Ed. note: This post is republished from the Ecologist, with permission of the author. It was originally published there in November of 2022.
Meet the next generation of Indigenous Earth defenders.
There was little surprise among environment organisations and civil society groups when recent government data showed that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon had hit yet another new record.
Those on the frontline had expected the news that the state of Amazonas, ‘the heart of the Amazon biome’, was the country’s most devastated region, with destruction reaching ever further, dramatically impacting the integrity of one of the world’s most critical biomes.
Brazil is literally on fire, with the largest number of fire outbreaks recorded in the Amazon for the month of June in 15 years, according to the nation’s National Institute for Space Research.
Many of these fires are set intentionally to clear ever greater areas of land for cattle farming, agribusiness and mining. The devastation they cause is a direct result of short-sighted government policies and lobbying from a private sector hungry for short-term profit.
These ecocidal policies have devastating impacts on Indigenous people, riverine communities and the complex, interrelated, more-than-human world alike. For some of the world’s biggest investors the home of Indigenous people, the Amazon, is just another business opportunity.
A recent report by the Forests & Finance coalition revealed that together BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street, three of the world’s largest investment companies, have at least US$12.1 billion invested in companies linked to Amazon deforestation.
Between 2013 and 2020, loans totalling US$249 billion were extended to companies linked to deforestation around the world. The connection between the destruction of life-supporting biomes and the short-term profit of a few could not be clearer.
To make matters even worse, in June this year the world was shaken by the sudden disappearance and murder, in one of the most remote parts of the Amazon, of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Dom Phillips, who were researching a new book titled How to Save the Amazon.
The two were on a journey of discovery, aiming to unlock the secrets of how the Amazon rainforest might be preserved.
Phillips’ sister, Sian Phillips, vowed that the pair’s tragic deaths would not be in vain and said that her brother’s family and friends were committed to continuing their work, launching a crowdfunding campaign to support the work of UNIVAJA, the Indigenous organisation of the Javari valley that was crucial to finding the remains of the two men.
The brutal trail of devastation and death left by racialised extractivist capitalism is unconscionable, but not inevitable.
The voices of young people and the future generations are becoming so prominent that it is hard not to listen.
Txai Suruí, a leading Indigenous activist, asks:
“Will the countries that promised to uphold human rights and protect the Earth keep their word? How many more will be killed in a senseless war on the environment and those who protect it before things change?”
She recently came into the spotlight during the opening stages of the United Nations climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, when she delivered a striking speech in which she told world leaders that Indigenous peoples must be at the centre of the UN decision-making process.
I met her in London, while she was on a European tour promoting The Territory, an award-winning documentary film telling the story of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people. Suruí is just one member of an emergent ecosystem of resistance, a growing network of Indigenous leaders spreading across Brazil’s many biomes and beyond, blooming like rare flowers in a harsh summer.
Against all odds, and having survived 500 years of oppression, pillage and genocide, the Indigenous movement is rising up, adapting to a rapidly changing world and breaking through centuries of invisibility, a by-product of the colonialism and racism that underpin our extractivist economic system. Now Indigenous people are joining forces and forming a movement of movements that is inspiring people and movements the world over.
Two years ago a group of Indigenous women from communities across Brazil came together to launch Cura da Terra, a women-led initiative designed to catapult Indigenous leaders onto the world stage so that their voices can be heard. Cura da Terra, the ‘cure of the Earth’ in English, aims to co-create narratives of responsibility, reciprocity and regeneration in times of systems collapse.
Célia Xacriabá, one of the founders of the project, says:
“In the midst of this extermination, we Indigenous women make melody of the struggle. While we recover land stolen from us, we insist on celebrating our existence. We sow hope, because we ourselves are the very Earth healing itself.”
Indigenous peoples are the living alternatives to the polycrisis we are living through – a wickedly entwined combination of ecological, social, economic and spiritual crises.
As these intersecting crises continue to worsen, it is the world’s Indigenous peoples who have continued to take the brunt of the mayhem created by so-called progress and civilisation, which deliver monetary wealth for a very few while diminishing the existence of the vast majority of the world’s population.
In the face of this, Xacriabá is one of the many emergent Indigenous leaders seeding hope and nurturing resilience – inspiring people in Brazil and the world over to embody a new old way of living in connection with the living world we are all part of.
Eric Terena, a multimedia artist and founder of the Indigenous storytelling network Mídia India, explains:
“Since colonisation began in Brazil, Indigenous peoples have been silenced.
Therefore we have had to constantly speak up and make our voice heard – to share our stories, to highlight our lives and our struggles.
Photography and film have both been fantastic tools to raise awareness amongst non-Indigenous peoples and educate white people about our culture so that we can work together to preserve our territories and sacred biomes.”
Terena’s parents are both pioneering activists who helped launch the Indigenous rights movement in Brazil. A trained journalist, DJ and organiser, Terena has championed the power of music to communicate social and environmental struggle.
“Art has the power to communicate directly to the heart and bridge across different worldviews. That’s why producing music that can touch people deeply is essential. Racialised capitalism doesn’t only affect Indigenous peoples, but all of us. We desperately need to find a new way forward.”
Emergent Indigenous leaders like Xacriabá, Terena and Suruí are breaking through the cracks of a dying story, a story of separation, death and apocalypse. In its place, they propose a possible new path, a new story that can propel us forward. As they say, ‘O futuro e Ancestral’ (‘The future is Indigenous’).
Heeding their warnings and honouring their knowledge, together we can prepare an antidote to cure the end of the world. We can learn from the Earth’s best stewards, who, having survived the genocide of colonisation, may have a thing or two to teach us about how to resist the ecocide of climate breakdown.
If we can find the humility to do that, we realise that you and I can also be Amazon avengers, not just the brave Indigenous Earth defenders on the frontline like Xacriabá, Terena and Suruí.
The mighty forces of extractive capitalism are destructive, and their power can seem insurmountable.
As the writer of speculative fiction Ursula Le Guin once said, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
But what if we all joined forces and used our creativity, imagination and resources to support the flourishing of life rather than its destruction?
We may be poised on the cusp of a systemic shift of epoch-shaping proportions. What is next, and which turn the world takes, is up to all of us.
Teaser photo credit: Deforestation in the Maranhão state of Brazil, 2016. By Ibama from Brasil – Operação Hymenaea, Julho/2016, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51685896