- In May 2019, some 200 representatives from 16 different ethnicities gathered for the first women’s summit in the Xingu Indigenous Territory’s in the state of Mato Grosso. Feeling under threat from policies regarding native peoples under the Jair Bolsonaro administration and tired of their community roles being restricted to domestic tasks, the women met to discuss ways to occupy leadership roles alongside men and, in doing so, gain strength to protect their territory.
- Even though many men in the Xingu still disapprove of female empowerment, the event itself already led to changes in local gender relationships: During the summit, some domestic partners took responsibility for household tasks and childcare while the women were away. In the village where the event was held, the men took over traditional female jobs like collecting food, fishing and cooking for the hundreds of women present.
- This is a particularly delicate time in the region: 147 square kilometers (57.8 square miles) of the forest were destroyed in the Xingu Socio-environmental Biodiversity Corridor between July and August 2019 — 172% more than occurred during the same period last year. A mosaic composed of 21 indigenous reserves and nine conservation units, the corridor is home to one of Earth’s largest concentrations of environmental diversity.
“We don’t think about selling wood or any part of the Earth to get money. We have so many ways to support ourselves that we don’t need to destroy anything.” This declaration came from Anna Terra Yawalapiti in her speech at the opening ceremony of the first summit of the women of the Xingu Indigenous Territory in the state of Mato Grosso, which brought together 16 native peoples in May 2019.
Feeling threatened by policies regarding native peoples under Jair Bolsonaro’s administration and tired of roles in their communities limiting them to domestic tasks, the women decided to not put off their right to occupy positions of power alongside men any longer. With a unified discourse asking to be able to walk side by side with their spouses and relatives, “neither in front nor behind,” the objective is to become the spokespeople for their own desires.
“Each woman, each leadership has their own way of thinking,” said Ana Terra Yawalapiti in her speech. “There are women fighting to preserve their culture, women fighting to preserve traditional foods, others fighting for a voice, others for politics outside our territory. We’ve brought all this together to create one thing. Our voice is unified, and doesn’t overpower them (the men), but must also be respected by them.”
Over four days, these women from different ethnicities, customs and languages discussed the difficulties of living in a society that favors men in decision-making processes and how to break down such barriers. They didn’t come away with all the answers, but they did come away with the conviction that they must try. Most participants agreed that it will not be an easy task but claimed that events like the dismantling of the federal native support program known as FUNAI, legalization of mining and prospecting on indigenous lands, the lack of new reserves and the proposed occupations of the Amazon rainforest by the current administration call for urgent action.
The summit was held at Ilha Grande village in the central Xingu and brought together some 200 native women, all concerned with deforestation in the region and climate change, including higher temperatures, which are already affecting planting seasons and day-to-day life in their villages. They shared experiences of having to relearn planting calendars and losing subsistence crops due to changes in the rain cycle — due to either heavy rains or drought.
The women’s experiences are in accordance with data from Sirad-X, the Rede Xingu+ deforestation monitoring system, which is a network of native people, river dwellers and their partners who live or work in the Xingu basin. The latest information shows that 147 square kilometers (57.8 square miles) of forest were destroyed in the Xingu Socio-environmental Biodiversity Corridor between July and August 2019 — 172% more than occurred during the same period last year.
The corridor, located between the states of Pará and Mato Grosso, comprises over 260,000 km2 (100,000 mi2) of protected land, a mosaic of 21 indigenous reserves and nine conservation units that is home to one of the largest concentrations of environmental and cultural diversity in the world. But these treasures are all threatened by increased invasions, illegal land sales, wildfires, illegal mining and theft of trees for wood, resulting in high deforestation rates.
Watatakalu Yawalapiti, one of the leaders of the women’s movement, claims that her neighbors are cutting trees and killing the surrounding forest. “Many people say it’s too much forest for so few Indians, but we say that, in fact, we are very few to clean up the amount of damage you (non-natives) do to our planet.”
Originally named the Xingu Indigenous Park when it was created 58 years ago during the Jânio Quadros administration, the Xingu Indigenous Territory was the first large reserve created by the Brazilian federal government. It has been facing a series of challenges in recent decades ranging from deforestation and replacement of forests with monocultures ridden with pesticides, wildfires and large infrastructure projects — all of which directly affect the availability of natural resources important to indigenous peoples. One example is the creation of lots along federal highway BR-242 only 12 km (7 mi) from the southern edge of the Xingu Indigenous Territory, which could impact the basin’s main rivers and eliminate important forest springs in the region.
Mapulu Kamayurá, a shaman and one of the pioneers of the Xingu women’s movement, is worried because many plants used for medical treatment have disappeared from the forest. This led her to defend unity between men and women in the fight to protect what is still left of the forest.
“We can’t be left behind. Before, men would hold meetings, and there was no space for women. Today we have a place together with them. Now, we must fight together against the government. The forest is running out, and we have to hold on, to fight for our forest,” said Mapulu Kamayurá.
According to Elizângela Baré, representative of one of the tribes along the upper Rio Negro in the state of Amazonas at the Xingu summit, it’s impossible to talk about defending the territory, indigenous rights, sustainability and politics if women aren’t present. However, she says, “Not all the tribes let their women leave their homes and territory to participate in large events and speak their minds as indigenous women. It’s a tradition we’re slowly breaking down.”
Men in the kitchen
A review of the traditional indigenous modus operandi had to take place in order for the women’s summit to happen, even if it was an isolated incident. Women were away from home for days at a time, and some domestic partners took over household and childcare responsibilities. According to Watatakalu Yawalapiti, many husbands said they supported their wives’ participation in the summit. However, some women faced setbacks when they arrived back home, more so from younger leaders than the elders, she said.
“There were husbands who felt the women’s movement was changing their wives, and this was very difficult for the women — some of whom came under attack,” said Watatakalu. “But now we are building a dialogue, not only with the elder leaders but also with the younger male leadership in order to break this down.”
In many parts of the Xingu, the collaboration between men and women is moving forward. In the Ilha Grande village where the meeting was held, the men undertook all the tasks considered “feminine” so the women could dialogue during the four days. They worked in the fields, fished, cooked on both wood and gas stoves and had mood swings when the temperature in the kitchen got too hot because of the fire. The women enjoyed seeing how the men got to feel a bit of how they do in their day-to-day tasks.
“Since the summit belongs to the women, the men have taken over their jobs. This is why they are cooking, fishing and doing everything the women usually do,” said Sinharo Kaiabi, Ilha Grande’s chief, during the event.
The women from the Xingu also participated as a group in the First Brazilian Indigenous Women’s March in Brasilia in August, which brought together some 2,000 women from 100 different ethnicities from the Amazon, the Cerrado, the Atlantic Rainforest, the Pantanal, the Caatinga and the Coastline regions. With the theme “Territory, our body, our spirit,” the goal was to make themselves visible and use their voices to defend their lands and occupy spaces beyond their communities.
The women from the Xingu were at the center of one of the event’s strongest scenes, where they formed a sort of human rope facing the line of security guards protecting the headquarters of the Special Indigenous Health Secretariat, an agency inside the Ministry of Health. Watatakalu Yawalapiti, armed with her maracá — a traditional shaker used in rituals — placed herself between the two lines of people and walked the entire corridor looking each security guard in the eye and telling them she was not afraid of them. The men backed off, and the women celebrated.
“After everything was over, many men saw the women’s movement as something trying to take away their positions,” said Watatakalu. “We had to be very patient and listen to what they think, because it isn’t easy for them to throw away their beliefs from one moment to the next. But I think they came to understand that the indigenous women’s movement will help them. This was very important because we had always said that we wanted to take part, not by ourselves but alongside them.”
The result of all this is that next year’s women’s summit is expected to be even bigger and should include native women from other parts of Brazil engaged in more advanced and intense debates. Preparations are already underway, and they guarantee that this is only the beginning.
Watch the documentary, Women of the Xingu, filmed during the event:
This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Dec. 6, 2019.