Amazon ‘Women Warriors’ Show Gender Equality, Forest Conservation Go Hand in Hand

Maisa Guajajara, march of indigenous women, Brasilia, 2019.
Image courtesy Marquinho Mota/FAOR.

By Rosamaria Loures and Sarah Sax
NEW YORK, Aug 27 2020 (IPS)

On an early December morning last year in the state of
Maranhão, Brazil, half a dozen members of the Indigenous Guajajara
people packed their bags with food, maps and drone equipment to get
ready for a patrol. They said goodbye to their children, uncertain
when, or whether, they would see them again. Then, they hoisted
their bags over their shoulders and set out to patrol a section of
the 173,000 hectares (428,000 acres) of
the primary rainforest they call home.

This is the Caru Indigenous Territory, where the Amazon peters
out toward the northeastern coast of Brazil, and it contains some
of the last stretches of intact, contiguous forest in Maranhão. It
is also under increasing threat: this part of Brazil has been
ravaged by some of the country’s highest rates of deforestation
and land conflicts over the past decade.

Patrols led by Indigenous groups like theirs, known often by the
moniker of “Forest Guardians,” have been instrumental in
enforcing protections and preventing loggers from entering
Indigenous territories.

Patrols and their enforcement tactics, which have been ramping
up over the past decade, have also resulted in community members
being threatened, attacked, and killed — as in the case of Paulo
Paulino Guajajara last year, who was murdered
in a neighboring Indigenous territory.

Called guerreiras da floresta in Portuguese, this is the name
these women have given themselves. They are in many ways an
embodiment of what policymakers, politicians and scholars around
the world say is a necessary shift toward gender equality in
environmental movements

But members of the patrol that set out through the forest last
December don’t call themselves guardians; they prefer warriors.
And they differ in one other notable aspect: they are all

“Why did we take the initiative? Because we are mothers. If we
don’t act, there would be no forest standing,” said Paula
Guajajara, one of the “women warriors of the forest,” in a
public event last year.

Called guerreiras da floresta in Portuguese, this is the name
these women have given themselves. They are in many ways an
embodiment of what policymakers, politicians and scholars around
the world say is a necessary shift toward gender equality in
environmental movements.

And they are contributing not just womanpower to the patrols —
they are also helping to diversify the tactics and forge new

In Brazil in particular, where protecting intact forests is one
of the cheapest, easiest and most effective solutions for combating climate change, the work
they are doing is literally saving the world.


Creating a space and finding their voice

Actively patrolling their land for invaders is nothing new to
the Guajajara; Indigenous people have more than 500 years of
experience in this. Today, they use satellite technology and
coordinate efforts with outside law enforcement to achieve their
goals. This approach is relatively new, but its use has been on the
rise in recent years.

“Across the country more of these groups are forming because
of government inaction — or worse, because the government is
actively trying to exploit their lands,†Sarah Shenker, campaign
coordinator for Survival International’s Uncontacted Tribes team, said in an

These groups are primarily men, although women are sometimes
included in the patrols. But according to Shenker, as well as other
experts interviewed for this article, to have “forest guardianâ€
groups made up solely of women is unique.

The women warriors were formed six years ago, an offshoot of a
program developed by Indigenous organizations and the Brazilian
government and implemented by the Ministry of the Environment to
enhance the territorial and cultural protection of Indigenous
people, called Projeto Demonstrativo de Povos Indígenas (PDPI) in

At the time, the predominantly male forest guardians were
attempting to end illegal logging and the sale of wood from their
territory — a task that was proving extremely difficult. Seeing
this, the women stepped in and formed their own group consisting
originally of 32 women.

“In order not to let the project end, we, the Guajajara women,
entered and took over the project,†Cícera Guajajara da Silva,
one of the women warriors, said in an interview.

But the path to being taken seriously and treated as equals has
been long.

“To seek partnership, we walked, talked, slept on the floor
— all in order to seek improvement for our community,†Paula
Guajajara said, recalling the initial difficulty in being heard and
taken seriously inside and outside of the communities.

Their patience has paid off, and the women are quick to point
out the support and close collaboration of the male forest
guardians that has allowed them to combat the greater goal of
stopping illegal logging. “Today we have the women warriors who
work together with the forest guardians,†Paula Guajajara said.
“We’ve already evicted a lot of loggers. If we hadn’t acted,
there would be no forest standing.â€

Many of the married women had already been acting independently,
accompanying their husbands in some activities, according to
Gilderlan Rodrigues da Silva, the Maranhão coordinator of the
Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a Catholic Church-affiliated
organization, who has worked with the women warriors. “But, from
the moment they created the women’s group, they gained strength
and visibility,†he said in an interview. “Once they were
formed, there was this very strong change. Both in the context of
decreasing the invasions and waking up to the collective awareness
to protect the territory.â€


The direct and indirect impacts of greater

The results are clearly visible. In 2018, there was only 63
hectares (156 acres) of deforestation in the reserve, compared to
2016, when deforestation reached a high of 2,000 hectares (4,940
acres), according to Global Forest Watch. “The biggest
achievement I see today in my village is because of the territorial
protection, there are no loggers within our territory, and we
managed to combat the sale of wood,†Cícera Guajajara da Silva

The women’s association has also been instrumental in
connecting with other Indigenous groups similarly seeking to
protect their territories, such as the Ka’apor, Awa-Guaja, and
other Guajajara communities.

“There are 16 Indigenous territories in Maranhão — we have
to seek unity to move forward in our struggle,†said Maísa
Guajajara, one of the original women warriors. Through coordination
with other women’s groups, like the Articulation of Indigenous
Women of Maranhão (AMIMA), they were able to bring 200 Indigenous women from
around the state together for the first time in 2017 to talk about
various issues, including territorial protection, reforestation,
and environmental education.

“This whole movement is extremely important because it shows
this strength, and that women have a lot to contribute to the
movement because they are part of the territory and are concerned
with it, and with future generations,†Rodrigues da Silva told

They don’t just coordinate with other Indigenous groups; they
also conduct training with neighboring communities about the
importance of environmental conservation. “Not all women do
surveillance work because we know it is dangerous work, but there
are always some who do,†Maísa Guajajara said.

“The warriors generally do more surveillance activities
outside the territory, we give lectures around our territory to
talk about the invasions within our territory, and we raise
awareness in the villages by talking about the importance of
keeping nature standing.â€

For example, the women warriors are partners in the Mãe
D’água (Mother of Water) project that, together with the
Brazilian NGO Fórum da Amazônia Oriental (FAOR), provides support
for Indigenous women to strengthen their collective actions against
ongoing deforestation and water pollution.

These actions include visits to nearby riverine communities in
which the women warriors explain their ways of living, such as
hunting and rituals, to their neighbors. For the women warriors,
the more that their neighbors know about Guajajara culture, the
more they will respect their actions to defend their territory.


Why women are key to forest conservation

In Brazil, and around the world, Indigenous women are increasingly at
the forefront of environmental movements.

“The struggle of Indigenous women happens in different ways,
day by day. If I am here today, I am the fruit of the women who
came in front of me,†Taynara Caragiu Guajajara, a member of the
Indigenous women’s collective AMIMA, said during a live online
event in April. “In the context of the world we live in today, we
have been conquering space inside and outside the community.

We Indigenous women have not always had that voice … but today
the struggle is driven by Indigenous women, we are the ones who are
in charge of the struggle.â€

Women are increasingly leading the struggle on issues like
climate change, but their voices are heard much less often
then men’s
— to the detriment of everyone. This is
partially a byproduct of gender bias in journalism itself.

In 2015, of every four people interviewed, mentioned or seen in
the news worldwide, only one was a woman, according to a report by
the Global Media Monitoring Project, which releases its
findings every five years. A closer look at the data shows that
even when women are interviewed, it is for personal quotes, rather
than for their expertise. It’s a figure that seems to have barely budged over the
past few years, although some newsrooms are starting to actively
change that.

Studies show that, in general, women receive greater exposure in newspaper
sections led by female editors, as well as in newspapers whose
editorial boards have higher female representation. But men are
disproportionately represented from
editors through to reporters, meaning that critical issues for
women often go unreported. One of these areas is precisely the
connection between conservation solutions and gender equality.

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change and
environmental degradation. Mounting evidence shows that gender
gaps and inequalities, such as inequitable land tenure and
women’s reduced access to energy, water and sanitation
facilities, negatively impact human and environmental well-being.
The climate crisis will only make gender disparities worse.

Gender-based violence against women
environmental human rights defenders in particular is on the rise, and increasingly normalized in both public and private
spheres, making it more difficult for women to get justice. As
Indigenous communities are often on the front lines of defending
their territories, resources and rights from extractive projects
and corporate interests, Indigenous women in particular face a
two-headed beast of gender-based violence and racism.

“We fought to defend our territory against invasions and we
sought this autonomy to fight for rights,†Taynara Caragiu
Guajajara said in an interview. “Being a woman is difficult
within the macho society, but being an Indigenous or black woman
becomes even more difficult, because the prejudice is so

Having more women involved in everything from environmental
decision-making to climate politics benefits society at large.
Higher female participation in
policymaking increases the equality and effectiveness of climate
policy interventions; evidence shows that high gender
inequality is correlated with higher rates of deforestation, air
pollution and other measures of environmental degradation.

Yet less than 1% of international
philanthropy goes to women’s environmental initiatives, and women
are continuously left out of decisions about land and
environmental resources.

“The global community cannot afford to treat nature
conservation and the fight for women’s equality as separate
issues — they must be addressed together,†said Grethel Aguilar, the acting
director-general of the International Union for the Conservation of
Nature (IUCN), on international women’s day this year.


Why the fight for Indigenous territorial rights in
Brazil matters to conservation

Tracking tree cover loss in Maranhão over the past two decades
shows the crucial importance of Indigenous territories in
protecting intact forest. Viewed from space, as the forest cover
rapidly disappears, the outlines of Indigenous territories become
more and more distinct.

“These Indigenous territories are islands of green in a sea of
deforestation in one of the worst deforested places in Brazil,â€
Shenker said.

The Caru Indigenous Territory, for example, has seen 4% forest
loss in comparison to the state of Maranhão, which has lost almost
a quarter of its tree cover since 2000, according to Global Forest
Watch data. Alongside the various other benefits that come with
forest preservation, the forests in the Caru Indigenous Territory
are also home to some of the last uncontacted Awá people; video of
of two Awá men taken in the neighboring Araribóia Indigenous
Territory made international headlines last year.

These patches of intact, tropical forests are also the crux of
“natural climate solutions†protection. These solutions
essentially entail stopping deforestation, improving management of
forests, and restoring ecosystems, and could provide more than
one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between
now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2° Celsius (3.6°

According to one of the seminal papers on natural climate solutions,
the single most effective approach in the tropics has proven to be
actively protecting intact forests. Protecting intact forests
offers twice as much of the cost-effective climate mitigation
potential as the second best pathway, reforestation.

The Amazon as a whole plays a vital role in mitigating climate
change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide in its forests. When
cut down, burned, or degraded through logging, the forest not only
ceases to fulfill this function, but can become a source of carbon

“Protecting and or conserving intact ecosystems is the
number-one priority,†said Kate Dooley, a research fellow at the
Australian-German Climate & Energy College at the University of
Melbourne, who has authored several papers on the
potential of forests as a natural climate solution. “Way-way-way
down the line is planting trees. And even then, it needs to be the
right kind of trees.â€

Of all the countries in the world with some kind of tropical
rainforest, Brazil holds more mitigation potential than 71 of the
79 countries combined, according to a recent paper on this
. It isn’t too hyperbolic, then, to say that groups like
the women warriors are protecting humanity’s last best hope for a
livable future.

“Plenty of research showing that forests are more intact in
collectively held lands,†Dooley said. “With or without secure
land tenure those lands are more intact and less degraded.â€
According to a report in 2018 by the Rights and
Resources Initiative
, almost 300 billion metric tons of carbon
are stored in collectively managed lands across all forest biomes,
and numerous studies have found that the best way
to protect forests is to empower the people who live in them,
granting them land rights and legal standing.

This is especially true for Indigenous-held lands
in places like Brazil
. Between 2000 and 2015, legally
designated Indigenous territories in Brazil saw a tenth the amount of forest loss
than non-Indigenous territories. Brazil is home to approximately
900,000 Indigenous citizens from 305 peoples, most of who live in
Indigenous territories. Even so, more than half of the locations
claimed by Indigenous groups have not yet received formal
government recognition.

“Surveillance and inspection by Indigenous peoples is
extremely important, as they are the ones who know the territory
and the region best,†Rodrigues da Silva said. “On the other
hand, unfortunately they are left alone, the Indigenous body
responsible for inspection ends up not fulfilling the role and
leaving only the Indigenous people.â€


Prevailing amid growing threats

Despite an increasingly hostile government, the women warriors
say they are committed to continuing their monitoring, surveillance
and educational activities, and are hoping to inspire other groups
to do the same.

“Today women act 100% in defense of the territory,†Paula
Guajajara said. “Today we are serving as an example.“

But the work is daunting.

Brazil has the rights of Indigenous people written into its
constitution of 1988, and is a signatory to the International
Labour Organization’s (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples
Yet, the current administration of President Jair
Bolsonaro has made it clear that Indigenous peoples won’t be
allowed to comment on infrastructure projects
affecting Indigenous territories in
the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s administration has also

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Amazon ‘Women Warriors’ Show Gender Equality, Forest
Conservation Go Hand in Hand