The last couple of years have seen a surge of new political activity: that of indigenous women in Brazil. In 2018, the country witnessed the first indigenous women taking up official government positions with Joênia Wapichana representing the state of Roraima as its deputy in the National Congress, and Sônia Guajajara running as Vice-President alongside Guilerme Boulos for the political party PSOL.
As part of the National Forum for Women, the first Indigenous Women’s march took place on Tuesday the 13th of August 2019. Three thousand women marched down the modern streets of Brazils’ capital city, Brasília, alongside its futuristic architecture demanding a future enshrined with cooperation and acknowledgement of their rights. Their action highlighting the relentless exploitation of both women and nature under the banner of an economic system designed to maximise profit.
Many of these women joined the 6th march of the Margaridas, a protest organized for female rural workers, which took place alongside the march for indigenous women as part of the forum. However, feminism is a contentious term amongst indigenous women, and they do not always share the beliefs and views of women living in the city or its vicinity.
Feminism is a contentious term amongst indigenous women, and they do not always share the beliefs and views of women living in the city or its vicinity.
In an interview, Joênia Wapichana says: ‘that word [feminism] is a concept that white people talk about’, registering a concern with the accessibility and recognition of human rights for ethnical minorities which dates back to colonial times. For many women like Joênia, to be an indigenous woman and to be an urban woman are simply not the same thing. Ro’Otsitsina Xavante, another spokeswoman for the movement, highlights that gender division is at the essence of many indigenous communities, as there are rituals that can only be performed by women, and others that can only be performed by men. Their fight is not to give men and women equal essence, but to sustain a society in which they have complementary roles, as well as ensuring the health and safety of women. Another indigenous woman, identified by the initials L.S., specifies that she is fighting against a racial form of violence that arises from the ‘white man’ faced with indigenous people, an aggression not only against women, but against ethnicity and the land that is heavily exploited for its natural resources.
Another indigenous woman, identified by the initials L.S., specifies that she is fighting against a racial form of violence that arises from the ‘white man’ faced with indigenous people, an aggression not only against women, but against ethnicity and the land that is heavily exploited for its natural resources.
What is it that distinguishes the indigenous movement for women from other feminist movements? It is the fact that their fight is centred around territory: their right to defend their territory from commercial exploits, and to be granted safety, education and access to healthcare whilst they remain at home, in the rainforest, which suffers greatly as a consequence of deforestation.
The community based feminism, which allows women and forest to be represented together, is a process that has been happening for a while and owes much to the self-governed collective ‘Mujeres Creando’, an initiative that originated in Bolivia during the 90s in order to represent those marginalised in conventional political structures. This was later adopted by Brazilian indigenous women in 2007, such as the Mayan indigenous activist, Esperanza Tubac. In an interview, Esperanza explains that communitarian feminism seeks to construct human rights around and for the collective, seeking to address everything that appertains to that collective way of life. Esperanza tells us that this covers everything ranging ‘from routine, to how to face the violence that is not just of my body-territory, but also of the territory, Earth, which is the fight against all the neoliberal companies that come to our people to remove us from our lands.’
Esperanza explains that communitarian feminism seeks to construct human rights around and for the collective, seeking to address everything that appertains to that collective way of life.
The Environmental Film Festival has recently launched a six minute short film: ‘Tupí: A Story of Indigenous Courage and Resolve’, which tells the story of an indigenous woman who found her voice in the collective enfolds of a community sheltered within the rainforest. It gives viewers an insight into the life of Tupí, an indigenous woman from the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve who had formerly suffered several forms of violence. She eventually found her emancipation in the Suraras Do Tapajós collective, where several women fight to affirm their identity not only as women, but as indigenous women. She tells her listeners about the difficulty of speaking about herself - for her, it is all about ‘us’. Together, they work as a community to defend their rights and ‘Mother Nature’, to defend their home: the forest that now stands more vulnerable than it has ever been. One and a half acres of forest is cut down every second as a consequence of deforestation. The average person blinks every 4 seconds, which means that every time you blink, roughly 6 acres (60,000 square meters) of forest are destroyed.
Tupí’s story is one of multiple layers of exploitation: exploitation of indigenous populations, of women and of the environment. It is a fight where educating one’s self does not mean giving up an identity which is shaped by living close to nature. As Tupí speaks about the difficulties of bridging a relationship between city and nature, those watching soon realise that this is also a fight against an economic system centred around corporate profit. These are struggles that, in many ways, resemble the one faced by women and men in Europe. Tupí tells us, ‘we aren’t saints, but we are sacred’. To be imperfect, inconsistent and varied, like nature, is to be sacred. It is precisely the diversity of variety that we must preserve, in our human relationships and in the innumerous ecosystems of the rainforest.
It is precisely the diversity of variety that we must preserve, in our human relationships and in the innumerous ecosystems of the rainforest.
These issues of violence against women and the environment are not interdependent from one another, they are part of the issue that is the systematic exploitation of human and natural life by neoliberal corporations. Tupi shows us that under that banner, one can find sexual, political and physical violence as well as the ruthless destruction and accumulation of natural resources for the benefit of mass corporations.
2018 saw the number of indigenous women murdered raise by 20%, the first seven months of 2019 registered the highest rate of deforestation since 2007-08, rates 222% higher than those recorded for the same period of the previous year. Violence against the land and against native women increase hand in hand. Most of the deforestation is associated with dairy, cattle and soy industries. Mighty Earth, a global campaign organisation designed to protect the Earth, has compiled a chart with ‘the largest customers of the slaughterhouses and soy animal feed traders most associated with cattle and soy deforestation, respectively’, available on their website.
The rise of this new female orientated indigenous activism shows how much promise the future holds when humans work together as a community, and how this is empowering both individually and collectively. Independent of gender or ethnicity, each person holds the potential to bring about change, however small. Tupi’s experience of violence shows how resilient human nature is against adversity. Her fight is not for the perfect human being, but the one which comes from nature, the one which can make mistakes and learn from them. What makes these women sacred is their ability to learn, grow and expand in a relationship of love and respect to their environment - ‘For our women, for our mother earth, who is the mother of all battles.’
What makes these women sacred is their ability to learn, grow and expand in a relationship of love and respect to their environment - ‘For our women, for our mother earth, who is the mother of all battles.’
In a final document for the first Indigenous Women’s March, more than 130 indigenous communities united against the current Brazilian government and its unsustainable policies and projects aimed at maximising ‘capital’, and formalised their ongoing fight in a list of 14 objectives. These include the demarcation of indigenous territories, access to healthcare, and the right to healthy food free from agrotoxics. In their concluding thoughts they affirm their commitment to strengthening ‘the alliances with women from all sectors of society in Brazil and in the world, of the rural and the city, of the forest and waters, that are also attacked in their rights and forms of existence.’They state: 'Territory for us is not a good that can be sold, exchanged or exploited. The territory is our own life, our own body, our spirit’
Written by Louder Than the Storm Writer Nina Purton