alliance of indigenous women in Amazonas, told the visiting reporters. “We need to be talking, denouncing, saying what we want, saying what we feel as women and indigenous people.”
As inhabitants and guardians of the Amazon, Brazil’s indigenous communities serve as crucial barriers against deforestation. Protecting what remains of the world’s largest rainforest is a matter of global — even existential — importance. Saving this ecosystem in particular is key for the planet’s survival. If too many trees are cut down, scientists warn that the Amazon could reach a tipping point where it irreversibly degrades into grassland, triggering catastrophic environmental consequences for every single country in the world. It’s why reporters from as far away as Indonesia and Zimbabwe have traveled to Brazil to talk with local leaders like Marinete.
For her, environmental rights, indigenous rights, and women’s rights are inextricably entwined. She says there are still too few conversations happening about the abuse, exploitation, and erasure of indigenous women in Brazil, especially with the surge of illegal mining, ranching, and logging that has occurred on protected territory in recent years. “Our lands are being invaded,” she says.
Indigenous women in Brazil are confronting violence on three separate fronts, Marinete says. “Lately, we have had many setbacks in our rights as women, which include the right to freedom from violence in our territory, protection from social violence caused by public policies that unfairly target us, and, finally, freedom from violence against our own bodies.”
Marinete’s roots as a women’s rights activist can be traced to her childhood. Growing up with an abusive father, she learned at a young age how girls and women are subjected to violence in all spheres of life. The way she sees it, the land violations that come with inherently destructive industries are a continuation of violence against indigenous girls and women. And as primary caretakers, they are often the first to witness and confront the environmental and health implications of deforestation. “We are the first to feel it because our children are dying,” she says.
An aerial view of an ecological research station in the Brazilian Amazon. Safeguarding the health of the world’s largest rainforest is crucial for supporting indigenous communities, protecting biodiversity, and addressing climate change. (©Michael Dantas for the UN Foundation)
By joining forces and refusing to be made invisible, Marinete says indigenous women are conquering political spaces that were previously closed off. “We need to empower youth — specifically young women — to be able to talk about our needs: How climate change affects us, how we are suffering together, why we need to defend our territory, why we don’t want gold to be removed, and why we don’t want wood to be cut down.”
But this outspokenness comes at a cost. Like Elaize and other journalists who are exposing the culprits behind the country’s environmental destruction and human rights violations, activists like Marinete are also increasingly under attack. “The death threats have been growing,” she says. “Many times this situation gets so complicated that it is necessary to leave our territory because our lives are at risk.”
Still, she says the movement to protect the rainforest and safeguard indigenous rights continues to grow every day: “Together with our warriors, together with our companions, together with the white people who have also been carrying this cause, we are getting stronger and stronger,” she says. “We are not going to be silent while we are moving,” she says. “We are going to shed every last drop of blood.”
“Like many indigenous women who fight for various rights, it’s mainly about the right to a dignified life,” Marinete says. “We don’t fight just for ourselves, but for everyone, because the standing forest is life.”
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