The Amazon's best hope? A female indigenous chief is on a mission to save Brazil's forests

"If the forest is gone, people will also end," says Ajareaty Waiapi, a female chief and grandmother working to preserve her community — and the planet's lungs.
Chief Ajareaty Waiapi shows her 5-year-old grandson, Heron, around the local village plantation where cassava, bananas, peanuts and potatoes are grown.
Chief Ajareaty Waiapi shows her 5-year-old grandson, Heron, around the local village plantation where cassava, bananas, peanuts and potatoes are grown.Teresa Tomassoni

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By Teresa Tomassoni

AMAPÁ, Brazil — Ajareaty Waiapi is the oldest student in her high school geography class. But attending school at the age of 59 is a critical part of her mission to save her people and her lands in the Amazon rainforest.

As one of the indigenous Waiapi people's few female chiefs, she's in a race against time. She's determined to tell fellow Brazilians and the rest of the world that saving her indigenous community in the remote northern region of the country is in everyone's best interest.

“Our concern is that if the forest is gone, people will also end,” Ajareaty, who also goes by Nazaré, said during a visit to her village in March.

For the last several weeks, lands to the west of Amapá have been ablaze with wildfires that experts allege were likely started by illegal cattle ranchers and loggers who have been emboldened by Brazil's right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro to stake their claim on resource-rich indigenous lands.

Chief Ajareaty Waiapi. Teresa Tomassoni

Nazaré and other Waiapi elders predicted such devastation would incur months ago as they learned of Bolsonaro’s repeated promises to open indigenous lands and those belonging to descendants of slaves, known as quilombolas, for agribusiness and mining.

“If we humans misuse this planet, our creator will make a great flood that will melt the planet, there will be great fires and fires that will destroy the planet,” Ororiwa Waiapi, 98, said earlier this year.

Deforestation's dangers

In less than a year, Bolsonaro has dismantled the country’s agencies tasked with protecting the environment and indigenous peoples. Consequently, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has surged so much that scientists warn the Amazon could begin transforming into a savanna incapable of serving any longer as one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks responsible for helping stabilize the global climate. In July, around 860 square miles of rainforest were destroyed, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, resulting in a total loss of forest coverage bigger than the size of Los Angeles and New York City combined.

The forest provides food, shelter and medicine that the Waiapi have depended on for generations. In turn, Nazaré and many other conservationists say indigenous groups in Brazil like the Waiapi are some of the best stewards of the world’s largest rainforest, which produces 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen and is often referred to as the “lungs of the planet.”

Nazaré was determined to learn Portuguese so she could “talk with the white man out in the meetings.” Since then, she has spent the last several years traveling from her remote thatched-roof village to Brazil, Colombia and Germany, to advocate for her people’s rights to education, health care and land, all of which are currently being jeopardized under the Bolsonaro administration.

Most Waiapi women do not speak Portuguese, which is why there are not many female Waiapi chiefs, she explained. Her three sisters did not go to school.

Sitting in the front row of an open-air schoolhouse in Brazil’s northern Amazon rainforest, she is surrounded by younger classmates whose faces and arms are painted with bold red and black geometric patterns representing fish scales and butterfly wings.

As the buzz of cicadas, birds and monkey calls reverberate through the room, Ajareaty stares intently through her glasses at a laptop broadcasting a documentary about the spread of logging, cattle ranching and mining in the Amazon.

Waiapi students in class at the local open-air schoolhouse.Teresa Tomassoni

One of the land areas Bolsonaro has vowed to open is the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), which includes some land belonging to the Waiapi.

“Let’s talk about Renca. Renca is ours,” Bolsonaro said during a televised event in April. “Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the well-being of our population.”

But opening Renca for mining would be “reckless and dangerous,” said Christian Poirier, a program director at Amazon Watch, an indigenous-rights advocacy group. Not only would the forest be destroyed, he said, but local water sources also could easily become polluted.

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In other areas of Brazil where mining is taking place, people have high levels of heavy metals in their blood, especially children, he said.

Alexandre Vidigal, Brazil’s secretary of geology, mining and mineral transformation for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said this is not likely to occur in the future, as all proposed mining projects and companies will be investigated by his agency before projects are launched. If there is any indication that waters may be contaminated, the companies will not be authorized to pursue their projects, he said. He also said no mining will take place on indigenous lands without first consulting indigenous groups.

“It is impossible to think about mineral exploitation on indigenous lands without their communities’ previous authorization,” Vidigal said.

But according to another recent report, the government is in the process of introducing legislation to Brazil’s congress this fall that would make it easier to mine in indigenous territories.

Waiapi men dance and play flutes on the river.Apu Gomes / AFP-Getty Images file

The Waiapi say they will do everything they can to prevent this from happening on their lands.

This mission, Amazon Watch's Poirier said, is crucial.

“Indigenous peoples are a critical component to forest protection and the protection of our planet as a result,” he said.

Surviving, now fighting to remain

Miners already almost decimated the group in the 1970s by exposing them to the measles virus, chief Tzako Waiapi, 90, remembers. Lounging in a hammock at his village not far from Nazaré’s home, the toothless elder recalled watching most of his community succumb to the disease and almost dying himself.

“I lost many people in my family — girls, children, adults, young people,” he said in his native Waiapi language. “There was only sadness.”

By the time the Brazilian government heard of the health crisis and made contact with the Waiapi for the first time in 1973 to vaccinate them, there were only around 150 of his people left. Without those vaccines, Tzako said, he believes the Waiapi would be extinct.

Currently, there are almost 1,500 Waiapi living in 92 small villages camouflaged amidst dense rainforest in their area of the northern Amazon near French Guiana. Some are only accessible by 10 days of walking through the jungle or five days on a boat. All villages are off-limits to the public as is noted on signposts along the only unpaved road that leads into Waiapi territory.

Waiapi vigilantly monitor any abnormal activity along this road. Heads perk at the faintest sound of an infrequent car approaching their villages and drivers are immediately flagged down and vetted by multiple village members. They wear identical scarlet colored loin cloths or skirts, some have rifles or bundles of bows and arrows, which are used for hunting jungle game such as wild boar or armadillo, slung over their shoulder.

The Waiapi’s land was officially demarcated and recognized by the Brazilian government in 1996, which became a great source of pride for the community after Nazaré’s late husband and other Waiapi elders went through a lengthy process of mapping out and physically marking its borders by clearing small sections of forest. Having demarcated land means this area is reserved exclusively for the indigenous community’s use and is protected under Brazil’s constitution.

But demarcated lands do not ward off all intruders, as was demonstrated last month when heavily armed illegal gold miners invaded their territory and murdered one of their leaders, chief Emyra Waiapi.

Still, in order to prevent more frequent invasions, Nazaré says it's important for community members to rotate the villages they live in so that all of their land is consistently occupied and their borders remain well defined, even in the most remote of areas.

“If we do not clear the demarcation, the miners and lumbermen can go in hiding,” she explained. “I tell all this to my family, and they are listening to me. It's true, everyone listens to me.”

Passing it on

But finding her voice took time. Nazaré started school at age 38, much to the dismay of one of her teachers who, she said, called her “an old parrot who does not know how to learn.” But such name-calling did not deter her.

Now, Nazaré is encouraging all Waiapi to pursue their education while also teaching the traditional ways of living and protecting the forest that have been passed on for generations.

Waiapi walk on the road at Pinoty village in Amapa state in Brazil in 2017.Apu Gomes / AFP-Getty Images file

Every morning, she coats her body with a bright red oily paint made from fuschia colored seed pods blossoming on the achiote bush near her home. The paint protects her from the sun, insect bites, scratches and is believed to ward off evil spirits.

She explains this as she begins her daily routine of trekking through the jungle in her traditional bright red knee-length skirt, checking on neighboring villages to make sure they are healthy and have enough to eat and everyone is getting along.

“Watch out for snakes,” she warns repeatedly. She navigates narrow jungle trails with her infant granddaughter resting quietly on her hip in a colorfully woven sling while her 5-year-old grandson, Heron, and his dog trail behind.

Along the way, she points out the bark of a tree that is brewed into a tea and used to stop fevers and diarrhea, a bright orange flower that can cure an earache and leaves that are used to treat snakebites.

Passing on her ancestors’ traditional knowledge of plant medicine is particularly important right now, she says, since the government has cut budgets for health care workers in indigenous communities. She's also constantly teaching the community how to plant and harvest plantations of bananas, sugarcane, potatoes, peanuts, acai and cassava, according to Nazaré’s daughter, Karota Waiapi, 20, who Nazaré hopes will follow in her footsteps and become a chief someday.

Chief Ajareaty Waiapi's daughter, Karota Waiapi, hopes to be chief someday like her mother.Teresa Tomassoni

“She always tells me to be chief in the future, to talk to all the relatives, to talk with the young people as well, so that the young people speak what she says,” Karota said.

Nazaré shows how to clear small areas of forest for their plantations using controlled fires and emphasizes the importance of moving the location of community plantations every few years in order to let the forest regenerate.

She also teaches them how to fish, weave baskets out of palm fronds and spin spools of locally grown cotton. She shows them how to use their staple crop, cassava, to make flatbread, tapioca and a milky colored fermented drink called Caxiri — all to ensure her people’s survival and autonomy.

And in spite of the ongoing threats from the outside world, she teaches them to celebrate, to sing and to dance.

At a festive party one afternoon, she rallies the women of her village to gather in a line, holding hands, teaching them a song that has been passed on for generations.

“We are singing for the butterfly,” Nazaré said. According to Waiapi legend, butterflies are constantly flying around tying invisible strings that hold the planet in place. If we don't take care of the butterflies and their home, she says, they will not be happy and will stop working, causing the earth to fall.

Teresa Tomassoni is a freelance journalist covering social and environmental issues. You can follow her on Instagram at @Ttomassoni.

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