Amazonia: In the Flames, They See Money

Sônia Guajajara delivered this speech to accept the 2020 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award on behalf of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). The Association is standing up to powerful corporations, backed by an oppressive government, to protect indigenous rights and lands — all while fighting a deadly pandemic. On October 15, award-winning author and activist Naomi Klein presented the award, which is named after two Institute for Policy Studies colleagues who were assassinated in 1976 by agents of the Chilean dictatorship.

On behalf of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, APIB, I thank you for this award. It is an important recognition of the work APIB has been developing. Indigenous peoples are protecting the Amazon rainforest against a genocidal government that values the profits of international corporations at the expense of life — often our own lives.

This award reminds the world that protecting tropical forests like the Amazon is not only an environmental issue, but also a human rights issue. Brazil is one of the most dangerous places to be a defender of human rights and the environment.

In 2019, almost 90 percent of the deaths of environmental advocates in Brazil occurred in the Amazon. In less than a year, my own people, the Guajajara people here in Maranhão, lost five guardians of the forests — all of them murdered.

Violations of indigenous rights have become common in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. All government agencies meant to defend environment and indigenous rights have been dismantled by the current government.

We have to act on our own against this and other threats, such as illegal mining, the invasion of our territories, arson, and now also Covid-19. APIB is monitoring Covid-19 cases among indigenous peoples. Almost 1,000 indigenous people have already been killed and more than 30,000 infected.

We are not talking just about numbers, but also important leaders who have left us too early, about elders who died, taking ancient stories and wisdom with them. And of entire peoples in voluntary isolation who are in danger of disappearing.

Last year, the world was horrified when the Amazon rainforest burned, with plumes of smoke that could be seen from space, with the pollution that turned Brazil’s cities into night for days. That was a tragedy, but this year, unfortunately, the reality is even more disastrous. These fires are criminal acts. The Amazon rainforest does not burn by itself.

Behind every fire that is lit is corporate greed, like agribusiness. And behind them are the largest banks and corporations in the world. They are the ones who profit from this destruction — from every centimeter of land invaded, from every tree cut and burned.

In the flames, they see money.

Through our collective resistance, APIB defends the right of everyone around the world to exist outside this exploitative economic system. That is why we, indigenous peoples and members of APIB, continue to resist and build strategies to expose governments like Bolsonaro’s, agribusiness, mining and energy companies operating in Brazil, and foreign investors like BlackRock, and many others.

All of them are complicit in the destruction of the Amazon, the heart of the world, and in the subsequent human rights violations. Together, they are condemning life on this planet.

For indigenous peoples, destroying indigenous forests and territories is the same as destroying ourselves. Because our territory is our body, our spirit. Indigenous peoples have known for a long time that everything in this life is interconnected. When nature is destroyed in one place, the consequences can be felt on the other side of the world.

Protecting the Amazon is vital for the protection of life on Earth. By defending the Amazon rainforest, and the territories, cultures, and lives of indigenous peoples, APIB is also defending the right to life everywhere. For this reason, I am grateful for this Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.

Only by working together can we defend our environment — and the lives that protect it. We will continue to make the sound of “maracas” heard everywhere, with the help of Brazilian and international allies.

We will continue to fight in our territories and communities, in the Brazilian Congress, in the Supreme Federal Court, in international courts, and in global networks, for our right to exist. We are experiencing an emergency to defend indigenous lives and our territories. We need the world to know this and to do its part.

Indigenous land: not an inch less. Indigenous blood: not a single drop more.