Last month, Indigenous leader Alessandra Korap Munduruku was awarded the 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights prize for her work defending the cultures and rights of Indigenous peoples in Brazil. Since 1984, this annual award offers a $30,000 prize and provides the winner support from its nonprofit organization. It honours activists, either individuals or organizations, around the world for their pursuit of justice and human rights. This year, it was given to the 36-year old female leader of the Munduruku Indigenous tribe, who, since 2015, has played a key role in fighting for indigenous rights and has progressively garnered international attention and support.
Most Brazilian Indigenous communities, which represent more than 800 000 individuals divided into 305 groups, have lived in the Amazon forest for the majority of their existence and rely on its resources for sustaining their livelihoods. The 1988 Brazilian Constitution officially recognized Indigenous peoples as the first, rightful owners of their land. However, since his election, in January 2019, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has adopted economic policies violating these stances and encouraging the exploitation of the rainforest, claiming that “considerations about the planet should not be allowed to inhibit industry”. Bolsonaro’s campaign aims to free the Amazonian land for commercial use, thereby exposing local communities to dangerous schemes such as widespread fires, as well as illegal mining and logging activities. These consequently lead to recurrent invasions of their territories and the violation of their rights to land and livelihoods.
The trajectory for indigenous groups to make their voices heard and have their rights recognized internationally has been rather complicated, as the Brazilian government as well as mainstream media platforms have often neglected their claims. During her fight for indigenous rights, Munduruku claims she has faced grand opposition, violence, and intimidation. Her projects and developments were often refused by government policy and dismissed by the mainstream media. Despite these difficulties, she relentlessly continued to advocate for Indigenous communities to be consulted on decisions that affect their territories and to fight illegal projects endangering them. Her involvement in women’s indigenous organizations, such as the Wakoborûn Indigenous Women’s Association and the Pariri Indigenous Association, has also made her a key figure as a women’s rights defender.
Alongside Munduruku, other indigenous figures have shared similar struggles in making their voices heard. Indigenous peoples have, in fact, organized themselves multiple times to defend their forests and rights, but have rarely succeeded. Just a year ago, in September 2019, dozens of indigenous communities gathered in an effort to discuss the future of their tribes and find solutions to prevent future invasions. Although this initiative, among others, was revealing of indigenous needs and claims, it had little practical effects on governmental policy.
Nowadays, the battle between Indigenous communities and the Brazilian government has reached its tipping point: in recent history, Indigenous peoples have never felt so threatened. Alessandra Munduruku refers to the current situation as the “greatest genocide” in Brazilian history. In fact, the number of legal and illegal activities designed to exploit the Amazon has drastically multiplied. In 2020 alone, a survey found that out of 724 indigenous territories, 448 reported having experienced fires. Furthermore, the government is continuously implementing policies fostering violence and discrimination against Indigenous communities. FUNAI (National Indian Foundation), the federal body in charge of representing Indigenous communities, is facing great threats, as the president has turned this institution into a “farmers organization” run by government appointees seeking to expand commercial agriculture in indigenous territories. Additionally, on February 5, 2020, Bolsonaro presented a draft bill to Congress which would legalize the commercial exploitation of natural resources in Indigenous territories. Under the name of Bill 191, this initiative, today still being discussed in Congress, has the ultimate potential to enhance violence in Indigenous territories by legalizing the violation of their rights.
In the midst of this human rights crisis, the Robert F. Kennedy prize was received with pride and marked a glimpse of hope for the future of Brazilian Indigenous communities. “This award will strengthen our fight in defence of the territory and bring hope to the resistance,” Munduruku said in an interview with the nonprofit organization which bestows the award.
In the past, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award has served as a way to support human rights activists financially and to grant them international recognition. Last year’s winner, The Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, is a collective group from South Texas, whose mission is to provide assistance to asylum seekers along the US-Mexico border. The organization has grown considerably since receiving the award and, today, still holds the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights label in its official logo, highlighting its continued importance.
But what is to say that Munduruku claims will not be dismissed by the international community, like other initiatives by Brazilian indigenous groups in recent years? What does this prize really mean for the future of local communities? In practice, can it really support Munduruku’s fight for human rights, like it has for Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley and other previous award recipients?
Although only the future will reveal if this prize has the potential to lead to real positive change for the indigenous communities of Brazil, its importance cannot be dismissed, as Alessandra Munduruku’s fighting cause is crucial to all of our futures. Her claims not only involve ensuring basic human rights but also the environmental protection of the Brazilian Amazon, which plays a crucial role in our survival as human beings by absorbing harmful CO2 emissions.
However, the Amazon is currently being destroyed via Bolsonaro’s drive for industry. In 2020, it is estimated that deforestation rates have significantly increased to about 9.5%, compared to last year. Environmentalists fear that the situation will soon become unsustainable, if not irreversible. Indigenous communities are among the biggest agents for the environmental protection of the Amazon and, therefore, recognizing their rights and voices is crucial at the international level.
To date, many newspapers, including regional ones, have already recognized Munduruku’s award as an important advancement for the indigenous community, showing that they are not indifferent to her claims. Folha de S.Paulo, for instance, has dedicated an article to the matter, emphasizing Munduruku’s leadership in the Brazilian indigenous realm. Thus, above everything, the 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights prize has revealed the importance of Alessandra Korap Munduruku and other Indigenous peoples’ claims and has officially marked her place as a relevant figure for human rights activism. The award may be perceived as just another step closer to the recognition of Brazilian indigenous’ rights.
Edited by Sarah St-Pierre.
Photo credits: “Comissão de Direitos Humanos e Legislação Participativa (CDH) realiza audiência pública interativa para tratar sobre: “Defesa dos Segmentos mais Vulneráveis”, com foco nos impactos socioambientais do corredor logístico da Amazônia oriental.” by CDH – Comissão de Direitos Humanos e Legislação Participativa taken on 10 March 2020, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. No changes were made.
Ines Navarre is in her third year at McGill University, currently pursuing a B.A. Honours in International Development Studies with a minor in Communication Studies. She serves as an Editor for Catalyst and is particularly interested in Latin American politics as well as global human rights issues.