The Brazilian indigenous woman who won the ‘Nobel’ of environmentalism

Alessandra Korap is one of the 2023 Goldman Prize winners

Alessandra Korap is one of the 2023 Goldman Prize winners

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize / BBC News Brasil

Alessandra Korap’s childhood memories are closely linked with the feeling of freedom.

“I have the memory of being free to bathe in the river, accompany the elders in the fields, pick fruits and remove vines to make clothes”, he reports.

“My feeling is that we could enjoy and play in the river, in the forest and even indoors”, she says.

Today, at the age of 38, Korap is nationally and internationally recognized as one of the main indigenous leaders in the region that comprises the Tapajós river basin, in Pará.

She is currently the president of the Pariri Indigenous Association, which supports the communities that live there.

Thanks to her work and that of several groups, large mining companies — such as Anglo American and Vale — have given up on exploration projects in this indigenous territory, which is not yet officially demarcated and recognized by the Brazilian authorities.

Amid so many meetings and protests, Korap has suffered a series of attacks and death threats. In one of the worst episodes, her house was invaded and vandalized.

Her work in favor of the environment earned her the 2023 Goldman Prize, considered a “green Nobel”, for honoring and celebrating the history of people who work for the environment and the preservation of natural resources.

Offered since 1989 by a foundation based in San Francisco, in the United States, recognition had only been given to three other Brazilians so far: Carlos Alberto Ricardo (1992), Marina Silva (1996) and Tarcísio Feitosa da Silva (2006).

the awakening

Korap, who worked as a teacher, says that the destruction of rivers and forests began to bother her more intensely from 2014 and 2015.

“The main impact happened with the arrival of large companies in the region where we live. That’s where the subdivision of land and deforestation began”, he says.

“Many times, we would go to a place where we used to hunt or gather fruit and, suddenly, the whole land had been cleared by machines. Then we would ask ourselves: where is the lake where we used to fish and play? It simply didn’t exist anymore.”

Korap was born in the municipality of Itaituba, in the State of Pará. The city is one of the main centers of the Sawré Muybu indigenous territory of the Munduruku people, which covers 178,000 hectares along the central stretch of the Tapajós River.

This territory has not yet been formally recognized and demarcated by the Brazilian State — which increases vulnerabilities, the possibility of invasions or the action of loggers and miners.

“In 2015 I decided that I would accompany the chiefs in the fight for our land. Especially because when the Munduruku people leave the territory, they never go alone. The leaders are accompanied by children, and pregnant women. With that, we show that there is an entire generation dedicated to for the future that lives here”, says Korap.

first barriers

The activist admits that it was not easy to gain a leadership position right from the start.

“I faced a lot of resistance because I am a woman, I have a husband and children”, she comments.

“Many times, when the meetings took place, I always went to the front. The women would say to me: ‘Alessandra, this is the place for men’. And I would answer: ‘I’m just here to listen better’… I’ve always been very stubborn,” he jokes.

Korap claims to have questioned why only men can speak or lead activities.

“Women’s role has always been to cultivate the fields, take care of the children and the husband. They didn’t go to the meetings”, he observes.

Over time, however, her performance gained acceptance — and invitations to participate in meetings and coordinate activities became more frequent.

“And that is a great privilege. If I had given up back then, I wouldn’t be here today”, he reasons.

“Of course, I personally no longer have the freedom I used to have. But the freedom of my people, to be able to see children playing and women happy, is the greatest prize I can receive”, he adds.

A lawyer among us

Korap also gradually realized that he needed to pursue an academic education.

“It seemed that we always depended on the whites. We need to learn the laws, to speak and write well in Portuguese, so that we can tell companies that we do not accept the projects they had within our territories”, he says.

This is how the activist started studying law in 2018 at the Federal University of Western Pará, located in the city of Santarém.

Her idea was to be able to represent the Munduruku people in legal actions against miners and other companies interested in exploiting the region’s resources.

“I was all happy talking to the caciques, but they said I shouldn’t study, that they needed me there”, she recalls.

“But later they were convinced that we needed a Munduruku lawyer”, she adds.

Korap’s academic plans, however, were interrupted in 2019, with the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro (PL) to the Presidency of the Republic.

During the campaign, the former president repeated several times that he would not demarcate any indigenous territory while he was in office — a promise that he actually kept.

“That was the moment when I was studying at college and I thought it wasn’t time to be inside a classroom. I couldn’t stay locked in four walls, listening to professors say things that wouldn’t suit me”, says the activist.

After putting her dream of becoming a lawyer on hold, Korap found herself facing a new dilemma. “I had left the indigenous territory and I no longer knew if I could play a leadership role or speak for those people”, she sums up.

“The chiefs told me: Alessandra, you went to study and you can, yes, continue speaking for us. That’s when I started to organize the whole movement.”

mining from outside

One of the main achievements of the group of which Korap is part was to block the action of mining companies in the Sawré Muybu territory.

According to information compiled by the organization of the Goldman Prize, between 2011 and 2020, 97 requests for mining in this region were made by companies to the government.

Only Anglo American, a company of British origin, had 13 requests to assess copper exploration in Munduruku land – and five of these requests were filed between 2017 and 2019.

In meetings, Korap warned about these projects and what they could represent for the community. She also organized the strategies to make the issue a priority and led the fundraising efforts.

In December 2020, the activist was also at an assembly with 45 leaders and 200 participants, who signed an official declaration against mining and deforestation throughout the Amazon.

After an intense campaign, in May 2021 Anglo American officially withdrew from carrying out 27 exploratory surveys that were already approved in indigenous territories of the Amazon. The list includes the 13 requests that would happen in Sawré Muybu areas.

The organizers of the Goldman Prize also point out that, after Anglo American’s decision, another giant in the sector took a similar decision: Vale announced that it would withdraw all requests for investigation into ores on indigenous lands in Brazil.

Last year, a survey carried out by the Brazilian Mining Institute (Ibram) revealed that, for the first time in decades, none of the 130 affiliated companies had filed requests to explore ores in indigenous territories in the country.

constant threats

Korap’s activism work was accompanied by some episodes of persecution and embarrassment.

“I started being followed on the street, people from outside would come asking for information about me and I even received audio messages in which people said: ‘We need to take care of that Indian woman from Itaituba because, if she’s already causing trouble now, imagine when she turns around attorney'”, she reports.

The activist said that these were clear signs that her work was starting to bother her.

In November 2021, Korap was attending the United Nations Climate Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland, when she was approached by an unidentified subject, who told her to “stop mixing politics and the environment”.

That same month, the activist discovered that her home had been invaded and vandalized. Documents and electronic equipment were stolen.

One night, the electricity to the residence was suddenly cut, which left her and all her family even more alarmed – and they all needed to spend time at friends’ houses.

These events even led to the publication of an official UN statement on the case. In the text, the organization is concerned about the facts and asks the Brazilian State to take measures to protect Korap.

“When they invaded my land in Santarém, my youngest son hugged me and said: ‘Mom, I don’t want them to kill you’.”

“I panicked and went to the village to hold a meeting. The women were crying and worried, thinking I was going to give up. But I said I wouldn’t stop talking, because my voice goes far beyond representing the struggle of a people and the defense of our territory”, he says.

“And that’s what happens in several other places in the Amazon. But we are a small seed, which grows more and more. We are a life project, of chiefs and women who want to build the future for their children together with the forest and the animals”, he adds.

What’s next?

Asked by BBC News Brasil about what she expects from the new Lula government, Korap adopts a tone of caution and demand.

“The previous president [Jair Bolsonaro] made it very clear what he wanted: he spoke directly about not demarcating and exploiting indigenous territories”, he evaluates.

“But, with the new government, we need to continue our fight. Because we know that they are also talking to companies [interessadas na exploração da Amazônia]”, differs.

For the activist, indigenous peoples should not be satisfied with the granting of high-ranking positions, or the creation of their own ministry, led by Sônia Guajajara (PSOL).

“This does not mean that we will remain silent and think that everything is fine. It is not fine if our territory has not been demarcated and is full of invaders, if the rivers are contaminated with mercury, if there are projects to legalize mining…”, list .

“We need to remember that attacks do not only happen with guns. Some are made with pens. And the pens that sign laws in Brasilia may be the main cause of death for our people”, he adds.

“There will be another four years in which we will continue to resist to protect our territory”, concludes Korap.

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