Meet the young women fighting for environmental justice in Brazil
Amid a growing wave of environmental and social problems in Brazil, young Brazilian women are collectively organising to fight for justice and influence political changes, inside and outside the country’s borders. Here are some of the victories and lessons they have to share.
“Right there, I had my first experience with a police confrontation,” said Hamangaí Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe, a 25 year old indigenous woman, from the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil. She is talking about her first participation, in 2015, in the Free Land Camp (Acampamento Terra Livre, in Portuguese), which is the largest mobilisation of indigenous peoples from all over Brazil who gather every year in the capital, Brasília, to make their voices and demands heard by society and the National Congress.
Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe explains that, from an early age, indigenous peoples learn the value of environmental and social protection – and the importance of fighting for it, especially when government authorities try to undermine it. As violations of indigenous rights have increased in Brazil in recent years, she felt the urge to rise up and continue the fight for justice that her ancestors started. Her main weapon is dialogue, especially with the youth and strategic actors, she says.
For Thalita Silva, the desire to fight for justice also came naturally in her life. Born and raised in a peripheral neighborhood of the city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon, she dealt with poverty, lack of basic sanitation and other socioenvironmental issues from an early age.
After Silva joined a youth-led organisation called Engajamundo, in 2016, she began her journey as a climate activist.
Karina Penha is another determined young woman engaged in the movement for environmental and social justice in Brazil. She comes from a periphery of the state of Maranhão, in the northeast, and despite being only 26 years old, she has a clear vision of the political change she seeks to influence.
“I want policies based on active listening to the population and legislative spaces with ‘open doors’, so that the population can bring their demands and build joint solutions with our representatives. After all, if politics is made for the people, it has to have the participation of the people,” said Penha.
However, Brazil currently has a government that does not represent the diversity of the Brazilian population and has aggressively implemented public policies that go against the people, asserted these three young women.
Mobilising for protection of the Amazon rainforest
Brazil is a megadiverse country in biological and cultural terms. It hosts nearly 20% of the world’s biodiversity and is home to the largest chunk of the Amazon rainforest, which is one of the biggest carbon sinks on Earth – essential for controlling global climate change. The country is also home to approximately one million indigenous peoples, represented by 305 ethnicities and 274 unique languages, most of whom live in the Amazon forest.
Yet, Brazil’s biodiversity and the people who care for it have been facing major threats, especially in the last three years, after president Jair Bolsonaro took office. Bolsonaro is a retired army captain and far-right politician, who has shown deep support for the agribusiness, mining and weapons industries, and a pro-torture, racist and misogynist rhetoric.
The current wave of violence has already claimed the lives of countless people in Brazil, including of the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian indigenous activist Bruno Pereira last month, while they were documenting environmental crimes in the Amazon. In addition, the country has consistently topped the list of world’s biggest losses of primary forests in recent years. In 2021 alone, over 40% of global forest loss occurred in Brazil, a total of 1.5 million hectares – the equivalent of more than three million football fields.
To put a break on this politics of destruction, a Brazilian youth-led organisation called NOSSAS devised an unprecedented plan. They are mobilizing for the implementation of a “Standing Amazon” (Amazônia de Pé, in Portuguese) law, through a popular initiative route, to increase efforts and resources for the protection of public forests in the Amazon.
Karina Penha, who is coordinating the “Standing Amazon” campaign, explains that “popular initiative” is a political tool available in the legislation, but “rarely used because it’s super complex to work with.” One of the legal requirements is the collection of physical signatures from 1.5 million registered voters, from at least five Brazilian states. Still, the NOSSAS team is determined to make it work.
Penha says their plan is actually twofold: to collect all the necessary signatures till next year, forcing the National Congress to approve the “Standing Amazon” law, and to sensitise a large portion of the population about the importance of protecting rainforest and forest communities. For the sensitising part, they are also relying on the broad connectivity and viral power of digital media.
“Raising public awareness is crucial,” says Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe, because only when people understand that a standing forest is important for everyone, for life itself, do they support the movement. She argues social media plays a key role in that context, either to disseminate information about “invisible” issues – such as attacks that take place in indigenous territories, far from urban centers – and also to make this type of information less complicated and more engaging, especially for the youth.
After all, talking about politics is “very boring”, but the casual and youthful language used in social media can help capture the attention of a greater number of people, explains the indigenous woman.
Mobilising for stronger climate commitments
Brazil was once a global leader in environmental conservation. From 2004 to 2012, the country achieved a reduction of about 80% in deforestation rates, mainly thanks to command and control policies, which promoted an increase in regulatory, monitoring and enforcement operations.
But, today, Brazil is considered a pariah, mainly due to the Bolsonaro government’s concerted efforts to weaken environmental agencies and dismantle policies. Current skyrocketing deforestation rates and intensive land use activities have positioned the country as the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
Because of that, Brazilian civil society organisations are attentive to the government’s climate commitments – or lack thereof. Last year, for example, six young climate activists, members of Engajamundo and Fridays For Future Brazil, filed a lawsuit against the federal government after detecting an “accounting trick” in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), the country’s climate action pledge to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement.
Thalita Silva, a member of Engajamundo and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, explained that the NDC presented by the Brazilian government in 2020 would allow the country to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by 400 million tons in 2030, compared to the previous pledge. This violates the international climate agreement, as one of its principles is that party countries “can never present a less ambitious NDC than the one presented previously,” says Silva.
The plaintiffs hope, with this lawsuit, that the Brazilian government will be forced to present a new, more ambitious climate action pledge. The Attorney General’s Office tried to appeal the action, alleging that the Brazilian judiciary is not competent to judge any act or omission related to the international climate agreement. However, the appeal was recently rejected.
“The fact that this lawsuit has not been dismissed is already a victory,” Silva said. Besides, this unprecedented action serves to inspire other young people and “Brazilians who were historically silenced” to mobilise to influence government decisions on issues that directly impact them, she added.
The latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that extreme weather events have already exposed millions of people around the world to acute food and water insecurity, impacting the lives of youth, women, indigenous and low-income communities to a greater extent.
Mobilising for inclusive participation and democracy
Unsurprisingly, the Brazilian government is predominantly represented by older white men. After all, the country was colonised by Europeans. However, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 56% of Brazil’s population is Black, 52% are female and 42% are under 30 years old.
To achieve inclusive participation and a government with the “mind and body” of Brazilians, both collectives – Engajamundo and NOSSAS – are mobilising to drive bottom-up changes in Brazil’s political system. With this year’s presidential election in mind, they have organised campaigns, online and offline, to decentralise political education and encourage young people from all over Brazil to vote.
NOSSAS, for example, created a campaign called Every Vote Counts (Cada Voto Conta, in Portuguese). In addition to encouraging young people to vote, by explaining in casual language on social media the importance of this feat, the group created a contest to reward three Brazilians aged 16 to 18 who most convinced their friends to register to vote for the first time. The prizes were super attractive to this audience: an iPhone, a Nintendo Switch and a Kindle.
Engajamundo, on the other hand, primarily focused on offline campaigns to reach youth from other socioeconomic conditions and those who do not have easy access to the internet. The group’s volunteers, who are spread throughout Brazil, have organised pop-up tents, mainly in schools, to facilitate the process and encourage youngsters to register to vote or regularise their voter registration.
As a result of this collective mobilisation – which included the participation of other civil society organisations, and even the engagement of national and international celebrities – more than two million Brazilians aged between 16 and 18 years old signed up to vote for the first time. It was a 45% increase compared to the last election, reversing a decade-long trend of low participation of this age group in electoral processes, according to the Superior Electoral Court of Brazil.
Whether this young electorate will influence the outcome of the elections this October, remains to be seen. Yet, recent election polls have shown that the majority of this electorate, especially young women, does not intend to vote for the re-election of president Bolsonaro.
The actions of Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe, Penha and Silva – and their groups – are not limited by the Brazilian borders. They are also seeking to influence international politics, particularly climate politics.
These three young women are members of Working Groups of the collective Engajamundo. This youth-led organisation was created in 2012, during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20, having emerged from the concern of young Brazilians with the lack of opportunities for them to participate in spaces of this level.
Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe said she was the first indigenous Brazilian woman to participate in a UN Climate Change Conference (or COP), in 2018, together with the Engajamundo delegation. Since then, more and more have had the chance to participate in these conferences and share their perspectives with the international community. “We have managed to guarantee the participation of indigenous youth in these spaces and this is extremely important,” she proudly shared with Unbias the News.
Penha has been participating in COPs since 2016. She told that last year, at COP26 in Scotland, the Engajamundo delegation was formed by 80 Brazilians, from different socioeconomic and ethnic origins, which was the largest and most diverse of all time. “We have had this advance in participation and we are democratising this space,” she said.
But Penha notes there are still challenges along the way. “I miss being present where negotiations are taking place and decisions are being made [in COPs] – because they are still happening in closed rooms and among people who do not have the specific experience of living in one of the places most impacted by climate change.”
In an attempt to overcome this challenge, one of the work programs of Engajamundo is to train young Brazilians to develop advocacy skills, so that they can participate more effectively in climate conferences. And, potentially, take on official climate negotiator roles.
“We are already organizing for COP27,” which will be held this November in Egypt, asserted Silva.
Marina Martinez is a Brazilian freelance journalist, interested in global sustainability and socio-environmental issues. She seeks to amplify the voices of marginalised groups and narratives.
This article was originally published under the title “Getting in the room: The young women at the forefront of the battle for democracy and environmental justice in Brazil“. It has been republished here as part of a partnership with Unbias the News.