The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an international UN Women campaign that has been running since 1991 and which provides an opportunity to reflect on the issue of abuse suffered by women around the world. The campaign runs from 25 November to 10 December and this year it takes on special significance in Brazil. As the four long years of the Jair Bolsonaro administration come to an end, a period in which the environment came under systematic attack and environmental activists were persecuted, it is vital that we remember – and never forget – the struggle of the many women in Brazil who stand tall in defence of Mother Earth.
Nowhere have women played a more prominent role in Brazilian environmental activism than in the protection of the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest. Regarded by many as the lungs of the Earth, it is the stage of a critical fight waged by many female activists in defence of both the rainforest and the Indigenous people that inhabit it. The continuous advance of agriculture, cattle ranching and illegal logging across huge swathes of the rainforest is the result of a deliberate policy implemented by the still-incumbent Brazilian president, a policy that involves the loosening of state control measures and regulatory and legal changes that have enabled the destruction of our greatest environmental asset over these last four years.
Many of the country’s female environmental activists have paid the ultimate price for their resistance and many more have been persecuted. Women have always played a significant part in protecting the environment, long before the current president came to power. The death of American nun Dorothy Stang in 2005 at the hands of farmers in the region she chose to live in and defend left an indelible mark on Brazil’s environmental struggle, which had now been shaped by her strength. During Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s first term in office, the police and criminal investigators successfully brought her killers to justice. With Lula da Silva returning to power after the 2022 Brazilian elections, the expectation is for the full force of the law to fall once more on those who insist on taking our lives for defending the world around us.
Aside from safeguarding that world, the main concern of Brazil’s environmental defenders and activists is to protect their own lives. Many of the country’s women and environmental activists experience this fear and anxiety every single day of their lives. It is a constant for anyone fighting to defend the Amazon. While this fear is felt by everybody, it is women who account for most of the victims in a country that has long been afflicted by structural sexism, leading to one of the highest rates of femicide in the world.
The army of female activists combatting the destruction of our planet is large and diverse. It is led by young women, Indigenous women and quilombola (Afro-Brazilian) women, who are the target of choice of people who put personal profit above all else, even if it costs thousands of lives and the very air we all breathe. That is why we must pay lasting tribute to these great women, who deserve to live in safety. Among them is Amanda da Cruz Costa, a Brazilian environmental activist who is making history. A founder of the climate action group Perifa Sustentável Institute, she is a UN Global Compact Youth Adviser, UN Youth Ambassador, TedX Speaker and LinkedIn Top Voice and Creator, and also features on the #ForbesUnder30 list. Her fight is devoted entirely to the climate crisis and environmental racism, advocating for climate justice and sustainability and promoting youth engagement.
Another young female activist is the 21-year-old Artemisa Xakriabá, who represents two of the groups most threatened by environmental destruction: young and Indigenous people. Artemisa rose to prominence with a speech at the 2019 Youth Climate Summit. Speaking on behalf of more than 25 million people from the Indigenous communities of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, she outlined the consequences of climate collapse for Indigenous peoples and the country as a whole. Then there is Maria do Socorro Silva, a quilombola (as the members of the communities formed by fugitive slaves in the days of slavery in Brazil are known) fighting against the environmental degradation caused by the largest aluminium refinery in the Amazon, in the Brazilian state of Para.
Also worthy of praise is Sonia Guajajara, one of the country’s most prominent female Indigenous and environmental leaders. In 2018, she ran for the vice-presidency of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), the first time that an Indigenous person stood for the post. In 2022, she was elected federal Congresswoman for the state of Sao Paulo.
These are just some of the brave women who have taken on the fight to protect the environment. Now that the eyes of the world are on Brazil again following the election of Lula da Silva and considering the vital need to protect the environment in Brazil, particularly the Amazon, it is essential that we also focus our attention on the guarantees that the state must offer its environmental activists. They are driven by an unshakeable belief in justice and have been so cruelly persecuted for years.
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign gains strength from women coming forward to the police and from the focus on justice and human rights. A country that damages the environment is also, almost as a matter of course, home to slave labour, child exploitation, abuse, land theft, and many other scourges.
May we protect women from all kinds of violence and safeguard their right to live in a society free of sexism and femicide. And may the fight to end gender-based violence also be embraced by everyone, including men.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.