Alessandra Korap of the Munduruku tribe conducts a boat patrol on the Jamanxim River with Chief Juarez, 61, while monitoring illegal mining on Indigenous land in the Amazon.

These women are fighting for their Indigenous land and the survival of the Amazon

Updated 7:13 AM ET, Fri December 24, 2021

(CNN)Indigenous women in Brazil have traditionally been excluded from taking on leadership roles that were often filled by tribal patriarchs. But those roles shifted in recent years as threats against their land rights and natural resources escalated.

Women are breaking down barriers, speaking out and joining the frontlines of the battle against rampant deforestation, extractive activities and the worsening climate catastrophe.
O-é Kaiapó Paiakan, a member of the Mebêngôkre people in the Kayapó tribe of Brazil, is one of those women. After her father, the iconic Kayapó leader Paulinho Paiakan, passed away from Covid-19 in June 2020, the 38-year-old took the reins as chief and is carrying her father's legacy as one of the greatest pioneers of Brazil's Indigenous environmental movement.
Fires burn in September along the Trans-Amazonian Highway near the Aripuanã National Forest, in the state of Amazonas in Brazil. Deforestation continues at an extraordinary rate in the Amazon, led by land clearing for meat producers and cattle ranchers, along with illegal mining. The most common means of deforestation is by fire, when ranchers burn the land in order to create farms to raise and graze cattle.
Paiakan said Indigenous women have always been powerful. But as climate and environmental threats worsen, they are stepping out of the confines of their homes to attend college and find their voices in spaces traditionally dominated by men.
"Kayapó women have always been fighting," she said. "From us, resistance is born. From us come men, children, life. The woman completes herself with nature, and we have always been part of the resistance along with the men."
Tejubi Uru eu Wau Wau walks through Indigenous land owned by her tribe near Montenegro in Rondônia. Parts of her tribe's land has been burned for cattle ranching. "I feel saddress when I enter this land. This is land that our ancestors gave us," Tejubi said. "It's hard to express how I feel."
Since becoming village chief, Paiakan has been working hard to understand the legalities of protecting Indigenous territories and how to confront structures of power who are challenging their rights. She also created an educational space for tribal women to get involved and learn more about politics and the environmental threats they face.
"Women build the culture; the elder women have a very important role in keeping oral histories alive which they pass on to the children, so we don't lose our language and culture," Paiakan said. "Women today have been meeting to talk about these issues and they are taking space from the chiefs, taking decisions along with them, to coordinate their communities and be part of the political space where these issues are discussed."
Alessandra Korap, a female leader and climate change activist from the Munduruku tribe, meets with members of the Sawré Muybu village before setting off on a patrol to monitor illegal Amazon mining.
While environmental threats are not new in the Amazon, the rise of the right-wing government under President Jair Bolsonaro allowed an explosion of industrial development from oil and gas exploration, logging and mining. These activities have pushed deeper into the region, razing trees on Indigenous land in search of profits.
The Bolsonaro administration and Brazil's congress have aligned with the agribusiness, mining and timber sectors to recently bring into law what's known as "Marco Temporal" — a rule that says Indigenous peoples' right to land will only be recognized if they can prove they occupied it in 1988, when the latest Brazilian constitution was adopted.
O-é Kaiapó Paiakan conducts a radio with other Indigenous chiefs while at home with her family in Redenção in the state of Para. "Kayapó women have always fighting," she said. "From us, resistance is born. From us come men, children, life. The woman completes herself with nature, and we have always been part of the resistance along with the men."