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Fighting For The Forest

The health of the Amazon Rainforest is crucial to the survival of humanity. It is being burned and poisoned. But a brave young indigenous leader is fighting back.

By Chris Cummins

This week a strong young indigenous woman from the Amazon has been in Austria trying to drum up support for international efforts to save the Amazon rainforest. Tonight she will address the Erdgespräche in Vienna with a simple message: “Help us. Please help us. We are afraid.”

6 years ago, at the age of 24, Juma Xipaia, became chief of the Carima community, part of the Xipaia indigenous lands in Altamira in the Brazilian state of Para. She is a mother, a medical student and a leader in a struggle that is perhaps the most important battle in the world. It’s the fight to save the Earth’s lungs.

The indigenous lands of Brazil are officially protected by law but they are currently riddled with parasitical raiders who are burning, denuding and poisoning the land. “I am here to denounce invaders to our lands and to urgently ask you and all legal entities for support,” Juma says.

She has set up an institute to help make her struggle internationally known. It would be in our own interest to give her that support. Juma’s fight is our fight. If she loses, we all lose.


Instituto Juma

The health of the Amazon is vital to humanity’s very survival. But we are treating it with utter contempt. 17% of the forest has disappeared over the past 50 years, and, despite all the scientific warnings this rate has increased in recent years.

For decades this vital ecosystem has been burned, logged and cleared for agriculture; often to grow the soy that feeds the meat industry. Now illegal gold miners, known as garimpeiros, are poisoning local indigenous lands and rivers and bringing disease and violence to indigenous communities.

This week Juma met President Alexander Van der Bellen and Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler and confronted them with a blunt message: "Gold miners have invaded the indigenous Xipaia land,” she says. “We need help now. Not tomorrow or later, because they are destroying our territory right now.”

She’s calling on international pressure because she can’t count on the support of the Brazilian government, although, in theory, it is legally obliged to come to her aid. Intrusions by garimpeiros in indigenous reserves have intensified under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who plans to open some of the areas to mining and agriculture.

A Dangerous President

Bolsonaro has been openly dismissive of indigenous culture. He has said that he believes the Amazon needs to be „developed“ as part of the modernisation of Brazil.

His own father was a garimpeiro. Funding for the environmental police has been dramatically reduced under his presidency. Bolsonaro has also said that the environmental police should no longer destroy the equipment used for deforestation.

Der brasilianische Präsident Jair Bolsonaro


It seems that all of this has led to a sense of impunity among the illegal miners. “They do what they want because they know nothing will happen to them," a local leader in the Yanomami territory recently told the BBC.

This has given the indigenous communities the feeling that they are alone against a violent and ruthless enemy. “Leaders and warriors from other villages are coming to our village to try to persuade the invaders through dialogue to leave our territory,” reports Juma, “but we don’t know in which way this encounter will turn out: and I am very afraid that they will be received with violence and weapons.” Just before leaving for Vienna her own father was beaten up by gun-toting garimpeiros.

Indeed, because she speaks out, Juma has faced death-threats and physical intimidation and attacks. Brazilian authorities have not protected her; the police have broken up rallies in which has she has addressed the issues of illegal mining. The indigenous protesters have been dispersed with cudgels and tear gas.

Illegale Goldmine in Brasilien


Millions of dollars are being earned through the illegal mines, and indigenous rights campaigners point out that wherever you find millions of black-market dollars, you inevitably also find corruption. The impunity extended to the garimpeiros suggests strongly that this corruption extends to law-enforcement.

The illegal gold miners have a devastating impact on local indigenous communities. Their crude mining techniques pollute rivers with mercury, which is used to separate gold from mud. The miners have also been blamed for bringing alcohol, drugs and, most recently, Covid-19, into the communities.

a burned forest

Instituto Juma

This illegal mining is only part of the vast ecological catastrophe in the Amazon, but the tacit support given to the destructive and often murderous activities of the garimpeiros is depressing. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year, 141 world leaders, including Bolsonaro, promised to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of this decade. But there is little sign that that is happening.

This battle couldn’t be more important: if we lose the carbon-sinking powers of the Amazon and its incredible biodiversity, humanity is lost too.