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Territory: Our body, Our SpiritApib Comunicação via Flickr

Inside the indigenous fight to save the Amazon rainforest

Speaking to Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca, the 25-year-old indigenous youth activist from the Amazon, about a historic march, resistance, and youth empowerment

On August 19 2019, thick black clouds covered the city of São Paulo in an apocalyptic darkness. São Paulo’s black sky was a result of the amazon rainforest ravaged by tens of thousands of fires. The number of forest fires in Brazil has grown 70% since this last January over the same period last year. The rainforest most hit, several Brazilian local governments also declared a State of emergency, in addition to all flights being diverted. The plume of smoke advanced into the South American continent, also fueled by forest fires in Bolivia and Paraguay, reaching parts of Southern Brazil, Northern Argentina and Uruguay. It’s been proven that all outbreaks of fire in the Amazon are caused by human activity, mainly due to deforestation for the sake of corporate agriculture.

Even though winter is the most favourable time of the year for the spread of fire in Brazil because of its drier weather, in the case of the Amazon there is no natural process that could cause wildfires. This means that all outbreaks of fire in the Amazon are caused by human activity, mainly due to deforestation for the sake of agriculture. In other words: the peak of deforestation is now being followed by a peak of wildfires. Thus, the explosion in forest fire occurrences in the Amazon is directly associated with the intensification of deforestation in the region.

In the Amazon rainforest, roughly the size of a football pitch is now being cleared every single minute, according to satellite data. So far, that leads to a total of 315,686 football fields. Despite recent rapid fire alert systems put into place, President Jair Bolsonaro not only blames environmental groups for setting fires whilst downplaying their risks, he persistently attempts the Ministry for FarDesDeming - which increases agro-industrial production, destructive mining and logging practices, and is under the firm grip of lobbyists – to take control of the Amazon.

As the world’s largest rainforest, the 6.7m square km Amazon region plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide emissions and stabilising temperatures. If destroyed, it would be incredibly difficult to limit global warming and save the planet. Much of the remaining forest is already owned, including by Brazil’s indigenous people. They hold 13 percent of Brazil’s land area.  But as the appetite for destruction increases, the situation has sparked tensions, and in some cases violence, between Brazil’s indigenous populations and land-grabbers, who believe they have the unspoken support of Bolsonaro’s administration. 

Indigenous women and girls – who increasingly play outsized roles as leaders, forest managers, and economic providers – are even less likely to have recognised rights. Which is why in August, for the first time ever, tens of thousands of them took to the streets of Brazil’s capital Brasília for days to denounce Bolsonaro’s “genocidal” policies. Themed “Territory: Our body, our Spirit,” they called for unity and visibility in their strength and critical roles as human rights defenders and safeguards of the world’s lands and forests. They’ve made it clear that women are the most impacted by agribusiness, climate change, sexism, and racism. 

Among them was Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca from the Amazon rainforest, whose family was receiving frequent death threats because her father had spoken out against corruption. When leaving her home at 17 to study in Brazil’s capital, she embarked on a relentless pursuit of rights and recognition for young indigenous women.

What sort of issues are indigenous women and girls in Brazil most affected by?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: Prejudice and racism are the main problems we face, due to Brazilian society as a whole largely denying our very own existence. There is a huge struggle in recognising the existence of indigenous people in Brazil, women even more. Despite all the colonisation processes, there are indigenous populations who fight to preserve their multifaceted identities. Over the last few years, a strengthening of those identities with the purpose of cultural rescue and validation is frowned upon by many in our country who pride themselves on disliking those different from them. Besides, for young indigenous women, access to information and participation in public policy remains a challenge.

How does that make you feel?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: Well, there is an urgent need to move away from racism, from this direct discrimination that indigenous people face on a daily basis which has a direct impact on the younger generations. We end up feeling ashamed of speaking our own languages, of recognising ourselves as being part of a nation. That entails a series of physical, mental and spiritual health damages, which is not different from other kinds of violence. Institutionalised racism is one of the forms of the genocide perpetrated by our society and mainly by the current government.

“There is an urgent need to move away from racism, from this direct discrimination that indigenous people face on a daily basis which has a direct impact on the younger generations” – Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca

Can you share a situation which affected you personally, when you felt your rights weren’t recognised?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: Ever since I had to leave the Amazon rainforest and decided to study at the University of Brasília to become a nurse, I went through several situations in which, at the time, I was left so utterly unempowered that I wouldn’t even realise I was being abused. I was among 35 indigenous students out of some 22,000 students in the University. Teachers would mock people like me. One teacher even asked us why we were taking classes, that we should walk naked and remain in the forest. Once I was getting organised with a few others to take part in an indigenous rights demonstration. We used our lunch break to paint our skin with parts of the Genipapo tree, whose fruit has a gelatinous pulp which is used to make body paint. By the time our lunch break finished, I had one arm painted and still had one class to attend before leaving for the demonstration.

When arriving at the lab for our theory class, I sat down and asked for the teacher’s understanding and allowance for me to wear only half of my lab-coat, leaving the one arm out because the paint wasn’t dry yet. I could feel all the other students staring at me, and most of all, the teacher’s gaze. After listening to my request, she denied it, saying that, firstly, it was not the moment for me to be painted, because it was class time, and secondly, lab-coats were a requisite – which I didn’t understand because we were only doing theory. Upon my insisting in not destroying the symbols meticulously drawn on my arm, she ordered me to get out of the room. I remember, I was barely out the door and I couldn’t contain a flow of tears.

Were you able to react?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: At that moment, I didn’t know how to better react. I just wept at the insensibility of a person who in an educational environment couldn’t grasp the individual needs of their students. Because for me that was not only just paint, my spirituality was represented in the form of body art which protected my body and my right to show my identity was in violation. Yet the experience was an important learning lesson, later, to be shared with other indigenous students and to make me find ways to be able to stand my ground on those premises, to empower myself about my rights and learn that discriminatory acts are to be confronted with respect and information. Some of the other indigenous students and I formed the first collective of indigenous students at the University of Brasilia and negotiated specific policies for indigenous students.

What does women and girls’ resistance look like in the Amazon today?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: As a group, we are going through an extremely important time. Currently in Brasília, the First Indigenous Women March in our history is taking place, with the presence of thousands of indigenous women, among them, indigenous girls and young women. More than 100 different people were registered to be present at this time. It’s such a contagious, empowering feeling to see indigenous women being protagonists in this space. Indigenous women who are artisans, students, congresswomen, teachers, farmers, all beautiful and diverse, voicing how crucial the strengthening of indigenous women’s rights is in order to function as a mirror for youngsters, and for the next generation of girls yet to come.

What are you protesting against specifically?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: Women from the Amazon have been echoing a strong urge to act against fast-tracked consumerist needs that do not respect our lands, our culture, our rights. The government approves huge business endeavours such as the installation of several hydroelectric stations in the Amazon basin. We – women and girls – are occupying spaces where they want to build, and denounce their illegal mining which is toxifying our bodies with mercury. It’s not a coincidence that the motto of this March is: “Territory: Our Bodies our Spirits.” Our bodies are being poisoned. We have been organising ourselves through the sharing of intel among networks, and we are looking for ever more platforms to run workshops, courses and seminars in defense of our rights.

“Women from the Amazon have been echoing a strong urge to act against fast-tracked consumerist needs that do not respect our lands, our culture, our rights” – Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca

Are indigenous youth especially active?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: Absolutely. Young people have been a power source and have shown to follow in the footsteps of great leaders at local levels, inside their communities and internationally. I joined the Indigenous Youth Network in Brazil (REJUIND) and started to organize indigenous youth marches to fight the discrimination that we face every day. This network is not simply there to represent young people, but to make room for their actions across different spaces, contributing with the strengthening of their abilities and network articulations. For example, last year, I was the first indigenous citizen to take part in the United Nations Population Fund Internship Programme and I understand that my role was not only to be the first and the last one to participate in, but to use that space to tell everybody that we need other indigenous young people to be in decision making spaces, that we too, have a voice a desire for action. I don’t consider myself a leader, but I feel the need to strongly position myself in international platforms, with the firm intention to make it explicitly clear that we will not silently accept indigenous rights violation and abuse. I loudly say No, every single day. Also, youth, is defined differently depending on the society you evolve in. In an indigenous community, if you get your first period at 10, you would be considered a woman. You are “young” as long as your community considers you to be young.

Are you hopeful?

Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca: I may be the first publicised case to have left the Amazon forest in search of a dream and despite all odds, succeeded in some ways, but I know I am not the only one. I have been approached by other girls saying that I have inspired them to do the same. Especially now with the march, it is clear to me that all young people can take part in leading our fight. By never giving up, we honour our ancestors. We remember where we come from and which values we hold on to, because we may have a foot in the community and another one in the city, we need to know that our roots are deep and we are here because those before us have come from struggle and never stopped fighting for their rights, many of them, dead today. I may be part of the youth movement, but I keep in mind that I too, fight for the next generations to come.