- Indigenous leader and human rights activist Alessandra Korap Munduruku was one of the six winners of this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the “Green Nobel Prize.”
- The award recognizes her relentless resistance to illegal mining within the Munduruku Indigenous Territory, including prospecting attempts by mining giant Anglo American.
- In an interview with Mongabay, Alessandra discusses what the prize means to her, the policy changes she’s seeing in Brazil, and the current crisis in the Munduruku territory.
- While she praises some actions of the current government, she says her fight isn’t over yet, as she warns of possible environmental issues arising from upcoming infrastructure projects.
When Alessandra Korap Munduruku noticed that illegal gold miners were contaminating her community’s rainforest-clad territory, it sparked the beginning of an unabated campaign against illegal mining. That mission took her from her village in Brazil’s Pará state to the world stage as a human rights activist. Eight years later, during which Alessandra also confronted mining giant Anglo American, the Indigenous leader was awarded the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes notable grassroots environmental activism.
“This award reflects the importance of Alessandra’s work as a leader, for representing the people who are critical for biodiversity conservation, which is also under attack by private mining interests,” Kenzo Jucá, a socioenvironmental consultant who has worked on environmental legislation in Brazil’s Congress for more than 20 years, told Mongabay by phone.
Alessandra talked to Mongabay from San Francisco via video call, where she was due to receive the award, about a range of issues: what winning the prize means to her; changes in Brazil’s environmental policies and on Indigenous peoples; and the challenges ahead. Although the spotlight is firmly on her, she used the collective “we” when talking about her campaigns, as a way of acknowledging the other individuals and organizations who work alongside her. “We always talk collectively, because we are in the fight together,” she said.
Winning the award hasn’t taken her focus away from the bigger goal, she said: “We never entered the fight to win prizes, we joined it to remove the invaders who are inside our territory.” But it does count as a positive indication that her efforts are on the right track. “The whole world will recognize our fight,” she said. “This award came to tell me that in all this struggle, we are capable of forcing out any company that wants to negotiate, that wants our death.”
Her vocal campaign resulted in Anglo American withdrawing 27 research applications to mine within Indigenous lands in 2021, a triumphant outcome for the Indigenous movement. However, the troubles persist within the Munduruku Indigenous Territory, a 2.4 million hectare (5.9 million acre) sprawl of Amazon Rainforest in the upper Tapajós River Basin. Having been invaded by illegal gold miners since the 1980s, a study found that all Munduruku people have some level of mercury contamination, which is now affecting children born with life-changing defects, according to a new report from investigative news outlet Repórter Brasil.
Alessandra’s reaction to these events within her territory has been one of action and a quest for accountability. “It is the responsibility of the government and the companies that supply this mercury,” she said. “We won’t stop the fight until we have an answer, to get these invaders off the land and to stop mining.”
As she accepted her Goldman award on April 24, thousands of people protested in Brasília for constitutional rights and demarcation of Indigenous territories during the Free Land Camp 2023 protest, a sign of a growing trend of Indigenous leaders and activists demanding policy changes. “This growth of resistance is, in fact, a reflection of the growing pressure of economic interests in these territories,” said Jucá, the congressional consultant. “This type of public denunciation is important to both control the attacks in the territory and to help structure public policies.”
Protesting and gaining recognition through globally acclaimed awards also helps bring international awareness to the global gold market, experts say. “It’s so important that countries that consume this gold know where it comes from,” José Augusto Sampaio, an anthropologist and associate of the National Association of Indigenist Actions (ANAI), told Mongabay by phone. “This gold is illegally mined, traded, and exported. But when it arrives abroad, it becomes legal.”
Sampaio said bringing more attention to Alessandra’s work through this award can help keep her safe from the risks she encounters in her activism. “She has been the victim of death threats, she needs to be protected,” he said. “All this visibility may help protect her.”
Changing Brazil’s environmental policies
When Alessandra last spoke with Mongabay, in 2019, it was nine months into the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, and the start of a long series of destructive actions against the environment. Her major concerns back then were agribusiness, logging and infrastructure construction, such as ports, hydroelectric plants and railways, fueled by global demand for the commodities that could be extracted from the rainforest. Fast forward three and a half years, and the same issues linger.
“They are all responsible,” Alessandra said, linking the current deforestation in the Amazon to the appetite of developed countries for soy, gold and iron. “This is not only our responsibility, not only the Brazilian government’s, but everyone’s responsibility.”
Although the same problems persist, a lot has changed in Brazil since 2019, especially a new government taking office at the start of this year. “I took steps to defeat Bolsonaro with great pride,” Alessandra said. “I was part of it because we couldn’t stand suffering any longer.” Bolsonaro’s environmentally hostile policies over the past four years meant no Indigenous lands were demarcated (officially recognized by the government) and illegal mining in protected areas hit record levels. Alessandra regularly stood up to Bolsonaro’s policies and rhetoric by speaking at international events and participating in local protests.
Now, under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, she sees the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and the increasing numbers of Indigenous representatives in Congress as progress. However, it’s “not enough,” Alessandra said. “We want much more. We want the demarcation of our territory, we want the government to consult us for every decision taken that could affect us.”
This is especially relevant given the slate of infrastructure projects that appear imminent as Brazil boosts its relations with China. These pose a threat to the environment and traditional communities, Alessandra says. “[Lula] is already negotiating in China, and they are interested in IT [information technology] infrastructure and agribusiness,” she said. “And that makes us worried because our territory is on top of that, and they will want to go over our land.”
During Lula’s visit to China in April, both countries encouraged reciprocal investments in infrastructure, energy, mining and agriculture. These include plans to build new railways and ports — infrastructure developments that have historically harmed the environment and those who live in the region, especially Indigenous and riverine communities.
For Alessandra, her struggle for Indigenous rights has seen several victories in the last few years, but there’s still work to be done — and she has no intention of slowing down yet. “I’m very proud to have fought, and I’ll keep fighting, any genocide that comes and any attempts to make decisions without consulting Indigenous peoples,” she said.
Banner image: Indigenous leader Alessandra Korap Munduruku confronted Anglo American over its attempts to mine on protected Indigenous land, leading the mining giant to withdraw its prospecting applications. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
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