The 2019 Indigenous Women’s March in Brasília.

The 2019 Indigenous Women’s March in Brasília. Liar Bianchini / Cobertura Colaborativa via Flickr


Why Native Women’s Voices Are Crucial to Saving Brazil’s Forests

Cristiane Julião — a member of the Pankararu Indigenous group and co-founder of the National Articulation of Ancestral Warriors Women — challenges the deeply rooted sexism that hinders environmental protection in Brazil. “The state needs to listen to women,” she insists.

It was 2015 when Cristiane Julião decided to bring together Indigenous women from across Brazil to form a collective that would fight for their rights.

As the group — which would eventually be called the National Articulation of Ancestral Warriors Women (ANMIGA) — grew, it began seeking ways to amplify its members’ voices. In 2019, the first-ever Indigenous Women’s March was held in Brasília, with more than 2,500 women from more than 130 Indigenous groups discussing and protesting the rights violations they suffer as Indigenous women.

In a document they produced following the six-day event, they noted that sexism was “another epidemic brought by the Europeans” and stated that recognizing and respecting the social organization of each Indigenous group — including the importance of women, their knowledge and opinions, and the work they do — was crucial to the protection not only of Indigenous rights but to protecting the land itself.

A member of the northeastern Pankararu Indigenous group and a co-founder of ANMIGA, Julião has a master’s degree in social anthropology and has become an international advocate for Indigenous women. One of the key concerns she focuses on is the importance of women having the same rights to land tenure as men do. That issue was highlighted in a recent report from the Rights and Resource Initiative, which noted that “despite the many threats to communities in Brazil, several new laws and regulations were put in place … to strengthen women’s equal land tenure rights in the Amazon and in agrarian settlements.”

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Julião discussed the institutional sexism that hinders protecting the environment and what still needs to be done to turn changes on paper into reality.

Cristiane Julião.

Cristiane Julião. Camila Falquez

Yale Environment 360: Within Indigenous territories, do women have the same rights as men to protect land and speak on behalf of their communities about land protection, or is there a division based on gender?

Cristiane Julião: There’s a division. FUNAI [Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency] established it. From its beginning [in 1967], FUNAI created this category of the male leader, the male shaman, of a power hierarchy of male hegemony. And women were kept in this role of “caregiver.” It’s women who have to give birth, who have to care for, who have to raise, who have to educate, who have to feed, and have to do everything else so that men can be free to follow their paths to complete their mission as warriors, as leaders, as protectors of our land.

So when we talk about the right to land — when we look at what’s happening on Indigenous territories — there is no equality. The state needs to step up and do something about it. And the first thing it needs to do is not just listen to the men, but to the women too.

e360: How has FUNAI responded to this demand for change?

Julião: Employees who are newer to FUNAI are more open. But there are still plenty of others who only want to deal with male chiefs, with male shamans, with male leaders. We’re trying to change their perspective. The current president of FUNAI is an Indigenous woman, Joênia Wapichana. She’s trying to pop this same bubble from within FUNAI so that women’s rights are respected and our voices are heard at the same level as men’s, especially during discussions where important decisions are made.

“We’re the ones who grow our food, and we know how much time we need to give the land to rest before it can produce again.”

Women have more understanding of how illegal activities like mining and logging affect the food we eat and the water we drink and, in turn, the development of our children. We’re the ones who care for them and see them get sick with malaria and mercury poisoning, or go hungry when the soil is too contaminated for anything to grow. We should be in the room when decisions are made about which areas are most in need of monitoring and what can be done to stop the public-health crisis happening on our lands.

e360: What do Indigenous men think of women taking on these leadership roles and demanding equal rights? Are they open to this kind of change?

Julião: Some accept it, invite us to participate in meetings, councils, commissions, and working groups. They realize that our work shouldn’t be restricted to domestic tasks and should include technical, political, and economic activities. But there is still a large number of men who think we want to take their place and speak louder than them.

The 2019 Indigenous Women’s March.

The 2019 Indigenous Women’s March. Douglas Freitas / Cobertura Colaborativa via Flickr

e360: We hear a lot about Indigenous men who, like you mentioned, take on the role of warrior and work together in monitoring programs, where they often stop deforestation and destruction of Indigenous territories by removing illegal miners and loggers. What do Indigenous women do that men don’t in order to protect the land?

Julião: Women work to reforest areas that have already been degraded. We’re the ones who grow our food, and we know how much time we need to give the land to rest before it can produce again. We’re the ones who take care of the soil, who know when it’s best to plant what, who prepare the land for the manioc, the beans, the corn, the squash. And to do all of this we also created a type of agricultural calendar. We educate our kids so that future generations have this same knowledge and perspective. We pass on all of this information.

So many Indigenous women have become formidable and important leaders, like Alessandra Korap Munduruku, whose campaign against the mining company Anglo American led it to withdraw 27 mineral research permits for Indigenous territories in the Amazon. There’s also Juma Xipaia, who became chief of her village and led her community in the fight against illegal miners and loggers trying to invade their land. And then there’s Sonia Guajajara, who has had a long career as a politician and activist and is now the head of Brazil’s first Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.

“Without the work of Indigenous women there would be a lot of gaps in how our territories are kept safe.”

And we also sell a lot of handicrafts made with resources that come from the forest, like necklaces made with seeds from the Amazonian tucumã fruit and baskets woven with straw from buriti palm trees. Being able to call the land our own and make decisions about how to protect it is crucial to our work.

Selling handicrafts also brings income back to our territories, which helps fund monitoring programs and activities we run to protect the land, which often require the use of motorboats and the construction of checkpoints so men can keep watch over even the remotest parts of our land. Without the work of Indigenous women there would be a lot of gaps in how our territories are kept safe.

e360: What more needs to be done to preserve and strengthen equal rights to land tenure?

Julião: There’s still a lack of effective public policy. It’s not just about creating policies. They need to be feasible, to be practical. For example, the Maria da Penha Law [Brazil’s national legislation against domestic violence]. It’s wonderful on paper, but it doesn’t consider the realities of Indigenous women. It doesn’t always work for us. Many only speak their Indigenous language and live far from cities and town where they can get help. Filing reports online also isn’t an option. Even if they do speak Portuguese, the lack of internet in remote places makes it impossible.

Cristiane Julião.

Cristiane Julião. Rachel Elkind

It’s the same thing with land rights. Our land is considered collective. We don’t want ownership. We want to be consulted when decisions are made about our land and we want to participate in its protection at all levels, including when partnering with other authorities.

e360: Is there an instance you remember where it was the perspective of Indigenous women that led to better land protection?

Julião: When climate change started to affect our food system — the rainy season, the dry season — women were the ones who started to notice something was wrong. We were the ones who were first affected in our day-to-day lives.

So we started speaking up, trying to call attention to the fact that things were changing, and not at all in a good way. Something needed to be done. That’s when we started down the path of climate justice and showing up at climate conventions to speak out against what was happening on our land, and the mining and other illegal activities that were causing it. COP26 [the UN climate conference in 2021] had the largest Indigenous delegation of any of the conferences with 40 people, and most of them were women. Their presence even caught the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio, who had a long conversation with Juma Xipaia.

And since we started, all we’ve done is grow. More and more Indigenous women are a part of ANMIGA and are participating in our march, which is also getting more attention. More are starting to speak up in a public way. Because of our knowledge of our land and the tasks considered women’s work, we were able to get on top of this quicker. And when we speak at events, we make sure everybody knows about all the Indigenous women who have been threatened, attacked, and killed for protecting their territories. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.