How a Brazilian activist stood up to mining giants to protect her ancestral rainforest
When Alessandra Korap Munduruku was a child, her favorite thing to do was wander.
Along with her siblings and cousins, she would leave her home in the Praia do Índio village in the early morning hours and spend time among the trees of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Sometimes, they collected vines and made small toy houses from dried palm leaves, known as palm straw, the same material used by the Munduruku Indigenous people to build roofs on their homes. At other times, they would swim and fish in the Tapajós River, a vast tributary flowing into the Amazon.
"We were free," she says. "We could do what we wanted, carry on our culture. And we were safe."
But in 2015, she realized her children were losing that freedom. To the north of her village was Itaituba, a town in the state of Pará that's rapidly growing thanks to mining companies and soy farms setting up shop in the region. She was worried about the trees she saw coming down around her and the massive holes, pastures and hydroelectric dams replacing the lush, dense forest.
"There was nowhere to collect straw in Praia do Indio anymore," she says. "The palm trees were destroyed. The buriti trees, the Brazil nut trees and all the other fruit trees we used to have were all gone. There was nothing left."
Destruction in the Amazon is, once again, approaching an all-time high. According to environmental nonprofit Imazon, some 335 square miles of rainforest were felled in the first three months of 2023 alone, the second worst quarter in the last 16 years.
In 2015, the Munduruku had long been fighting the extractive industries encroaching on their land. But this was the first time Korap Munduruku, a 38-year-old teacher and mother of two whose face and body are often painted with traditional geometric designs of her people, decided to take a stand and join them.
During the first meeting she attended — part of a multi-day event organized by Indigenous-rights nonprofit Missionary Indigenist Council (CIMI) to discuss the industry projects happening on and around their land — she was quiet.
"She paid really close attention to what was being said," says Raione Lima, a friend of Korap Munduruku and a human rights attorney. "She didn't say much at first, but you could tell she was really listening and wanted to learn as much as she could."
By the second day, she started speaking up. She questioned why so much mining, logging and farming was happening on and adjacent to Munduruku land if the law said these activities needed to be carried out at least six miles away.
"So our rights are being violated. Everything going on here is wrong," she recalls saying at the meeting. "We need to do something about it. We can't just sit here and do nothing."
The next meeting was with her chief and other leaders from the wider community — there are more than 13,000 Munduruku in Brazil, most living in villages and territories spread across the Amazonian states of Pará, Amazonas and Mato Grosso. There, she questioned what more could be done to protect their land and their rights.
As a woman, it was difficult to make herself heard and to earn the leaders' respect. Even after they began to recognize her leadership potential, it took time to convince them that Munduruku women needed to organize, too.
"My first fight was within my community, to win over the chief and the people who didn't know me yet," she says. "I never just accepted things, never accepted when people said no. I always wanted to learn more and I was always curious."
She found inspiration in Maria Leusa Kaba Munduruku, a leader from a nearby village known for her fight against illegal mining in the upper Tapajós region.
"Her territory is already demarcated and recognized by the government, and it still suffers constant invasions," says Korap Munduruku, referring to the process that by which the federal government officially acknowledges and protects Indigenous territories. "So, you can imagine what's happening on my territory, which hasn't been demarcated yet."
She eventually left the classroom to take up the fight for land rights full-time. She would often travel with the chiefs and other leaders to the capital city of Brasília, where she made sure that Munduruku voices were heard by the country's most important decision makers and brought information back to those who stayed behind.
Before long she learned that Anglo American, one of the world's largest mining companies, had applied to extract copper on Sawré Muybu, a Munduruku territory next to her own. That information and the fight that she would lead against the developers led Korap Munduruku to become one of six recipients of the prestigious 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activists around the world doing work that makes significant changes in their communities.
Ilan Kayatsky, spokesperson for the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Prize, says Korap Munduruku "stood out for her immense dedication to protecting Amazon rainforest that happens to be the core of the Munduruku community's ancestral territory."
The territory near Praia do Índio, at almost 440,000 acres, is not formally recognized by the Brazilian government, leaving it unprotected by authorities and vulnerable to mining, logging, hydroelectric projects and land seizures for cattle ranching and soy farming. Rich in copper, Sawré Muybu was the most desired Indigenous territory for mining in the last decade, with 97 applications filed within its borders between 2011 and 2020. Anglo American was responsible for 13 of those copper mining applications.
When Korap Munduruku found out what Anglo American had planned for Sawré Muybu, she consulted chiefs and elders before developing a campaign to put a stop to the company's plans.
She traveled to community meetings deep in the rainforest to raise the alarm, explaining what the mining giant wanted to do, what the risks were and what rights the Munduruku had under Brazilian law.
"I had to tell them that Anglo American wanted to exploit Sawré Muybu," she says. "And it wasn't easy. Some of the villages are very far. We had to organize and get funding for boats and gas to make sure we reached everybody."
She built a coalition of other Munduruku and, along with 45 chiefs and 200 other participants, published a declaration in December 2020 opposing mining and deforestation in the Amazon. With the support of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and Amazon Watch, she also wrote an open letter to Anglo American calling for withdrawal of the permits.
The mining company denied having exploratory permits for Indigenous territories and disputed the number of approved applications, but Korap Munduruku had seen registrations of Anglo American's requests in the official database of Brazil's National Mining Agency (the company says some of the database entries were out-of-date).
"These companies show up with smiles on their faces and suitcases full of money, but they don't show up with life, they don't show up with hope and they don't show up with respect," says Korap Munduruku. "They show up ready to violate our rights, and especially our right to live."
In response, she ramped up her campaign with filmed statements and photos of community members telling Anglo American to keep off of Sawré Muybu land. With the support of allies such as Greenpeace and Amazon Watch, Korap Munduruku also sent the mining company a letter, demanding that it immediately withdraw its permits.
Her efforts left an impression on those international partners.
"I have been continually inspired by her profound connection to the forests, rivers, women and children that form the core of our shared mission," says Amazon Watch program director Christian Poirier.
In May 2021, after months of pressure from Korap Munduruku's campaign, Anglo American formally announced it would withdraw 27 already-approved mineral research permits on Indigenous territories in the Amazon, including the 13 copper mining research permits the company had on Sawré Muybu. When it informed the Brazilian government of its decision, the company cited concerns raised by Indigenous communities as the reason for its withdrawal. In a statement to NPR the company confirms that it withdrew permits related to protected lands and to areas "where agreements have not been reached with the relevant communities and authorities." The company says it currently does not have any exploration permits on Indigenous lands in Brazil, "nor do we have any plans to do so."
Shortly after Anglo America's announcement, another mining giant, Vale, said it too would withdraw its permits on Indigenous territories in Brazil.
It was a historic moment for Indigenous land rights in the Amazon. Alessandra Korap Munduruku, who is now president of the Pariri Indigenous Association and studying to be a lawyer, reiterates that she didn't do it alone: It was the Munduruku community coming together, she says, that made the difference.
"If we've already been here more than 523 years, then we're capable of much more than this," she says. "Together, we're so much stronger than any mining company that wants our land."
Jill Langlois is an independent journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. She has been freelancing from the largest city in the western hemisphere since 2010, writing and reporting for publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian and Time. Her work focuses on human rights, the environment and the impact of socioeconomic issues on people's lives.
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